Kobe Bryant fell to the floor with 3:08 remaining in the fourth quarter of his Los Angeles Lakers’ 118-116 win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night. Following a timeout, Bryant went back onto the court, made both of his free throw attempts and left the game with 34 points, five rebounds and four assists. He had played every minute of the game up until that point, hitting back-to-back three-pointers to tie the Warriors only forty seconds before going down with what was later diagnosed as a torn achilles tendon in his left leg.
As Bryant answered questions in a postgame media scrum, he stood – a feat only possible through the assistance of crutches – with tears mixed with sweat on his face, making the MRI scheduled for Saturday seem perfunctory. While Friday night’s win might strengthen the Lakers’ hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA’s Western Conference, Friday night’s loss is likely to have a far bigger impact on their season, as it renders Bryant unable to participate any further, with or without a postseason entry.
To fans, the Lakers losing Bryant is like going to see a movie because of the lead actor, only for his or her character to get killed off before the climax of the film. It’s not supposed to happen this way. Not to him. Not like this.
There are few athletes so associated in our minds with their team as Bryant is with the Lakers. Perhaps we might have felt something similar last autumn when Derek Jeter was forced to end his season prematurely, after the New York Yankees shortstop broke his ankle in the first game of the American League Championship Series. However, Jeter is more familiar with age-related declines than Bryant. Outside of iconic factors, Jeter isn’t the Bryant of his team anymore, Robinson Cano is.
There are certainly a share of capable understudies in Los Angeles. Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and even Antawn Jamison have all been playing well. However, no matter how much of Bryant’s production they combine to replicate on the floor, the outcomes will represent an altered narrative now, without Kobe Bryant in the starring role.
In our modern cynicism it’s common to roll our eyes at people who still treat athletes as heroes. Despite ample evidence that those who are good at sports are seldom also good at life, the tendency to manufacture heroism in our minds is a bit more forgivable when we’ve lived vicariously through the grand accomplishments of the same individual over the past 17 seasons. It’s certainly not right, it might not be wrong, but it’s definitely the way it is.
Early Saturday morning, Bryant posted something of a rant on his Facebook page describing his frustration, putting his injury in perspective and vowing to keep on keeping on with his phenomenal basketball career despite the history of this particular injury wreaking havoc on players in the past. The response from fans was overwhelmingly positive, a surprise given the typical vitriol that’s expressed through social media. His openness received a hero’s welcome.
It only serves to add to the dark comedy inherent in a seemingly indestructible figure whose ability doesn’t wane like a normal mortal being brought down by an achilles injury that was as unforeseen as an arrow shot forth from the bow of Paris, and guided by the hand of a god. That this event occurred against a team nicknamed the Warriors makes the reference almost too obvious. If this had happened in a work of fiction it would be criticized for a lack of subtlety.