Kobe Bryant is making the most of a disastrous situation.
Tearing your Achilles is the opposite of ideal. Doing so at 34 is a potential career killer. But that's one stereotype Kobe refuses to pander to.
While there is still no timetable for his return, according to the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan, Kobe himself remains confident.
Ahead of schedule. Shattered timetables. Despite the gyrating uncertainty, Kobe continues to use this injury as the ultimate display of his character.
As a means to shatter commonplace expectations and the timetables that come with them, hoping that's enough to reinforce an already-cemented legacy.
Superstars are celebrated and, therefore, hated too.
Success draws attention, increased exposure spurs envy and with jealousy comes spite and resentment. Prominent sports figures not named Mariano Rivera are almost always despised to some degree, whether it's for their immense success or their personality. Kobe has been denounced for both.
Numerous championships aren't won nor dynasties built without making a few enemies. Not everyone will be happy when you win. Because for you to win, someone else has to lose. And Kobe has won. A lot. Five championships, 15 All-Star selections, one league MVP, two finals MVPs, four All-Star MVPs—that's a lot of hate.
Disdain for Kobe, however, has been compounded by his jagged personality and insatiable ego. For almost two decades, he's been a source of uncensored opinion, always saying what's on his mind without regard for others, including his teammates.
"But this is his team, so it's time for him to act like it," Kobe told ESPN's Jim Gray of Shaquille O'Neal in 2003. "That means no more coming into camp fat and out of shape, when your team is relying on your leadership on and off the court."
By 2003, Kobe had won three championships next to Shaq. They had built a dynasty together. Become one of the greatest 1-2 punches in NBA history together. Yet there he was, speaking of Shaq like he was a third-class citizen, or not human at all.
Those comments prompted Shaq to tell others he was "going to kill him." They defined a broken relationship that would come to an end soon after, when the Lakers consciously chose Kobe over Shaq and shipped him off to the Miami Heat. And they represented all Kobe had become known for as a teammate.
Shaq wasn't the only one he butted heads with. Dwight Howard couldn't get out of Los Angeles fast enough. There was, on a much smaller scale, Smush Parker too, who berated Kobe the teammate in a 2012 interview with Head 2 Guard Radio, via Larry Brown Sports:
What I don’t like about him is the man that he is. His personality. How he treats people. I don’t like that side of Kobe Bryant.
On road trips, he traveled with his security guards. Those were the guys he talked to. On the team plane, he sat in the back of the plane by himself.
The reason I wasn’t a Laker after my second year is because I didn’t bow down to [Kobe]. I didn’t kiss his a––. I wasn’t kissing his feet. Quite frankly, towards the end of the second season, I stopped passing him the ball. I stopped giving him the ball. I started looking him off.
If that's what Kobe was seen like, even by just a couple of his teammates, imagine how he was viewed by those outside the cozy, always-protective Staples Center walls. Plenty of Lakers fans have even told me in the past they resented Kobe for how Shaq's situation played out. It took two to burn those bridges back then, but leaders, like Kobe, are supposed to find ways to make it work.
Fast forward a decade and the perception of Kobe is completely different. It began to change during the 2011 lockout, when Kobe first traveled to Germany. Phil Jackson was gone and Kobe was hurting. Perhaps the end was near.
But Kobe came out rejuvenated. He appeared in all but eight of the Lakers' 2011-12 regular-season games, no small feat considering the 66-contest schedule was brutally compacted. Think John Goodman trying to squeeze into a pair of spandex pants.
The 2012-13 crusade brought much of the same, only more so. Bean absorbed plenty of jabs for his relationship with Howard, but beneath the partially manufactured feud, Kobe was evolving.
Last year, the "antisocial" became "social:"
Then he became funny:
And then, just games away from willing the Lakers to a playoff berth, he became a fixture on the sidelines:
Sad though his untimely exit was, the recovery process has acted as the next step of his transformation. Vino has used the Twitter and Instagram tools at his disposal to publicly document his rehab from Day 1.
When he started running on an anti-gravity treadmill, we were there.
When he made one of his mysterious trips to Germany, we were there.
Through it all, the world has been watching because Kobe has let it, let us in.
To a point, this is nothing new. He's always been guileless. But this isn't raw honesty at the expense of someone else, or in defense of himself. This is impromptu sincerity, a humanizing process that has given us a glimpse into the new Kobe, the easy-to-relate to Kobe. The underdog version of Kobe.
“As I sit here with you now, I’m telling you now I’ll come back 100 percent,” Bryant said during a recent trip to China, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. “But I don’t know if I’m sure. I have moments and days where I doubt myself.”
Somehow, the man once portrayed as a despotic locker-room overlord is winning people over by copping to his own weaknesses, all the while refusing to yield. He's bent, never broke. And his legacy is already better off for it.
A Grudge Renewed
Subtly. Ask me what the biggest difference is between Kobe now and him a few years ago, and I'll tell you it's his ability to be both discreet and powerful.
Cracking all the jokes in the world and plowing on as a suddenly pleasant interview won't change everything we know about Kobe. He's a ruthless competitor who frequently exists only to prove doubters wrong. That's never going to change.
Over the years, he's had less to prove. Even in 2011, when skepticism began to mount, there wasn't as much to prove as there is now. His reputation was more than enough to keep the nonbelievers at bay.
The ruptured Achilles changed everything. Championships don't wallop time or age. Kobe was 34, going on 35, a lack of conviction was inevitable after suffering a career-threatening injury.
Now 35, Kobe is using his naysayers as inspiration. From refusing to give into his own thoughts of self-doubt to putting articles questioning his ability on blast, he's proved once again he's at his best when the circumstances are at their worst.
Really, his path toward potential redemption has turned into one big "Show Us Again" campaign, fronted by the Mamba himself. And it began almost immediately upon him going down.
But he got up and hit two clutch free throws, almost like he knew people didn't expect him to get up. So he got up. He made those free throws, proving once more we should expect the unexpected.
Showing yet again that adversity is a tool he uses to reinvent himself. That we can always count on challenges flocking his way. And that we should always count on his strong will to tear those challenges down.
Asked during an interview in China over the summer about what keeps him motivated after all these years, Kobe summed up his current existence in one word.
"Six," he said.
As in six championships. As in one more than Magic Johnson won. As in the same number Michael Jordan won. That's the last stage of Kobe's attempt to strengthen his legacy.
Tying Jordan won't make him the greatest player in NBA history. Such is a debate for a different time and place. But stop and think for a second what it would mean if Kobe secured that sixth championship after everything that's happened.
Jordan came out of retirement to win three championships in four years with the Chicago Bulls. Impressive, but also self-inflicted. On his own accord, he created his own monster. Kobe's current albatross—age, time, physical limits—are supposedly beyond his control. He's attempting to prove that's not true, that he's still the master of his own future. Not time or age or the now far-too-commonly referenced mortality.
If he can overcome everything that's been put on his plate, digest the bitter realities he's been force-fed, it would be a victory to remember. The sixth ring, his ascension past expectations, the defeat of natural regression—all of it. It would all be remembered. Cherished. Idolized.
Will Kobe Come Out on Top?
Kobe isn't hiding behind anything; he's made his intentions known.
"When I come back I want to make sure that I'm 100 percent," he told Trudell.
Returning at 100 percent, or close to it, gives further credence to his already-admirable efforts. The reincarnation of his character, the way he approaches his critics, the unflappable quest for another ring—they've already improved his standing.
Reprising his role as a dominant force improves it further. Contending, and potentially winning, another ring pushes its limits.
"Just keep grinding," Kobe said of his return and what comes after, per Trudell. "Just keep working."
Continuing to slog through the fear. Grinding through the pain of self-doubt. Working toward a healthy return, another title and a stronger legacy. That's what's next.