The sun may be going down on Kobe Bryant’s career, but he hasn't faded out softly—his increasingly rare game appearances this season have been must-see moments, whether brilliant, ineffective or simply courageous.
This is how alpha dogs bow out—snarling, defiant, happy, stubborn or hurt.
The injured or unhealthy part isn’t how we want to remember them, but we can’t look away. And in Bryant’s case, we’re simply not ready to turn the page yet.
On Wednesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans, Bryant helped keep the game close until he checked out with a sore shoulder late in the third quarter after completing a two-handed dunk. By the time he re-entered with five minutes left in the final frame, the Los Angeles Lakers were down by 10 points.
But something was very obviously wrong when Bryant went back to work. The 19-year veteran was playing with one workable arm—dribbling left-handed before rising up and swishing a left-arm turnaround jumper. He attempted one more lefty shot before checking out with the game clearly out of reach.
“I've played on a torn labrum before,” Bryant said after the game, per Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com. “I'm not too concerned about it.”
The fading superstar wasn’t finished with protecting his turf, however, adding: “We make a lot of it, but the reality is, I'm doing some pretty phenomenal things in 30 minutes. My body is not that [expletive] up.”
Don’t ever be changing, Mamba. Not so long as you have a leg to stand on or an arm to shoot with.
But on Thursday, results from an MRI revealed a tear of the right rotator cuff, per the Lakers’ press release. On Friday, Bryant was examined in Los Angeles by team physician Dr. Steve Lombardo of the Kerlan Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, who confirmed the injury.
What does this mean for the future? Bryant will be examined by Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kelan Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic on Monday and a decision will be made—whether rest and rehab will be sufficient or if season-ending surgery is required.
One way or another, the show must go on. The team has too much invested in him, and Bryant himself is not the type to be dictated to by a singular injury.
But when and how that show continues, and how it affects the team moving forward, is now yet another of many questions for a team in transition.
Bryant has always had the ability to come back from injury—always. Those wounds have ranged from slight to devastating.
It all began when an impetuous teenager broke his left wrist during a summertime pickup game before his rookie campaign even began. That was followed by a strained hip flexor that caused Bryant to miss the first game of his first season.
A lengthy litany proceeded over the years, including broken fingers on both hands, a lacerated right index finger, too many sprained ankles to mention and an injured right shoulder during the 2003-04 season that caused him to miss eight games.
There were three right knee surgeries in 2003, 2006 and 2010, followed by annual trips to Germany to receive Orthokine treatments.
You can add concussions and broken noses and torn wrist ligaments. And the toughest injury of all—a ruptured Achilles tendon in April 2013. Yet once again, a warrior was able to return the following season.
But the momentus comeback lasted only six games before the vagaries of cruel fate once again intervened. Bryant fractured his left lateral tibial plateau, also known as the bump at the top of the shin, right below the kneecap.
Last March, the Orange County Register’s Bill Oram wrote about a frustrated veteran being shut down for the remainder of the season because of that injury. The article also featured a graphic of injury points and physical setbacks that looked for all intents and purposes like the classic board game Operation.
Bryant made another resurgent return this season at age 36, determined to defeat Father Time. It is likely, however, that his final undoing will not be the inability to resolve a specific aliment, but an accumulation of never-ending aches and pains, along with the slow erosion of his remarkable basketball skills.
The subject of how long Bryant will remain in the game had already been raised recently by Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times:
When asked whether he has considered retiring at the end of this season, one year before the end of his Lakers contract, he nods his head in agreement.
'I’d be lying if I said that it hasn’t crossed my mind. …My body is hurting like crazy, around the clock, and if I don’t want to do this anymore, I won’t do it.'
And that was before the shoulder injury.
There’s also the question of Bryant’s must-see TV from an organizational point of view. As NBA stars are fond of saying, “It’s a business.”
Nobody knows that angle better than Jeanie Buss. After all, the current president of the Lakers was groomed by a father who possessed a streak of P.T. Barnum showmanship that translated to NBA success.
When the Lakers struck a 20-year television deal with Time Warner Cable in 2011, it was with the mindset of creating a channel that would be all Lakers, all the time. And by necessity, Bryant's incredible drawing power would continue to drive the engine until the organization found its next cornerstone.
The subject of Bryant’s current two-year, $48.5 million contract came up Tuesday when Buss spoke to ABC7’s Alysha Del Valle: “He is worth every penny that he’s getting paid. …Any team with Kobe Bryant as a part of the organization is going to be better.”
The contract was a logical byproduct of the team’s marketing needs; the Lakers willingly pulled out their checkbook to continue riding the gravy train. The wisdom of the decision is reflected in Forbes’ recent $2.6 billion valuation of a team that now resides at the top of the NBA financial pinnacle.
It’s not only the TWC deal that fortifies the Lakers’ economic standing—after all, TWC’s SportsNet network is a regional television component. But the channel also feeds into the NBA All-League Access programming syndicate. And then there are the 20 national TV appearances this season, along with the worldwide web, ticket sales and merchandising.
The Lakers may be 12-31 on the season but they remain a huge draw. That’s due largely to a shooting star that still burns brightly as it plummets ever closer to earth.
Regardless of how fans get their fix—whether traditional TV boxes, computers or small, personal streaming LED screens—Bryant is an iconic figure in the game of basketball.
His body of work is staggering. He’s a five-time NBA champion, a two-time Finals MVP and the league’s MVP in 2008. He’s been named to 16 All-Star Games, passed Michael Jordan this season for third on the all-time scoring list and is the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer.
The list goes on and on. But can the same be said for his farewell tour? Will it indeed continue?
For NBA fans everywhere, there is still a yearning for something more. What that “more” means is fluid and amorphous, and it is subject to change at any time.
Some will still hold out for the return of a superstar, others may hope for a sage elder statesman who gracefully guides the team into the future. And many will simply take whatever Bryant has left to give.
The enduring star of the Lakers used to chop down forests of opposing players single-handedly. Now he plays only in fits and starts. The one-handed part still shows up on occasion, as demonstrated Wednesday night. But that’s not how anyone would plan or want it.
For all the tests and trials and tribulations, for surgeries and more surgeries, and struggles up the mountain and tumbles back down, fans still want to see the alpha dog in action.
We want to see brilliance unfold one more time.
It’s the final chapter of Kobe Bryant. And we’re just not ready to close the book yet.