The date was April 12, 2013—game 80 of the Los Angeles Lakers’ regular season. Kobe Bryant had been logging brutal minutes throughout the spring and was doing it once again. He had played virtually the entire game, despite hyperextending his left knee early in the second half.
With three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, he made a seemingly innocent move, pushing off his left foot as he attempted to drive around the Golden State Warriors’ Harrison Barnes. He was fouled, felt a pop and thought someone had kicked him.
The superstar crumpled to the ground, grimacing and holding the back of his ankle.
Months later at a Nike summit, Bryant described trying to pull up a tendon that simply wasn’t there:
When I first did it, right there, I was trying to feel if the tendon is there or if it’s gone. I realized it wasn’t there. I was literally trying to pull the tendon up, so hopefully I could walk and kind of hobble through the last two and a half minutes and try to play.
Bryant did make it back to sink his free throws. And then hobbled to the locker room and his extended off-season. The Lakers went on to win the game 118-116. Afterward, Bryant was clearly emotional, propped up on crutches and referencing the locker room visit from wife Vanessa and daughters Natalia and Gianna:
I was really tired, man. Just tired in the locker room, upset and dejected and thinking about this… mountain, man, to overcome. I mean this is a long process. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But then your kids walked in and you’re like, I gotta to set an example. ‘Daddy’s going to be fine. I’m going to do it.’ I’m going to work hard and go from there.
With Bryant’s season over, the larger question became his continuing career. Here’s a roadmap to the long path back from one of the worst injuries that an athlete can suffer.
Saturday, April 13
A successful procedure is performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache, director of the Sports Medicine Fellowship program at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles. The following day, the surgeon speaks with Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times, describing Bryant’s rupture as typical of hundreds he has repaired over a period of 23 years. He adds that the procedure can be likened to stitching together two ends of a mop.
ElAttrache also speaks of the tightrope act of rehabilitation:
You want to get them weight-bearing as soon as possible, to some degree, but it’s got to be in a protected way, he said. Early on, the tendon is malleable and stretchable, so you want to get them using the muscle and getting on their leg and weight bearing for all the other reasons, even the remote reasons like the hip and the back and all the muscles in the lower leg. All that without stretching the tendon.
Bryant takes to social media before and after the operation, displaying an ironic sense of humor—jeri curl cap and all.
It had once been a season filled with promise. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash each arrived with championship expectations. Howard would become a free agent at season's end, a factor that weighed heavily on management. With the Lakers losing four of their first five games, Mike Brown was fired and replaced by Mike D’Antoni. Nobody could have predicted such a chaotic season—the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs until the final game of the regular season, beating Houston and moving into the seventh seed by virtue of a tiebreaker.
April 28: Lakers Eliminated From Playoffs
The Lakers meet the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. Nash, Steve Blake, Metta World Peace and Jodie Meeks soon join the injured list. By now, Andrew Goudelock has been called up from the Rio Grande Vipers to take Bryant's place—the roster is that decimated.
A four-game sweep ends in somewhat fitting fashion—Howard is ejected early in the third quarter. It’s the last time he’ll been seen in Purple and Gold. In a classic case of ships passing in the night, Bryant arrives at the bench on crutches as Howard steams off to the locker room.
May: The Off-Season Begins
If April went out in disappointing fashion, May isn’t much better. Bryant goes to court to stop his mother from selling his memorabilia; Lakers rumors mostly revolve around whether Howard will stay or go; and Phil Jackson seems to favor MJ over Bryant while promoting his latest book.
Kobe shrugs it off via Twitter, evoking the ‘apples to oranges' analogy.
Bryant's walking boot comes off, and on May 30, he tweets his appreciation for Nike's ‘medical mamba shoe’ featuring extra heel lift:
June: Looking Forward
Bryant sits down for an interview with Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles, discussing nearly six weeks of rehabilitation, and hopes for a return in the Lakers’ season opener:
I hope so. That's the challenge. With the tendon, there's really only but so much you can do. There's a certain amount of time that they deem necessary for the tendon to heal where you don't overstretch it and now you never get that spring back. So, you just have to be patient, let the tendon heal, and then when that moment comes when they say, 'OK, we can take off the regulator so to speak and now it's on you to train as hard as you can to get back to where you want to be,' that's going to be a good day.’
Bryant has this to say about Jackson’s possible future in the NBA:
I think it would be a disservice to the game if he wasn't involved in the game at some level, Bryant said. I think he still has a lot to offer the game and I think he wants to offer it. So, my guess is that he'll be involved at some level. At least, I hope so.
Interview perspectives are reversed as Arash Markazi from ESPN Los Angeles speaks with Phil Jackson, who opines on a timeline for Bryant’s return:
It’s to be seen how well he recovers from the operation, Jackson said. Odds are and the belief is it will be very soon in November, which is remarkable.
Jackson goes on to remark about the passage of time in an athlete’s life and what the inevitable loss of Bryant would mean to people in Los Angeles and the NBA:
That’s what happens with players. We watch them come and go. We revel in their high times and we mourn the times they have to leave the game, and I certainly will when he does.
July: Dwight Leaves, Bryant Still on Track
More changes for the Lakers as Dwight Howard signs with Houston. Per Dave McMenamin, Bryant is taking his former teammate’s decision in stride and is focused on getting back on court:
"I'm happy for him," Bryant said, without a hint of his usual sarcasm. "I've said that before. I'm happy for him. It's important for free agents to make decisions that they feel is best for them."
As for his timetable to return, Bryant has this to offer:
"It's progressing faster than everybody expected," Bryant said of his recovery from the Achilles tendon surgery he underwent in April. "I should be able to be more active with conditioning in the middle of August, which is like four months after the surgery. It's crazy, but I've been very, very fortunate to be able to have [Lakers head physical therapist] Judy [Seto] travel with me absolutely everywhere, be with me all the time, and I was fortunate to be able to go in and have the procedure done the next day [after rupturing the tendon]. I think all that's helped."
August: Running and Jumping
By August, Bryant is running on an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill, which utilizes a pressurized enclosure as a counterforce to the user’s bodyweight. In addition to diligent rehab, he also takes time to celebrate his 35th birthday on Aug. 23.
No matter how disciplined the game plan, it’s hard to take the essential Mamba out of the question. This is a guy who likes to push the envelope, a guy who likes to take risks. Maybe Bryant is feeling like a little extra celebration is in order when he posts this vine on Twitter, less than a week later.
Sunday, September 22
Mike Bresnahan for the L.A. Times, writes about an uncertain future for Bryant and the Lakers, due not only to possible after-effects from the injury, but also the superstar’s upcoming status as a free agent in 2014.
He says he wants to play three more years, but nobody knows how he'll look coming back from the injury sustained in mid-April. Will he lose an inch off his vertical? Two? None? Training camp opens Saturday for the Lakers. Bryant won't be ready physically. His presence at next year's camp depends almost entirely on something markedly different — money.
September 28: Media Day
It's an annual rite of passage at the Toyota Center in El Segundo, California.
The working press meets new members of the Lakers before the mad rush for some face-time with Bryant. By this point, he may have become just a wee bit tired of the summer’s stock storylines. When asked once more about Dwight Howard leaving, the Black Mamba replies with a word that might have sounded like ‘shirt’ except that it's missing a letter.
And with that, training camp begins.
October: The Degrees of Gravity
Along with the usual camp buzz comes the expected questions about Bryant’s timetable. He has been working with the AlterG machine for months now, gradually allowing for increased weight and pressure on his feet.
Bryant heads to Germany at the beginning of the month for platelet-rich plasma therapy on his arthritic right knee. The Regenokine procedure is a repeat of the one Bryant had during the summer of 2011. It isn't directly connected to his left ankle recovery, except in the general sense of body connectivity.
The Lakers visit China in mid-October, as part the NBA Global Games. For Bryant, there is a special connection, per Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.
Bryant also shows off his healing Achilles per Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News, shooting and running the sidelines before a preseason game against the Golden State Warriors.
Sometimes it can seem like one step forward and one step back. Returning to Los Angeles, Bryant meets with reporters on Oct, 24, including ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, discussing his decision to step back incrementally on his training:
Kobe Bryant, meeting with reporters Thursday for the first time since the Los Angeles Lakers returned from their preseason trip to China last week, remained mum on his return to the court with the team’s regular season set to tip off Tuesday against the Los Angeles Clippers.
"I was cranking it up the entire time I was in China," said Bryant, wearing a pressurized ice wrap on his surgically repaired left Achilles. "I've scaled back since, just to let it heal up a little bit more and get a little bit more flexibility to it. But it feels good just to run and break a sweat by running."
Saturday, November 16
Finally, some truly positive news. Per NBA.com, Bryant returns to the practice court, participating in light drills with teammates. It is the first time since his injury in April.
"He looked good and did a few moves I didn't expect him to do right away," center Pau Gasol told the Lakers' official website. "I'm very happy for him and for us, and definitely looking forward to when he'll play in a game."
Then, even better news. On November 18, B/R’s Kevin Ding reports that Bryant has received full medical clearance to resume all basketball activities:
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 that 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.
Tuesday, November 19
The trend continues, with more drills and a five-on-five practice on Tuesday, Nov. 19, with Kobe suggesting that he could be ready to return sooner them some have anticipated. Per Greg Beacham for the Associated Press via Yahoo! Sports, Bryant has this to say:
It’s definitely something where you’re kind of champing at the bit a little bit, but we’ve come so far. I want to make sure, we all do, when you step out there you’re ready to go the long haul, and it’s not something that continues on. … You just have to get stronger, but I could adjust my game and play at a pretty high level right now.
Wednesday, November 20
Anticipation has ramped up to a 24-hour news cycle, or less. It’s officially ‘Kobe Watch’. The gridlock of news vans with satellite dishes reaches epic proportions at the Toyota Center in El Segundo. A full-court closed-door scrimmage is followed by a half-court five-on-five, attended by the media. Mike Bresnahan for the L.A. Times reports that Bryant feels ready to return to game action in November. Mike D’Antoni however, is being a little more cautious, ruling out the Golden State Warriors match which comes in just two days.
This was one good step, but he needs a few more steps, D'Antoni said. He hasn't played since April and he looked pretty good. I don't know why it surprised me, but it does.
Thursday, November 21
After practicing two days in a row, Bryant sits out on Thursday. The reason given is soreness in his left foot. The Lakers won't categorize it as a setback. According to Mark Medina for the L.A. Daily News, the decision is simply part of the ongoing process to avoid additional strain. D'Antoni adds:
It's a process. You'd be surprised if he was going to play. We know he wasn't going to play. There might be days he'll have to take off and days he'll ramp it up.
Friday, November 22
It's Friday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles. During a Lakers win against the Golden State Warriors, Steve Nash sits in the third chair with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy from ESPN. Nash himself has been going through injury trials and tribulations. When prodded with the inevitable Bryant question, Nash shrugs and replies, "Kobe could play Sunday."
It's another day, another sound bite, perhaps just an off-handed quip and perhaps more. The Lakers host the Sacramento Kings on the day in question. It will be their last home game in November before heading out on a three-game road trip.
Bryant, a five-time world champion, won't come back due to a calendar date or media expectations. Still, his competitive desire is the stuff of legends, and it's been more than seven months since he stepped to the line to sink two free throws, standing on a shredded Achilles tendon. You know he wants back in.
He's close enough to taste it now.
Monday, November 25
Bryant hasn't played a game since being injured, but on Monday morning he signs a two-year contract extension nonetheless. According to ESPN Los Angeles, Bryant will earn $23.5 million for the first year and $25 million in the second year of his extension. The injury question may not yet be answered but free agency has—the Mamba will retire as a Laker after his 20th season.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak had this to say, per the Lakers’ official website:
This is a very happy day for Lakers fans and for the Lakers organization. We’ve said all along that our priority and hope was to have Kobe finish his career as a Laker, and this should ensure that that happens. To play 20 years in the NBA, and to do so with the same team, is unprecedented, and quite an accomplishment. Most importantly however, it assures us that one of the best players in the world will remain a Laker, bringing us excellent play and excitement for years to come.
The Lakers organization also took to Twitter to herald the moment.
Bryant himself commemorated the occasion with a tweet of his signed contract page.
It is yet another milestone moment, for the Lakers and for Bryant.
Tuesday, November 26
It’s the day after Bryant’s contract extension and the fan debate over dollar signs has cropped up. The Lakers are now on a three-game road trip—first stop Washington DC. Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck writes about the many sides to Bryant—a willingness to adapt his game, the determination to prove skeptics wrong and his assertion that he made no specific demands with this new contract:
The only number I saw was the one I agreed to, Bryant said. The Lakers are a stand-up organization, and they stepped up to the plate and took care of it. Some of it obviously was from work previously done, and some of the things I’ve done for the organization, and some of it was a leap of faith of what they expect me to do when I return.
Sunday, December 1
With the Lakers’ road trip over, rumors continue to swirl about a possible Bryant return. After tonight’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center, the team will have four days without a game. Ramona Shelburne from ESPN Los Angeles has the updates, including the possibility that Friday night against the Sacramento Kings could indeed mark the spot.
I don't want to anticipate anything, D'Antoni said after practice Saturday. Those are days that he can work and see, re-evaluate how he feels after the three days and then make a decision going forward.
That doesn't mean he will play Friday, doesn't mean he won't. But that's the time you just evaluate, and I can't tell you what type of evaluation that will be.
Monday, December 2
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have the day off from practice today. There’s another injury to deal with however, as an MRI reveals a torn left hamstring for point guard Jordan Farmar, who will be out for at least four weeks.
Tuesday, December 3
Another day of practice and another post-injury first as Bryant grabs Xavier Henry's loose change and goes up for the dunk. It was short but sweet.
Tomorrow will tell how the Mamba feels after another day of five-on-five practice.
Wednesday, December 4
Apparently, Bryant feels just fine, as he's participating in another day of scrimmages. The press however, only gets to watch the first 15 minutes of practice. According to Mike Bresnahan of the L.A. Times, there is a continued sense of optimism from coach Mike D’Antoni. It’s tempered, of course, with the usual caveats and caution.
If Bryant makes it through practice Wednesday and Thursday without feeling pain, "then Friday looks good,” Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni said, quickly adding, "but we don't know that for sure."
Bryant also debuted his new Nike 9’s, although he didn’t discuss the matter of kicks afterward. The lack of face time did not dissuade media attendance—the El Segundo parking facilities have come to resemble your typical L.A. mall during holiday shopping season. The Nike 9 high-tops by the way (available in gift wrap) are similar to combat boots and are sure to protect surgically repaired ankles from undue duress.
Meanwhile, cryptic hints about Bryant's return keep on dropping.
Friday, December 6
So much for the cryptic hints. There's no need for uncertainty anymore.
Turning to Facebook for the official announcement, Kobe let the world know that he would be returning on Dec. 8 against the Toronto Raptors. Those same Raptors that he's made a career of beating up on, including the infamous 81-point outburst that remains the No. 2 scoring output in NBA history.
Overly dramatic? Sure.
Cause for unrelenting excitement? Absolutely.
There's no longer any call for speculation. You can stop circling dates on your calendar in pencil and instead turn to a nearby pen, as erasers are now pointless.
After a long, grueling process that began nearly eight months ago, the Mamba is back.