The easy answer is yes—it’s the best way to maximize a two-year contract extension that begins next season.
The obvious problem is: How do you shut down a guy who is so doggedly determined to return, even when the news isn't good? According to the Lakers' official Twitter account, Bryant will be out of action for at least three more weeks.
INJURY UPDATE: Kobe Bryant was examined tonight & still has pain and swelling in his left knee. Examined again in approximately 3 weeks.— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) January 29, 2014
The debate isn’t exactly new. Charles Barkley advocated shutting Kobe down on Dec. 19, during a TNT broadcast. Magic Johnson suggested the same in an interview with the Los Angeles Times staff on Jan. 15, stating, “He’s been hurt twice, give him the whole year to get healthy.”
For Bryant, that may be too long. He tore his Achilles tendon on April 12, 2013 and didn’t return until Dec. 8. From that point he played just six games before fracturing his left lateral tibial plateau—the spot where the shinbone meets the knee.
The initial timetable for a return was six weeks. That date will now come and go. Bryant is still limited to pedaling on a stationary bike and will be medically evaluated again in three weeks.
Bryant is, of course, frustrated; he wants back in. It has been too long, and the time off has been exacerbated by having to sit and watch, night after night, as what’s left of a decimated team heads down the chute.
Per a recent article by Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles, Bryant continues to shake off the notion of giving up on his season: “To think about sitting out and this, that and the other, your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way."
Nobody should be surprised; this may be the most intensely driven athlete of his generation. But it’s not just about one athlete’s will. The Lakers have a right to protect their investment, for one thing. There’s also the future good of the team from a competitive standpoint.
Nobody can bring the Lakers back this season, and the team’s record will undoubtedly get worse before Bryant is finally able to take the floor.
It was one thing to anticipate a return at the time of his injury. That was before their season went from mediocre to wretched. Sometimes, wretched seasons have a silver lining.
Bryant’s past informs his present and his future. He’s logged 17 seasons and the serpentine list of past injuries is numbingly long. He prides himself on knowing his body and using the latest advances in cutting-edge medical technology, plus enough ice baths to turn mere mortals into shriveled grapes.
If the Black Mamba could step away from being so incredibly driven and self-centered, if he could look in through a window at himself, he would see a picture that is all too obvious. His body isn’t close to being ready.
He needs more time to heal, and his team needs to clean up its own mess.
After all, there are nine free agents-to-be on the roster, and this abject misery of a season is as good a test case as you could possibly want. There are a few veterans, and the rest are minimum-salary guppies who’ve been thrown into the deep end.
There are times they'll actually get it right, and that matters.
The essential question always becomes this: Who will shut Kobe down? Can anybody in the Lakers organization step up against him? Will anybody risk being cast out of the circle of trust for the greater team good?
Those tasked with getting him back on the court and keeping him there walk a delicate line: They’re not necessarily supposed to keep him off the court. Certainly not for the rest of the season.
Yet, they could be doing Bryant a favor. There’s Gary Vitti, the team’s head athletic trainer for 28 years; Marco Nunez, Vitti's assistant; and Tim Grover, Bryant’s personal trainer. These three have worked closely with Kobe and could speak up.
And then there’s Dr. Judy Seto, the Lakers' head physical therapist. During an interview with Mike Trudell for the team's website, Seto said, “He also has the highest pain tolerance of anybody I’ve ever met.”
That’s not surprising to anyone who’s watched Bryant play over a lengthy, brilliant and often injured career. But is the pain worth it for some meaningless games at the end of a lost season?
There’s also management. Jim Buss is supposed to be the guy calling the shots these days. Does he have what it takes to pull the plug? Somehow, that seems like a stretch.
We love redemption stories—it’s part of the great lore of sports. We’ve watched and celebrated unlikely comeback moments. They can be glorious in the moment, and they can also cut a career short.
There’s a part of us that wants to see Bryant back this season.
We know how driven he is, that as long as he’s in the game he can change it. Perhaps there’s a small part of us that believes that no matter how bad this Lakers season is, it could become one of those outrageous, unthinkable comeback stories—that Bryant can still do the impossible.
But he can’t. It’s killing him not to play, but age’s aim is true.
Shut it down. Get your body right. Live to fight another day. Do it for the team.