It was a glorious and cataclysmic end to a season riddled with unfulfilled promises, unrivalled highs, crushing lows and reason-defying feats that made even the most experienced spectators marvel at the work being done by one 34 year-old athlete. Friday night, in a close game against the Golden State Warriors in which he scored 34 points ,including two consecutive three pointers to bring the game close, and after playing every previous moment of the game, Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon to pieces, ending his season and potentially altering his future forever.
Achilles injuries are quite problematic for a basketball player, for anyone who isn’t familiar with the injury and the physics of jumping. Obviously any foot injury is an issue for a basketball due to the excessive running required, but more importantly, the Achilles tendon is the muscle which enables athletes to gain power in their jump. Essentially, an Achilles injury could take away any player’s ability to dunk or make athletic plays. Indeed, a doctor speaking of Bryant’s particular injury claims it could take about two inches off of his vertical leap if Bryant rehabs perfectly. The rehabilitation process will take at least six and up to nine months, and Bryant may never be the same player again.
So what does that mean for his future? Nobody is quite sure. He had claimed he might retire after next season, but he retains the potential to opt into a one-year extension if he chooses. I tend to think the injury will prolong his career. Sure, he won’t be able to dunk, but his jump shot will still be there, and if we’ve learned anything from watching years of grit from the Black Mamba, it’s that he does not like to be cheated. This injury is an ignominious insult to his feats from this season, and he will certainly want revenge on the basketball world, and to fight back against Father Time and the basketball gods for a chance to end his career his way.
What better way to show this resolve than by making both free throws that he was awarded after the injury? He staggered back to the line, swished the two shots on one leg and hobbled off under his own power, grimacing all the while. There is no truer statement, no more fitting a moment to represent Bryant’s career and the legacy he will leave behind. Bryant has played through broken fingers, torn labrums and a slew of ankle and knee injuries. None surpassed his indomitable will. And even the one injury that would bring every human being on the planet to his knees could not stop Bryant from having the last laugh, from squaring up and hitting the free throws that turned out to be the difference in the game: the Lakers won by two. Isn’t it at least a little poetic to think they were his two?
Yet even in the waning moments of his 17th year, the moments that may have pushed the Lakers through to the playoffs, there was a bitter taste in the mouths of any who looked on, and most assuredly in Bryant himself. The season saw Bryant shoot more efficiently than he ever had before; it saw him play point guard for almost half the season, and perform better than some of the greatest in history; and most unequivocally of all, it saw Bryant snatch victories from the jaws of defeat more times than ever before. How many games were won off of that man’s weary legs? How many times did he take over the fourth quarter and bring the listless Lakers back from the brink? Did he really dunk over 6’9’’ Josh Smith with 17 years in the tank to essentially win the game? Did he really hit three threes in the last two minutes and get the game winner in overtime to send the Raptors back to Canada? Did he really play 48 minutes against Portland and score 47 points? Bryant laughed at time and all of its empty promises right through to his last shots of the season. And even then, his Achilles could not take away what he had done, what 11 other men had not been able to do: he pulled his weight, bit the bullet, and made the shots.
Nobody knows what Bryant will look like when he returns. Many say he is finished. Indeed, his tearful eyes at the post-game interview did not signal much hope for the future, nor did his Vicodin-fueled Facebook rant that evening. Yet if there is one thing to be taken away from this season, it is this: Father Time gets everyone in the end, but you can never be sure when that end will come. For some, it comes with a massive injury. For others, it comes a year or two after the injury, when they sit in the locker room and can no longer face the prospect of another long campaign to try for a ring. And for still others, it comes after years of astonishing work, after colossal triumphs and crippling losses, and after finally returning to the NBA’s throne. Nobody knows how it will end. Not even the Lakers basketball omniscient Kobe Bryant. But one thing is for sure: count on Kobe.