Don’t know if you heard, but Kobe Bryant’s epic 2012-13 basketball season came to an end Friday night when he tore his Achilles in a 118-116 win against the Golden State Warriors. I have some thoughts about this, and here they are.
1. In the NBA TV post-game recap of Lakers-Warriors, analyst Steve Smith said the following of the moment of Kobe’s season-ending injury: “When you saw, you knew.”
Nuh-uh. Nope. Maybe when you saw, you knew, Steve Smith, but when I saw, I didn’t know s—. Maybe with another player when I saw, I would know. With Kobe Bean Bryant, I saw, and I thought the same thing I always thought when Kobe went down for any reason during the course of a big game: Whatever. There are just two players in the league that when it looks like they go down with a potentially devastating injury, I automatically hit fast forward on the DV-R because I know it won’t actually mean anything: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. LeBron never gets injured, and Kobe always gets injured, but stays in the game anyway.
If it was really important, I’d hear something about it later in the game or postgame. But Kobe leaving the game with injury, with just a couple minutes left in the latest in a series of countless consecutive Most Important Lakers Games of the Season? I didn’t believe it for a second. Hell this was the third time in that game that Kobe went down with what potentially looked (for a normal player) to be a devastating injury — first with an awkward landing on his left knee, then one on his right — both times, I did the DV-R fast forward, and both times, Kobe kept on truckin’. Even when he hobbled off the court, with that horrifyingly pained and defeated look on his face, and headed straight for the locker room, I still believed he’d find a way to come back. Kobe always finds a way to come back.
Kobe Bryant didn’t come back in that game. “Sobering” doesn’t come close to describing my emotional response to this. For maybe the first time in my basketball-watching life, I was genuinely fearful, in a way that didn’t really have anything to do with sports.
2. Can you remember the last time such a pivotal in-game moment happened late on a Friday night? I can’t. I don’t think there’s a single time of the week you’d least expect something totally season-altering to happen other than after Midnight on a Friday. There were probably big Laker fans — and though I always root for them, I can’t really consider myself a Laker fan in the true sense — that didn’t even watch the game, and woke up to the news on Saturday morning that for the first time since Hootie and the Blowfish and Alanis Morissette were the most popular musical artists in the world, they were going to have to envision a team, a playoffs, a future without Kobe Bryant. Just thinking about it makes me shiver.
3. The funniest thing about this to me now is how petty all the Lakers mini-squabbles from earlier in the season seem now. Kobe and Dwight not getting along. Mike Brown being replaced with Bernie Bickerstaff being replaced with Mike D’Antoni. Dwight and Pau not properly co-existing on the court. Kobe and Nash not properly co-existing on the court. Should the Lakers go big? Should the Lakers go small? Will the Lakers ever thrive as a Seven Seconds or Less team? Did the Lakers doom themselves by not getting Phil Jackson? When will the Lakers figure it all out? When will the Lakers’ season officially “start” for real?
Kobe Bryant is out for the year, and now absolutely none of this matters.
4. Speaking of petty squabbles, here’s one: the Lakers’ announcing team did an absolutely garbage job capturing the severity of the moment, both before Kobe’s injury, when No. 24 was giving a Herculean performance in a must-win game at home and the best the announcers could offer was “THE MAMBA … IS LOOKING LIKE … THE MAMBA!” and after the injury, seemed to have no idea about the severity of it until he had to trudge his way off the court. Understandable why in preseason the schedule-makers might not have ticketed Warriors-Lakers for national viewing, but man, you wish they could’ve flexed it somehow so that Breen and Van Gundy or Tirico and Hubie could been on the call for such an epochal moment in 21st-century basketball.
5. Inevitably lost in the fallout from this game will be just what an incredible performance it was for Kobe — one that his 34 points (9-21 FG), five boards, four assists, five TOs stat line doesn’t really do justice. Already limping around the court from the first two times he went down in the game — and again, it has to be mentioned how incredible it was that even after those two dingers, it still took the death blow of the torn Achilles to KO him for good — he looked like he might not be able to be effective as anything but a decoy for the final quarter.
Still, he managed to hit his last two threes — the second one being a ridiculous pull-up from a couple feet behind the top of the arc, well-contested by the outstretched arm of Harrison Barnes, a life-long Kobe devotee who was just four years old when the future Black Mamba was drafted by the Lakers — and hit two free throws to tie the game back up, before hobbling off the court, leaving his teammates to finish the job. Even Laker haters had to have been rooting for Pau, Dwight and friends to do just that.
6. More than just the game, what a week it was for Kobe. The bad loss to the Clippers could’ve been a momentum killer, and though the Lakers’ next three games were all winnable ones, they were all quite losable as well, especially for a team as unreliable as the Lake Show. But Kobe just wouldn’t let it happen, averaging a 37/6/5 on 49 percent shooting and perhaps most impressively an incredibly willful 15 free throw attempts a game, keeping LA in the playoff picture as their margin of error was basically non-existent. Oh yeah, and he also averaged 45 minutes a game, not resting for a second of the Portland game, and though that particular part of Kobe’s week will be second-guessed to death, perhaps rightfully so, it undoubtedly has to add to his legacy as the toughest player of both mind and body to be found in his generation.
7. And it should also be mentioned, what a week this was for the Lakers. Not that the last three games would have improved their postseason outlook, even with a healthy Kobe, as teams that allow a combined 222 points to the Blazers and Warriors don’t generally make deep postseason runs. But the team had been search of an identity all season, and in the end they found one — they’re a Mike D’Antoni team after all. The methods are different, with Kobe isos and post play two-man games rather than fast break offense and Steve Nash driving and kicking, but the results are the same: Endlessly exciting, defense-optional games, with both teams ending in the triple digits. It’s not exactly the stuff that championships are made of, but damned if after a long period of total unwatchability, they didn’t finally fulfill my prediction of being the NBA’s #1 League Pass Must-Watch.
8. I opined about this on Twitter after the fact, but one of my initial reactions to the bad postgame Kobe news was that it would almost certainly overshadow the entire postseason — even though in reality, it would probably only affect the smallest portion of it. Nobody actually thought this Lakers team was going to beat San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round, did they? At most, there would probably be a total of six games in which Kobe’s absence would have a direct impact. Even still, the loss of Kobe will undoubtedly cast a pall over the whole second season, in a way that even reigning MVP Derrick Rose’s first-round exit with the ACL tear during last year’s postseason won’t nearly approach. Even if he wasn’t going to play a large part in them, the playoffs just don’t seam like the playoffs without No. 24.
9. I was trying to come up with a good TV analogue for a Kobe-less postseason, and the best I could come up with was this: Kobe missing the playoffs at this point in his career is like “Mad Men” going an entire season at this point in its run where Roger Sterling is only alluded to in passing, but never shown, and his absence never satisfyingly explained. His absence probably wouldn’t have a terribly large impact on the primary storyline, but even still, he would be so conspicuous by his absence that no matter what was happening on screen, you’d always be wondering in the back of your mind: Where’s Roger? Why isn’t he in this season? What the hell is going on? Kobe may ultimately be more supporting player than leading man in the NBA’s “A” plot at the moment, but you still can’t imagine more than an episode or two without him.
10. And speaking of players missing from this postseason: We were already going to be without postseason regulars like Rajon Rondo, Danny Granger, Danillo Gallinari and (again) Derrick Rose due to injury, without Dirk Nowitzki due to his team not being good enough, and without Andrew Bynum due to injury and his team not being good enough. Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Kevin Love all missed the cut again. Who knows when (or if) Manu Ginobili, Amar’e Stoudemire or Joakim Noah are going to be back? And lest we forget, the Lakers could still lose out to the Jazz, meaning no Steve Nash, Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard in the playoffs either.
Yet even with all these missing marquee names, a playoffs without Kobe still overshadows all, and it’s not even close. That’s the stature the Black Mamba has in the league right now, and it’s not one that anyone else in the league can really claim to equal.
11. In the preseason, an oft-cited worry for the Lakers was their health. Could a team with a relatively old core and no real depth to speak of weather the injury of one or two of its stars? And though those worries turned out to be extremely legitimate, I don’t think anyone could have predicted it would have unfolded quite like this — with all five of the team’s projected starters losing significant stretches to injury, with the youngest and most athletic of the five being the most physically compromised on the court, with the most historically durable of the five eventually being lost for the season. Oh, and in the six games that the five have started together, the Lakers are 0-6. What a weird, weird season it’s been for the Purple and Gold.
12. Before I rhapsodize any further about Kobe and the Lakers, two things that absolutely will not happen: The Lakers will not amnesty Kobe Bryant (for any reason), and Kobe will not retire. Won’t happen, either one. Feel free to swap PayPal info with me if you disagree.
13. If you had told someone at the beginning of the season that Kobe’s season would end this way, the craziest thing about all of last weekend would not be that Kobe got injured playing a gazillion minutes for a team fighting for the playoffs, but that he tweeted and Facebooked about it after, including phrases like “random tears of devastation,” “Coach Vino,” “Facebook Venting LOL” and “#vicodintweets.” But for so many reasons, this season was the most humanizing of Kobe’s career, and when we actually get a decently personal look into his state of mind — whether in a tearful postgame conference or a late-night social media rant — it doesn’t feel quite so alien anymore for a guy who spent most of his career keeping the public (somewhat understandably) at arm’s length to voluntarily let us in. It’s nearly as much an addition to Kobe’s legacy this year to anything he’s done on the court.
14. Possibly not unrelated to that, it’s been a little stunning how much support has been thrown Kobe’s way after this, how hard every NBA fan, even Laker haters, seems to be taking his loss for the season. Even Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett, coach and All-Star for the Lakers’ most hated rival, both voiced their frustration at Kobe’s injury, Garnett sending him a Get Well Soon text and Rivers calling him his favorite player after his own guys. Partly an appreciation for the New Approachable Kobe, but I guess it’s also just the NBA equivalent of “You’re Nobody till Somebody Kills You.” Everyone always loves you after you get injured.
15. Even without Kobe, I don’t think you can write the Lakers off completely this postseason, or at least no more than you would’ve done anyway. Even aside from the Lakers handling business against San Antonio last night — which seemed a little fluky on both sides, what with Steve Blake outscoring Tony Parker 23 to 4 and all — it seems to me like an LA team built around a Nash/Gasol/Howard trio could give the Spurs some trouble the way those old Suns teams did, though as with the old Phoenix-SA rivalry, I imagine it would still end with San Antone (or possibly Oklahoma City) on top. Still, Nash (if healthy), Gasol and Howard, free to run their own free-flowing game outside of the countless Kobe iso’s … it should make for some entertaining losses, at the very least.
16. Of course, with Kobe out, I wondered if I’d even care anymore what happened to the Lakers, a team I’ve been pulling for as if they were my own all season. Would I even root for them to pull off a most-unlikely upset in a round one against San Antonio or OKC? After little deliberation, I decided that I am indeed on Team #WinForKobe, mostly out of hope that any success they had, especially in the postseason, would validate Kobe’s efforts to keep them afloat at all costs, to prove it wasn’t all for naught. Plus, as long as the Lakers are around, you’ll get Kobe tweeting stuff like “Will watch game on tv and give adjustments if needed by phone at halftime,” which I find absolutely hilarious for two reasons:
- Kobe probably wasn’t joking (and probably had no clue why it might look like he was).
- Mike D’Antoni probably checked his cell phone at least once or twice during halftime just in case Kobe had any wisdom to volunteer.
17. Speaking of D’Antoni — shame on anybody who blames him for this happening. Not because D’Antoni was right or wrong with the way he handled Kobe’s minutes, but because the idea that D’Antoni in any way holds any authority over Kobe Bryant at this point in the Lakers season gives Mike D wayyyyyy too much credit. Case in point with two quotes here, from the last month or so:
- D’Antoni on Kobe playing a lot of minutes: ‘”I keep asking him, and he wants to do it … If he says he feels great and his legs aren’t bothering him, then I’ve got to take his word for it.”
- Pau on Kobe instructing him to go to the post more: “He just tells me to just run to the post and take it and screw everything else, basically … It helps that Kobe, who has a lot of control over what happens out there, wants me to be there and sees that it works and is supportive.”
We basically have no evidence as NBA fans that Mike D’Antoni, or anybody else currently in the Lakers organization, holds any sway over Kobe Bryant whatsoever. When Kobe wants to laze on defense, he lazes on defense. When Kobe wants to play point guard, he plays point guard. When Kobe wants himself and only himself to shoot the big shots, guess who gets to shoot the big shots? All D’Antoni seems to do is sit back and observe. So when Kobe Bryant wants to play too many minutes, Kobe Bryant gets to play too many minutes. If you want to blame a coach for Kobe’s injury, blame Coach Vino.
18. I thought that Kevin Martin would cruise to the finish line as the recipient of this year’s Forgotten Player Most Unexpectedly Thrust in to an Important Role on a Contending Team honors, but look out for Andrew Goudelock, the forgotten Laker who actually played in 40 games last year (though only four in the playoffs) but failed to make the cut this season — only to be re-signed this weekend as the replacement (in roster slot if not quite in role) for Kobe Bryant. No sweat, Andrew. A couple forty-point, ten-assist outings, a game-winning dunk or two, and six months from now they’ll be saying “Mamba who??” in Los Angeles.
19. Most people seem to agree with my earlier point that Kobe will not retire, many citing as their reason that Kobe “doesn’t want to go out like that.” While they’re probably right, the semi-interesting thing here is that in truth, this would actually be a great way for Kobe to go out. His body practically shatters, “Death Becomes Her”-style, over the course of a big home game against a division rival, in which he performs heroically, hits his last few tough shots, brings the team even with a couple free throws, and then leaves them to finish the job (which they do), all while staying in the playoff race. What could be a more noble, borderline-mythic way for a legendary player playing for a legendary franchise to end his career? (Well, sure, one that ended with Kobe hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy for an MJ-tying sixth time might be preferable, but this is a solid, and much more practical second option.)
Kobe won’t retire, but it won’t be because that last game wasn’t befitting of a final chapter of his epic NBA story. It’ll be because he misses the game, because he wants to prove to everyone that Achilles surgery is just one more thing that his greatness and commitment can defy against all odds, and because “Wedding Crashers” really isn’t that funny when you see it on cable for the 13th time.
20. That said, it still blew my mind to hear Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak respond to questions about the possibility of Kobe coming back for Opening Day of next season — assuming about a half-year’s recovery time for an injury generally thought to take a year to return from — by saying “I think that’s a realistic goal for him.” What?? I mean, maybe it is a realistic goal for Kobe, because Kobe’s insane and hates doing just about anything that doesn’t in some way improve his odds of scoring 45 the next time he faces the Timberwolves. But considering Bulls management got in some trouble for just saying that Derrick Rose had been cleared to play, nearly a year after his ACL surgery, Kupchak thinks it’s OK to basically challenge his guy to cut his recovery time in half after suffering a career-threatening injury? Now Kobe’s gonna have to come back in only four or five months, just so people won’t think he’s being lazy.
21. If Kobe’s not ready for opening day, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll be around for a while after, the Lakers will have to address a need at shooting guard in the offseason. Take a second to appreciate just how completely surreal that is. The Lakers might actually have to think to themselves “Hmmm, who can we pair in the back court with Steve Nash next season?” The only things I can think of that would be even close to that strange are the Spurs attempting to address a need at power forward or the Celtics looking to upgrade at the three, but even Tim Duncan and Paul Pierce are at the point of their career where they’re basically cogs in the machine, not the on/off switch like Kobe is in the backcourt. To need to fill that hole, even temporarily … pretty friggin’ hard to imagine.
22. And it is worth wondering — and certainly a lot of people wonder this very extensively between now and Game One next season — if Kobe’s not gonna be there, who else will be? Will Dwight re-sign and stay patient for Kobe’s return, or even try to supplant him as face of the franchise in his absence? Will Pau and Nash want to stick around for a possible rebuilding project of sorts, or will they try to push out to chase rings elsewhere? Will Mitch Kupchak and the Buss kids … blow up the Lakers? It seems impossible, but the Lakers might go into next year sans Kobe as an old, overpaid fringe-playoff teams, and generally, that’s what you do with old, overpaid fringe-playoff teams. Kobe very well may return to a world he never imagined, and certainly didn’t create.
23. The idea of Kobe succumbing to season-ending injury via torn Achilles heel seems too obvious a symbol to be ignored, so let’s ask the question: What was Kobe’s Achilles heel, really? Was it his inability to recognize his own mortality? His insistence on trying to carry his team over the hump, however big the hump may be and however ill-equipped his back may be to carry the load? Or was it his love of the game, the team, the fans, that he just couldn’t resist giving the people (and by extension) his fans what they wanted by being out there for every second he could while his squad facing the prospect of the most embarrassing, disappointing end-season result in franchise history?
If you ask me — and if you asked me at just about any point in his career, I’d say the same thing — Kobe’s tragic flaw is this: He always wants to be the guy to do it. He wants to win, for sure, but only as the guy most responsible for doing it. He needs to be the leading scorer, the guy taking the last shot, and if not, he needs to be the guy setting up the guy who leads in scoring and takes the last shot, the guy diverting the defense and creating and being the guy who fans point to and say “He made that play happen.” Kobe can be a selfless team guy, but only as long as everyone acknowledges that he’s doing so, and that it was his conscious decision to do so. And if he loses, as long as he was the one who came up short, he can live with that.
And that, I believe, is really why he was still on the court after 40-something minutes and two potentially dangerous injuries in a season where he’d already played far more minutes than any player in his 17th year should be asked to play, and why Mike D’Antoni couldn’t have done a damn thing about it even if he’d wanted to. Because with the season on the line, the one thing Kobe couldn’t live with at any point was watching it slip away from the sidelines. And it’s sadly ironic — though also somewhat fitting, in the Greek Tragedy sense — that because of that inability to watch from the sidelines, that’s exactly what he’s going to have to do for the rest of the season, and potentially a long time to come.
24. Kobe Bryant is my favorite basketball player.
A couple times, when I’ve done my Playoff Bandwagon Rankings or another similar column and I’ve left off both the Lakers and the Heat because of my inability to think rationally about LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, people have assumed that I feel similarly about the two players. Nothing could be further from the truth. My inability to think rationally about Kobe is not based in hate as it is with LeBron, but rather, a desire to support him in just about any circumstances (minus a couple notable off-court instances, natch), against just about any argument, even the ones I know to be right and true. I love just about everything Kobe does because it’s always Just So Kobe, just as I hate just about everything LeBron does because it’s Just So LeBron.
And if you asked me why that is, I wouldn’t have a great answer. Not one that couldn’t be torn apart with evidence and logic and other real-world factors that, in the end, don’t have a ton to do with Sports Hate and Sports Love. But if I could boil it down to one quintessential difference between the two players, it would be this: LeBron usually doesn’t seem like he quite cares enough, and Kobe always seems like he cares too much. And like many naive, idealistic sports fans, that matters to me way, way more than it should. It’s reductive, unfair and possibly hypocritical, but that’s the way I see it, how I’ve always seen it.
Kobe’s game against the Warriors was a perfect example of this. When you’re watching a game that big, that meaningful, all you really want while watching is for the players to seem like they believe in the meaning of the game as much as you do, thus validating your own emotional investment in it. And with Kobe, that belief was never in doubt. You couldn’t watch him trying to shake off those two early injuries, refusing to come out of the game, limping off the court as the third injury proved insurmountable, and then speaking defeated and bleary-eyed to reporters afterwards, without feeling just how much the game, the season, and playing the sport in general means to Kobe, and how much it killed him to contemplate losing any one (or all three) of those things.
Compare that with a couple of the lowest moments of LeBron’s career, and the distinction is an obvious, if probably facile one. You wouldn’t say that the emotion was exactly dripping from his postgame conference after being eliminated by the Mavs in Game Six of the 2011 finals, or after being taken out by the Celtics in Game Six of the Eastern Conference finals the year before — mild disappointment and irritation was about all the feeling you got from those, as just about everyone watching wondered Why doesn’t he seem more upset about this? Maybe in reality he cares just as much and is merely less demonstrative about it, but from all that we have to go on, when LeBron suffers basketball failure, it just seems like a bad day at the office for him, rather than the soul-wrenching denial of self it seems to represent for Kobe.
As sad a night as it was on Friday for fans worldwide of No. 24, there was also something incredibly beautiful and defining about it as well. Because of that, it was the rare sports injury that you felt privileged to witness, to have been a part of. It’s terrible to have a postseason without him, and it’ll be terrible to have a regular season without him for as long as he’s out next year, but I do believe that 20 years from now, when hoops old-timers are recounting the greatness of Kobe Bryant, Friday night will be one of the first things they mention as evidence. I will, anyway.