EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — “You’ll see.”
That was what Kobe Bryant said after he felt the initial benefits of his 2011 blood-spinning knee procedure in Germany but hadn’t put them out for public display yet.
It was classic Kobe—reveling in the drama, savoring the told-you-so aspect of his success and eventually striking the pose of triumphant warrior.
He loved the German procedure enough to go back for a boost in his left ankle, and now he’s ready for another round of cutting-edge care for that right knee. Somewhere between immediately and several weeks, Bryant trusts, he’ll find remarkably greater range of motion and less pain in that balky knee.
What’s important to understand is why he’s always cutting on that edge.
Time after time in his career, the maniacal ambition in Bryant’s character has challenged his body to work with him—whether in overcoming injury or experimenting with novel treatment.
(He has hinted that the surgery on his left Achilles tendon was creative, too. In interview footage posted by NTD TV in China, Bryant said in August: “It was pretty innovative, the procedure that we did, in terms of how we attached the tendon and where it was torn. There are really complicated procedures that they normally do when taking tendons from the big toe and I don’t want to bore you guys with nasty stuff. But we really simplified the procedure and kind of took a risk with it—a calculated risk—and it has been very successful for us.”)
It’s one of the under-the-radar elements in Bryant legend: Day after day doing the inglorious maintenance of his body so that when the time comes and opportunity knocks, he can keep his nose to the grindstone as long as he needs.
Every once in a while, the mental toughness to overcome physical pain jumps to the forefront of Bryant’s narrative when he plays on despite two bags of intravenous fluid at halftime in Utah or staggers through back spasms to inspire his teammates in Dallas.
Phil Jackson has made clear on this point of performing in pain that Bryant flat-out has Michael Jordan beat. And the trick to Bryant being the best at this game in the mind-over-matter series is understanding his body uncommonly well.
With the thrill-seeker inside him driving him forward, Bryant dares to push it more and more when the body’s warning signs scare others off.
That’s the rush, the glow that comes from overcoming adversity. But just like a bad hangover, the morning after the excitement can be stark.
That means dancing on the high wire of playing through the avulsion fracture in his right index finger, and then sitting on the training table or in the hotel room the day after and enduring tortuous manual therapy on that mangled finger—Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti pushing as hard as he can to decrease the swelling in a process he later likens to squeezing the very last remnants of toothpaste out of the tube.
That also means playing through right knee pain that leads to surgical repair in 2003 and again in 2006, and then so little cartilage remaining to cushion the joint that aching and swelling after every big performance becomes inescapable.
By the time the 2010-11 season arrived, Phil Jackson’s final lap as Lakers coach amounted to a Bryant embarrassment. So feeble on that sore knee, Bryant had to agree to a plan where he basically never practiced with the team, his famous fire having been exchanged at the practice facility for behind-his-back jokes from teammates about “Kobe spa days.”
With Bryant’s knee betraying him, the two-time defending NBA champion Lakers were swept out of the second round by Dallas—and that made the knee even more of a badge of courage for Bryant.
That right knee has caused Bryant an awful lot of heartache and headache—its 2003 surgery brought him to Colorado, remember—and the knee was his true Achilles’ heel long before the Achilles tendon tore in April.
So the right knee can’t possibly be allowed to stop Bryant now that the left foot is getting where it needs to go.
Bryant isn’t close to confident enough in the Achilles to smirk and say, “You’ll see.” It’s still too dicey. He has been jogging outside the gravity-reducing treadmill, but no sprinting yet.
The closest he came to boasting was over the summer in China, where he announced, “The normal timetable for recovering for an Achilles? We’ve shattered that.”
The Lakers’ initial projection was six-to-nine months to recover. Six months will be Oct. 13.
Shattering or not, Bryant wanted to wait until now to tend to the knee, gambling on getting maximum returns for the entirety of this shut-people-up Lakers season.
So even though leaving his teammates a week into training camp and jetting to Dusseldorf seems like it came out of nowhere, Bryant had planned and plotted it carefully; he nearly had the innovative procedure on his knee in 2012, too.
(For the record, it’s not really platelet-rich plasma therapy, which is approved in the U.S., although Peter Wehling’s work in Germany offers similar effects in the healing it promotes.)
I’m told that when Bryant returns early next week, the knee will not inhibit his ongoing Achilles rehab in any way. The protein-filled, blood-serum injection for Bryant’s cartilage-starved knee is expected to limit inflammation and promote tissue health—with benefits lasting another two-to-four years.
Maybe this is Bryant’s last trip to Dusseldorf; maybe not. It does sound pretty cool to jet off for Europe as the subject of some innovative work not yet approved in the U.S., but for Bryant, here’s the category into which this falls:
Repairs and maintenance.
Sounds tedious, not glamorous, but that’s the reality. Before anything can be built up to be commanding or inspiring, the building blocks have to be strong and secure.
Ask Vitti, entering his 30th Lakers season, or ace physical therapist Judy Seto or master trainer Tim Grover, and they’ll all tell you that Bryant gets it. He simply does not skip steps.
And when he takes those steps and then can trust his body?
Well, you know Kobe.
His imagination then runs wild with what he will accomplish next.
Kevin Ding is the Los Angeles Lakers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. He has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Lakers for the Orange County Register since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.