LOS ANGELES — It’s up to Kobe Bryant now.
Bryant has full medical clearance, I was told Sunday by someone in a position to have such knowledge—meaning he can do anything and everything without restriction as the recovery from his ruptured left Achilles tendon nears its conclusion.
Lakers coaches and basketball operations staff are all content to wait for Bryant to decide in his own mind when he’s ready to resume one of the greatest careers in basketball history after one of the worst injuries that can befall any basketball player.
Dec. 6 at Sacramento? Earlier? Later? It’s Bryant’s call, but what is certain is he can now push himself as far as he wants in his first full-speed practices of the season beginning Tuesday. After so many recent days of running but no sprinting or sprinting but no cutting or this but not that, Bryant has been freed even for five-on-five contact scrimmaging whenever he so chooses.
The reason Bryant was able to appear in Lakers team practice Saturday—albeit in a very limited capacity, with players doing less-than-full-speed drills against no defense—was because any and all restrictions on his activity had been lifted.
Even with full clearance, though, Bryant is not expected to jump right back into game action Friday night against Golden State or even the next week of Thanksgiving. Bryant wants to test his ankle joint and see how it responds, which he will get to on an initial basis with full-scale team practices set for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
In testing himself, Bryant intends to be thorough. That’s why he surprised teammates by how driven he was in that team workout on a quiet Saturday meant to be a light day in the gym for the Lakers. Said teammate Jordan Hill, “I thought he wasn’t going to go that hard, but he was really pushing it.”
After his ankle joint was immobilized for so long since April 13 surgery, Bryant knows he needs to push through all the natural stiffness and regain full range of motion in the ankle. That stuff—and the “black-out” training to regain his conditioning—is separate from the healing of the actual tendon, which has been accomplished without any stretching of it, the most common fear during recovery.
So the plan Bryant shared back in June with the Lakers’ flagship radio station, KSPN-AM 710 in Los Angeles, still essentially holds: “I’m shooting for November—December latest. That's my goal in my head,” Bryant said then.
The Dec. 6 game in Sacramento at one of Bryant’s favorite venues might serve as a logical date because the Lakers have no games scheduled Dec. 2-5, meaning Bryant could gain clarity in his mind during practices that week that his left ankle is completely ready and the right knee he treated in Germany last month is also primed.
In the normal Bryant scenario where he has medical clearance, there would be no timetable whatsoever. It would be understood by all parties that he’d simply be playing immediately. Bryant’s usual gauge is whether he can avoid making the injury clearly worse by playing, and if so, he’s a go.
In this case, he is proceeding with greater care. He knows he will have to scale back if he has any complications in basketball workouts.
But by all firsthand accounts, the team was already transformed in practice Saturday by Bryant’s presence and intensity. They then put together one of their best games in beating Detroit on Sunday night with Steve Blake, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Hill singled out by Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who has been downplaying the prospect of any imminent Bryant return.
The Lakers, who might get Steve Nash back from his nerve-root irritation around the same time Bryant plays, don’t want a distraction caused by constant speculation when Bryant’s season debut will come. There’s little doubt, however, that fascination over Bryant will soon overshadow the Lakers’ fight to improve a 5-7 record without him.
After so many years of NBA championship expectations, this season has dialed things down to a much simpler matter for Lakers fans. Can Kobe still be Kobe? Can he provide yet another inspiration to those who long ago concluded he can overcome anything?
Now that Bryant has full clearance, all his diehard fans can rest assured they will have something to see soon. All the skeptics studying medical history and Bryant’s advanced NBA age of 35 can start gearing up as well.
Here’s the last part of Bryant’s quote from the radio back in June: “Once I’m ready to go, it’s gonna be on.”