Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Kobe Bryant's desire to win has been on full display for every second of his 16-plus-year NBA career. Love him or hate him, there's always been an underlying respect for one of the game's all-time greats.
But even Bryant's most ardent supporters had never seen anything like what he's shown over these last six games. A student of the sport in every respect, he understood better than anyone how damaging a lost season would be for a Los Angeles Lakers team that started the year with so much promise.
This wasn't about a change in style of play or a series of ridiculous scoring outbursts. We'd seen all that from him before. This was about a man willing his team to victory night in and night out, no matter the potential lasting effects he was placing on his body.
Entering Friday night, Bryant had averaged an astounding 45.6 minutes per game over his last six outings. Regardless of his world-class training regimen or even his age, analysts and fans alike were amazed but what they saw but unable to shake the what-ifs stemming from his heavy use.
The worst fears of the hoops nation were realized in the closing minutes of the Lakers' 118-116 win over the Golden State Warriors.
Bryant had logged every second of the game's first 44:54, during which time he not only poured in 34 points, snagged five rebounds and tossed out four assists but also carried a noticeable limp that grew worse as the game went along.
But with 3:06 left in regulation, his body had had enough. He stayed on the floor long enough to bury a pair of clutch free throws, then headed straight for the Lakers locker room so the trainers could get a closer look at the reason behind his limp.
The initial diagnosis was nearly incomprehensible:
This is the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history. A player who's spoken at length about retirement over the past years, and admitted just weeks ago that he was leaning toward calling it quits after next season.
Selfishly, I'm hoping he makes it back on to the floor. But more than that, I'm hoping that he's comfortable with whatever decision he makes.