|ESPN.com: Los Angeles Lakers||[Print without images]|
“I’m Bruce Willis, man,” Bryant said, referencing Willis’ John McClane character in the “Die Hard” series. “I’m fine.”
It was a bold statement by a guy who had often seemed immune to the regular physical limitations of the human body through his first decade-and-a-half in the NBA.
An avulsion fracture in his index finger on his shooting hand? No problem. Tape it up, and he’d just guide the ball with his middle two fingers instead. A concussion suffered in the All-Star Game? Just fix him a mask, there was no way he was going to miss any games on that count. A torn ligament in his left wrist from a preseason game? By the time the regular season rolled around, he committed to getting a cortisone shot in the wrist on a near nightly basis as to not miss any game time.
That is the tough-minded narrative that Bryant has built over time in the game. He is the player with 30,000-plus points, five rings, a remarkable 81-point night and he is the player who will push himself to play through pain.
Even when the torn Achilles in his leg carried with it a 6-9 month recovery period, Bryant was back on the court in less than eight months.
But this time it's different. This time Bryant couldn’t just will himself through the second major injury in less than a year to that left leg of his.
This time, he’s human. And a 35-year-old human playing a game dominated by men in their mid-20s, at that.
Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw hinted that this news was coming last week when he spoke about Bryant before his team played the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I think, for the first time, and these are my words, but for the first time, I sense frustration because it's a situation that he can't fully control because these last two injuries with the knee and the Achilles right before that are ones that they can be pretty devastating and they allow you to come back on the injury's time, not on your own time, on your own terms,” Shaw said.
When Bryant made his comeback from the Achilles injury, he announced it with a two-minute video on his Facebook page. The video showed his No. 24 Lakers uniform floating in the middle of the screen and being battered by the elements -- wind, rain, snow.
Eventually, the jersey is torn down the middle of the chest, presumably representing the Achilles tear that Bryant suffered, before being repaired with a blinding beam of sunlight.
There’s no sunny spin on Bryant’s current predicament. Only clouds of doubt. Will he return to some approximation of the player he once was? And even if he does, will his $48.5 million contract extension prevent the Lakers from fielding a team that will allow him to compete for another championship in his final days in the league?
Right now, with all the uncertainty surrounding Bryant’s future, he seems much closer to Bruce Willis’ character in “The Sixth Sense.” His glory days may have already passed him by, never to return again.