On the night Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles, nature beat nurture. Everyday thereafter, nurture has bowed to its victim's resolve. Kobe wants to return, and he will do it on his own time.
Time, Satan's wet nurse, had finally caught up to the Los Angeles Lakers superstar with a bionic work ethic and riotous disdain for being average. Too many times, a sneering Kobe had spat in the face of age and the regression that was supposed to accompany it. This wasn't the cosmos exacting revenge on its most disobedient foe; this was the Black Mamba's downfall, doubling as a wake-up call.
No one is above time; no one is beyond its reach. That was the message being sent. Not just to Kobe, but to all of us: the believers in ageless prodigies, the enemies of natural reversion.
"Now I'm supposed to come back from this and be the same player," Kobe wrote in a cathartic Facebook post the morning after sustaining his injury. "Or better at 35?!? How in the world am I supposed to do that??"
Doubt, a seldom-used term in Black Mamba's world, had infiltrated Kobe's brain. The same 34-year-old sensation who had willed the Lakers back into playoff contention and had five titles to his name, was wilting under the pressures he routinely gutted.
But just as quickly as the agnostic Kobe came, he went.
"Maybe this is how my book ends," he wrote in the same post. "Maybe Father Time has defeated me...Then again maybe not!"
Sedated Kobe hasn't made an appearance since. It's been all shattering timetables and "You Showed Us" tributes instead. Confident Kobe was back in a big way, predicting he would play opening night against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Swarmed by reporters at Lakers Media Day, however, he was unable to give the definitive answer everyone was looking for. There was no guarantee he'd be ready to start the 2013-14 regular season.
All hope was not lost as training camp lumbered on, though. ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin spotted Kobe jogging and shooting at practice, an encouraging sign to say the least.
Then confusion struck. Sources told Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that Kobe had absconded to Germany for another round of "platelet-rich plasma therapy," also known as Orthokine therapy, on his right knee:
Kobe Bryant is traveling to Germany to have another round of platelet-rich plasma therapy on his right knee, league sources tell Y! Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) October 3, 2013
His departure was abrupt and incited a sense of skepticism. Something must be wrong for him to have been whisked out of the country.
Head coach Mike D'Antoni thought differently.
"I don't think it's a surprise," D'Antoni said of Kobe's procedure, via McMenamin. "I think he had it programmed, and just the way it was, he knew he had time because he's not getting on the court yet. So I don't think it's a big deal, and I don't think it caught him by surprise."
Nothing's wrong, so is his sudden leave of absence a good thing? Is this procedure a sign he's on course to begin the season?
"There's no concern whatsoever," D'Antoni reiterated.
But maybe, just maybe, there's hope.
Taking D'Antoni's word, and believing Kobe's journey outside the continent wasn't worth fretting over, is difficult.
"Instead of doing it in August, he’s doing it now," D'Antoni explained, per McMenamin.
Yet why the wait? It's a fair question. Undergoing any necessary procedures in August, in theory, makes more sense than doing so in October, just before the season's inception.
Unless, of course, rehabbing his Achilles prevented him from getting it done. In that case the delay is understandable, but also dispiriting. The sooner the better, right?
As the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan points out, Orthokine recovery time is "relatively brief," meaning its application wouldn't be the sole reason he wasn't ready for opening night:
"Orthokine" recovery is relatively brief (weeks, not months). Kobe's Achilles remains larger issue.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) October 3, 2013
Even so, waiting could seem baffling. Recovery time of any kind this close to the season seems more repressive than inspiring.
Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding says otherwise, noting that delaying the procedure quite possibly gives Kobe an advantage after missing out on training camp:
Confirmed Kobe is undergoing another blood-spinning treatment on troublesome right knee. Delayed it till now for max effect this season.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) October 3, 2013
Typical Kobe to seek every edge possible by delaying German knee procedure upon knowing he wouldn't be playing in training camp anyway.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) October 3, 2013
Moreover, the therapy isn't going to hinder his current rehabilitation process:
I'm told, separate from Lakers' public statements on Kobe, what is being done will NOT limit his Achilles rehab upon return early next week.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) October 3, 2013
Now for the mercy stroke: Ding reminds us Kobe has had this done before, and loved it.
Kobe's cartilage-poor right knee limited him in Phil's last season of 2010-11, prompting treatment that left Kobe raving about its effect.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) October 3, 2013
Following the 2010-11 campaign, Kobe traveled to Germany twice and had the same work done. And back in December of 2011, Bresnahan and fellow Times writer Broderick Turner wrote that the Mamba was left raving about its effects:
Kobe Bryant felt his body falling apart, so he did something about it. Twice.
Bryant went to Germany on two occasions during the off-season, The Times has learned, undergoing innovative procedures on his ailing right knee and, in a previously unreported development, his chronically troublesome left ankle, according to people with knowledge of the situation who were not authorized to speak publicly.
"I feel a lot stronger and a lot quicker and able to get to the basket and free-throw line," he said.
Anecdotal evidence was provided by others as well.
"He's done some things in practice that have kind of wowed you as far as taking the ball to the basket strong and finishing with dunks in traffic," new Lakers Coach Mike Brown said.
Said teammate Pau Gasol: "He looks really aggressive. He's eager to play."
It's also worth noting that Kobe played in all but eight regular-season games of the lockout-truncated 2011-12 campaign. That was after appearing in all 82 the season before.
"It worked out well,” Gasol said when asked about Kobe’s previous trip to Germany, per McMenamin. “He said he was a new man with a brand-new knee. He said it felt a lot better.”
Maybes there's something to this whole process after all. Maybe there's cause for optimism, for hope.
Maybe there's cause for us to believe that Kobe's brand-new knee will help him beat time once again.
Recent events are typical of Kobe, like Ding said. He's always looking for that edge, for that loophole in nature's system. And perhaps he's found it, because nothing about his recovery has been normal.
Since that fleeting moment of self-doubt, he's been himself, documenting every step of his recovery process along the way.
He was smiling while in a hospital's nighty:
Stoked when his stitches were removed:
Jubilant when he went from walking boot to going barefoot:
Defiant when he started shooting again:
Completely out of his mind when he started running on the anti-gravity treadmill:
Utterly insane when he took flight off the high dive:
Progress has come in all shapes, sizes and forms for Kobe, and in abundance. And so soon.
Furthermore, he has yet to lose that raw determination, the innate need to prove people wrong.
This entire time, he has goaded doubters. An early return can't be done? Screw it, I'll show you:
My Lakers won't only not make the playoffs, they'll finish 12th in the Western Conference? It's on:
12th— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) October 1, 2013
You dare question my resolve, my ability to return? You'll eat your words:
Kobe has drank in all the adversity like a motivation-based cocktail. Not once since his introspective Facebook post has he publicly questioned what will happen next. He's used his detractors as stepping stones, their words as inspiration.
At a time when he could have hidden, assuming the metaphorical fetal position, he's elected to show us everything. He isn't Amar'e Stoudemire, and the Lakers aren't the New York Knicks. Covert setbacks haven't defined his time on the shelf; forward thinking has. The future moment, when he finally puts on a jersey for real and is ready to play again, has defined it.
Nothing about this has been typical; it's been Kobe-typical. Which suggests we should doubt common logic more than we do Kobe himself.
What, If Anything, Does It All Mean?
There is the distinct possibility that this all means nothing. That Kobe's stroll through rehab won't be any different from anyone else. That he himself is just like everyone else.
Or we can believe Kobe is still different. That James Worthy called him an alien not because he has tentacles and pilots a saucer-shaped ship, but because his work ethic is supernatural.
When do you think Kobe will return to the Lakers lineup?
All great careers must come to an end, and at some point, Kobe's will too. For now, after all the quaint updates he's provided us with, nothing compels me to believe anything other than he'll be ready by opening night.
Some will agree; some won't. I may be wrong; I could be right. We won't really know until it happens. Public timelines mean nothing to Kobe. He's always marched to the schedule of his own calendar and operated under his own set of rules and expectations.
That hasn't changed, which is why, when forced to choose, it's not insane to choose Kobe over time. Because he hasn't changed. Time is still his enemy, and mainstream assumptions are still his means to something greater.
Maybe even returning early from an injury deemed too gruesome to master.