The scene was surreal, a juxtaposition of contradiction.
Kobe Bryant down. Kobe Bryant out. A wounded warrior unable to continue.
In grand terms, a basketball god suffering the fate of a mere mortal.
There he was, crumbling to the floor as he tried to make a routine plant-and-push off of his left foot. With a postseason berth pending, and three and half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of the eightieth game of the season, his body finally broke down as he tore his Achilles tendon.
Seventeen seasons, with the eighteenth uncertain, and the seventeenth a disappointing grade of incomplete. An incomplete that stings even more considering the challenges posed to Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers throughout this season. Injuries have plagued this roster, knocking out key contributors for significant stretches all season long. The rash of injuries, a severely mishandled coaching change, and even the absence and eventual passing of the great Dr. Jerry Buss have led to uneven play and poor results. Despite this, it still comes as a surprise to see Bryant befall the same outcome as his teammates. So often he has been able to just get up and walk it off. Bryant's steadiness on the court kept the season from slipping away, but now, he's the one missing, he's the one who can't contribute.
Coach Kobe will come out, but the player will be unavailable. Whether he would have led them to glory, or gone down in defeat, it doesn't matter. What matters is that now we will never know. We will never know if this roller coaster season would have finished with three loops and a double corkscrew, or just a slight decline that reeks of mediocrity and boredom. For Bryant, the chapter on this season has ended, and there is nothing he can do about it.
While no one has ever defeated Father Time, this just felt different. It felt cheap. Its sudden nature delivered an unexpected punch to the stomach, one that takes your breath away. It leaves you grasping for air, unable to think about anything other than breathing again, when the truth is, you don't know what's coming next. As Bryant clutched his heel, he also clutched his mortality. Although he had already shaken off two separate scares prior in the game, with each involving awkward landings and the pressure they put on his knees, including a hyperextension of one knee, Bryant described the deciding moment as, "I was just hoping it wasn't what I knew it was." An unwilling acceptance of a realized truth.
So was it Father Time that defeated Kobe Bryant? Or how about just a freak accident? Maybe it was fate, a sort of karma police, I'm sure there are many detractors pushing that angle.
Whatever it was, Bryant delivered a season unlike any other in 2012-13, doing things players half his age wish they could do, and performing at a level that no other player with his advanced age and mileage has ever reached. In a season full of amazing performances, Bryant has carried the Lakers on his back by consistently performing as a top five NBA player, and possibly even a top three player behind just LeBron James and Kevin Durant. As recently as two nights prior to his final game of the season, in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers in which he played all 48 minutes despite the game being on the second night of a back-to-back, Bryant delivered an all-time historic performance by becoming the first player in NBA history with at least 47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks, and three steals. Such performances throughout this season earned him a fan appointed, and aptly titled nickname of "Vino" due to his stellar progression over time, a graceful aging like a fine wine.
One could argue that Father Time strikes in a similar fashion to Bryant's trademarked "Black Mamba," quickly and deadly, but when looking at Bryant's season as a whole, I'd say it was pretty obvious that he was still winning his battle with Father Time. Father Time may have leveled the playing field, but after seventeen seasons, I'd say that passes as a fair handicap against Kobe Bean Bryant.
Although this injury is serious, especially for an older player such as Bryant who is 34 years old, with his track record, expect to see him ready to go next season. In fact, just this past season, Terrell Suggs, a 30 year old linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, was able to come back from a ruptured Achilles in just six months. Over twenty years ago, Dominique Wilkins ruptured his achilles midway through the 1991-92 season. 'Nique was able to come back in eight months, start 70 games, and average 28.8 points per game in the 1992-93 season at the age of 33, and he followed that up with a 26.3 average the subsequent season. Although Wilkins began to bounce around teams and even play in European leagues as his career dwindled down, he showed as far back as two decades ago that an advanced player can continue to play at a high level despite this injury.
In a mythological sense, Bryant ironically parallels the Greek demigod Achilles. The central character of Homer's Illiad, Achilles was an unbelievable warrior, one that was nearly immortal, save for his left heel. Able to unleash a rage powerful enough to destroy countless adversaries, Achilles excelled in battle and flourished as a Greek hero. However, Achilles' biggest strength also exposed his only weakness, and with each battle, he pushed beyond this vulnerability. One day, mortality finally seized Achilles when Paris was able to shoot an arrow into his heel, the only part of his body that was not lowered into the river Styx and made immortal. This poisoned arrow led to Achilles death, and according to some texts, the arrow was actually guided by the god Apollo, a foe that had been disrespected by Achilles. Brash, confident, and universally feared, Achilles harnessed his powers to become a great warrior, and in doing so, he made countless enemies.
Like Achilles, Bryant has destroyed the competition on countless occasions with his great skill, and an aggressive, unrelenting will that drives him to be the best that he can be. In doing so, Bryant has held himself to a standard that calls for him to be the best he can be. Sometimes, this led to feuds with teammates, management, media, opponents, essentially anybody in his way. Bryant's tactics have polarized the nation for years, and it is clear that he is not a universally beloved figure. Rather, he is a complex character with countless strengths and weaknesses. Successful, yet continually wanting more, Bryant has always lived to fight another day. Unlike Achilles, maybe Bryant will be able to walk this one off... over time.
Like his Nike campaign states, "Count on Kobe."
This is not the end.
It can't be.
It won't be.
He won't let it.
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