Kobe hadn't been playing particularly well since his return from a ruptured Achilles, averaging 13.8 points and 5.7 turnovers per game on 42.5 percent shooting. But that wasn't really all that important to a huge portion of NBA fans.
Everybody just wanted to see Bryant on the floor, defying the odds and trying to take on the seemingly impossible challenge of extending his career after an injury that had ended so many others. Lakers fans, in particular, needed Bryant to play.
Kobe occupies a mythical place in Lakers lore. He's indestructible, something more than human. Lakers fans and Bryant supporters the world over simply assumed he'd beat the odds because...well, because he's Kobe.
His latest injury is just another reminder that tempered expectations, though no fun at all, are usually the safest kind to have.
Bryant's loss is devastating, and the outpouring of disappointment started mere moments after news broke of his upcoming absence.
B/R's Kevin Ding noted that this particular injury carries with it some potentially far-reaching complications:
It's not crazy to assume that this latest setback could be the one that ends Bryant's career. The Lakers and their fans have to be particularly cognizant of the downward spiral that can result from continued setbacks to aging stars—especially after watching it happen to Steve Nash.
The long-term prognosis certainly isn't going to make anybody feel better.
More broadly, Bryant's injury serves as bleak notice that it's usually not safe to assume the players we put on pedestals won't someday fall off. Truehoop's Ethan Strauss expressed that sentiment:
And ESPN's Marc Stein summed up the feelings of many dejected fans:
Remember, Derrick Rose got the depressing-injury ball rolling earlier this year. He went down with a torn meniscus just 10 games into his return from a torn ACL. Nobody had a more hopeful, unrealistic expectation-inducing comeback campaign than Rose, which made his second consecutive lost season sting a little extra.
Of course, Bryant's auspicious comeback announcement also set him up to disappoint.
Kobe's injury changes a number of things about this NBA season and the future of the league.
For starters, it completely alters everything the Lakers will do for the rest of this year. Even if we assume Los Angeles will only be without No. 24 for six weeks, that period of time will almost certainly be long enough to see it slip too far back in a brutal Western Conference to entertain realistic hopes of contending for a playoff spot.
If we assume the worst (probably a wiser course to take if recent events are any guide), L.A. will have to reconsider trading Pau Gasol and will almost certainly give a second look at its overall plan for the next few years.
Bryant got $48.5 million from the Lakers partly because they assumed that even if he wasn't going to be a superstar, he'd at least help them sell tickets and preserve fan interest. He can't do that as effectively if he's not on the court.
You can bet that the trickle-down effect of both Bryant and Rose's injury will force teams to think much more carefully about investing in stars. If the Bulls had to do it all over again, they'd still give D-Rose a max deal, but older guys like Bryant—especially coming off of serious injuries—are going to find it much harder to secure big dollars.
In addition, the more careful teams around the NBA might see their strategies meet with a little more league approval. The San Antonio Spurs have caught flack and fines in recent years for resting their vets, so maybe decisions like the one they made the very same day news of Bryant's injury broke will be met with less scorn from the league.
NBA fans are going to stay optimistic despite the painful losses of Bryant and Rose. That's part of being a fan; rationality doesn't always play a role.
And for every D-Rose and Kobe, there's a Russell Westbrook and an Anthony Davis. Sometimes, stars surprise us with quick returns to health. Sometimes, hopes get rewarded.
That's not the case today, though. And it's going to take a while for NBA fans to get over the blow of losing yet another huge name to injury.