LOS ANGELES – Six weeks.
That’s what this is to Kobe Bryant.
It’s not an old man breaking down. It’s not a song where the knee bone’s connected to the Achilles tendon. It’s not a reason for insecurity to rise up inside the warrior who has embraced all broken-body challenges to the point that Phil Jackson cited Bryant as beyond Michael Jordan in sheer guts.
Actually, it’s five weeks, because Bryant has already been out a week since suffering a fracture in the tibial plateau of his left leg.
Bryant said Wednesday in his first press briefing since being diagnosed last Thursday that contrary to all the analysts who see him stranded again and lost at sea, there’s no doubting the strength of the wind in his sails and his drive to shut up critics: “It’s the same old tune. It’s just being sung a little more loudly now.”
Heck, maybe it’s four weeks, because Bryant’s basic mindset is to beat every doctor’s projection for any injury he has ever had. That’s when he has agreed to sit out at all, because his reflexive mindset before common sense is to keep playing if he can’t make his injury any worse by playing. He believed the doctor who told him about this fracture was joking.
Bryant is already doing a lot of bike riding and adjusting his diet with plans in mind to adjust his upcoming rehab to prepare his left foot and ankle joint for the grind of playing heavy minutes again.
“I feel more locked in now than I've been my entire career, because of this,” he said.
So there you have it—the same ol’ driven and determined Kobe.
He got up off the bench during the Los Angeles Lakers’ loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day just to say a proper hello to actor Samuel L. Jackson in a nearby courtside seat. Bryant loves his movies and knows what kind of tough-minded, strong-willed character has made him so successful and so inspirational to his legions of fans.
Neither Bryant nor his fanbase is in any way ready for Kobe to become a spoof of himself like Sylvester Stallone or Robert DeNiro in Grudge Match, which, incidentally, was Staples Center’s official sponsor for the Heat-Lakers game.
Bryant’s bravado is such that he clearly has no fear of looking like a fool later on. While the skeptics remember the game in Memphis for his bone breaking without contact while he tried to spin past ace defender Tony Allen, Bryant remembers that game as proof he can produce and win with a sewn-together Achilles against Allen in a fourth road game in five nights.
"I learned that I can pretty much do everything that I could before, particularly the last game,” Bryant said.
That’s Bryant, always turning the negative into some positive, as in the case of the man-up free throws he sank moments after the heartbreak of tearing his Achilles last April.
Yet you know what they say about taking longer to heal the older you get. Bryant, 35, has always had medical advancements work in his favor, but even more than first waiting for the post-surgery Achilles to grow together, Bryant can only wait for this bone to do the same.
Rather than televise a real-time CT scan of Bryant’s leg fracture healing, ABC went ahead and showed the Heat-Lakers Christmas game without Bryant, who would’ve been playing in his 16th NBA Christmas game when no one else has more than 13 career appearances.
It was a reasonably competitive game, with Miami trying hard only in spurts, and Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni was realistic about it in his postgame analysis: “We had a little bit of a chance.”
Miami’s LeBron James had two pyrotechnic alley-oop dunks, but wasn’t consistently overwhelming, and he acknowledged afterward that it wasn’t the same challenge without Bryant on the court.
Bryant was subdued during the game, lingering on the perimeter of all the timeout huddles, and one of the other few times he got out of his seat was to chat with James midway through the fourth quarter.
It’s a safe bet that James didn’t share then with Bryant this darker assessment of basketball mortality that he offered to reporters before the game.
“The man above knows how much time he’s going to give me in this game,” James said. “Once He decides I don’t have any more time to give, then I’ll call it quits.”
Bryant is religious too, but he’s never going to put it that way.
Asked if he remembers Michael Jordan’s final stint with the Washington Wizards, James recalled, “I remember a few plays. We all got to go sometime. (Expletive), none of us can play forever. We all gotta go.”
And there’s where the dichotomy shows up. Bryant certainly knows he won’t play forever, but he sees his current state as a singular setback.
Six weeks, or five…maybe four.
The Lakers’ timetable for Bryant was announced with the understanding that as soon as his knee is medically cleared, he could play right away. In his mind, he'll once again be right there with the best.
From the outside looking in, Bryant is en route to becoming a caricature of his old self, as howled loudest by TNT’s Charles Barkley: “He’s not going to be no damn mamba. He can’t strike at you from a distance any more. He’s going to have to crawl over to bite you.”
Over Kobe’s dead body.
"The spirits are fine; the focus is great,” Bryant said. “Just going to see what happens when I come back.”