- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The phenomenon known as #NBArank did not exist back in the fall of 1992, so Dominique Wilkins was spared from the sensation of seeing his phone and Twitter account flooded with messages about how an evil website just dunked his name, without warning, from No. 6 to No. 25 in the game’s most prominent player rating system.
That would appear to be a good thing given how rankled Nique was, some two decades later, simply watching it happen to Kobe Bryant from afar.
“I’d have been livid,” Wilkins tells ESPN.com.
“They must be out of their minds. What are you judging him on? Judge him after he comes back from his injury. It’s a little premature for them to start judging him already.”
Now a broadcaster and executive with the Atlanta Hawks after his Hall of Fame career as the the inimitable Human Highlight Film, Wilkins knows better than anyone on the NBA map what awaits Bryant in his forthcoming return from a torn left Achilles. Which is why Nique also surely knows deep down that not even Bryant -- widely considered one of the 10 greatest players in history no matter how he fared in #NBArank 2013 -- would be granted that sort of courtesy.
Wilkins knows because he certainly wasn’t, either. Few thought he could recover to the standard he did 20-odd years ago when, more than two years younger than Bryant is now, he shredded his right Achilles on Jan. 28, 1992.
“I was carried off the floor; I couldn’t walk off,” Wilkins recalls. “That’s how bad mine was. I never felt that kind of pain. I’ve had broken bones, torn knee and all that stuff, but an Achilles tendon tear is horrific.
“Everybody said my career was done. ‘He’s done, stick a fork in him.’ I heard everything. They either said I wouldn’t come back, or if I did come back, there was no way I would ever be the same.”
The doomsday talk, to be fair, was not without justification, because Achilles tendon tears have historically been harder to bounce back from for NBA players than any knee injury you wish to nominate. Research by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, in a piece he wrote for Basketball Prospectus after Chauncey Billups tore his left Achilles in February 2012, confirmed that Wilkins’ feat in making two more All-Star teams and playing until age 39 after suffering his Achilles rupture at 32 is an extreme rarity.
Yet there’s nothing you can say to convince Wilkins that Bryant, whenever we see him this season, isn’t about to make his own history-defying grand return. Ditto for another all-time great we consulted who has first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to feel that unspeakable pop when one’s heel completely collapses: Isiah Thomas.
Neither Nique nor Zeke are doctors ... and only one of those two continued to play at a high level after Achilles surgery. But both Wilkins and Thomas believe that sheer will -- something Bryant obviously has in abundance -- is the biggest factor in determining whether an NBA player can carry on after such a devastating setback.
“If anybody can come back, Kobe can,” Wilkins says. “And I’ll tell you why I say that: He’s one of the most competitive guys that I’ve ever met. He’s one of those guys that competes on a level like Jordan, Bird and Magic. He has that type of tenacity, that type of attitude, where he’s not going to let anybody tell him what he can’t do. It all depends on the person, how determined and how dedicated you are on working and training to get it back the way it was.
“It’s a hard injury. It’s a time-consuming injury. But that’s how I was; I’m just a determined and competitive guy. I’m not going to let anybody tell me what I can’t do. I looked at the critics as another opponent that I had to compete with. And I’m one of those guys who loves to accept the challenge. Maybe that’s the difference.”
Said Thomas: “Devastating is the correct word. It is a devastating injury. Had I come back and played, I’m sure it would have affected my speed, jumping ability, quickness and so forth and so on. I was older, so I had lost some of that anyway.
“But I would never bet against Kobe. Because what Kobe still has that I didn’t have at the end of my career is that hunger. When you listen to Kobe talk ... you still hear and see a hunger that, frankly, I just didn’t have at that point.”
Wilkins is resolute in his stance even after brother Gerald was felled by the same injury at 31 and reduced to playing parts of four more seasons after missing all of the 1994-95 schedule. He remains undaunted even when informed that Bryant, who turned 35 in August, has already played more games and logged more minutes pre-injury than Wilkins did in his entire NBA career.
The additional mileage on Kobe's legs, as covered in this accompanying story here, is staggering. But Nique was back on the floor 283 days after his tear and doesn't sound as though he'll be surprised if Kobe makes it back quicker. That’s even though NBA medical experts say that, while Achilles rehab practices are faster and more efficient than they were in Wilkins' day, surgical procedures to repair such tears really haven’t changed much.
“I don’t care how advanced the medicine gets,” Wilkins said. “It depends on the person and how determined they are to be the same."
Wilkins, though, does acknowledge that Bryant is going to have to work through some initial fears of re-injury (“I was nervous at first”) in terms of trusting that heel again. Wilkins says he'll also have to “develop some patience,” more than he’s ever had before, because Nique remembers needing “close to a year before you feel you can play on a level you once played.”
The only concern coming from Thomas, meanwhile, is likewise on the mental side. The reason he didn’t attempt a comeback from his own Achilles tear is because Isiah had already announced his retirement before suffering the injury, revealing his plans to move into the Toronto Raptors’ front office instead of trying to play on at age 33 and at a couple notches below his 1990 NBA Finals MVP peak. So he's naturally curious to see how Kobe will cope if “this injury makes him drop down to where he’s not a superior athlete.”
“The game wasn’t much fun for me when I couldn’t dominate my opponent,” Thomas says. “If I was getting 14 points and like seven or eight assists, that wasn’t fun. And if I couldn’t dominate the opponent and dominate the game, I didn’t enjoy it. And I sure as hell didn’t enjoy being dominated. So it’s going to be interesting to see if Kobe can accept some nights, with this injury, not being dominant against players he normally dominates.
“I don’t think he can ever be satisfied with being a 17, 18-point scorer in this league. It’s crazy to say, but unfortunately that’s how the great ones think. When they drop down from 26 to 17 or 16 [points per game], those guys are devastated. And people look at you differently. So if he’s not dominating, he may have physically come back from the injury, but mentally can he come back from the injury?”
Yet when you press Thomas for a prediction, there is no hesitation.
“Yes,” Isiah says.
As in: Thomas, too, thinks Kobe will rebound strongly and gradually look Kobe-esque again regardless of the overwhelming anecdotal and numerical evidence stacked against him.
“I went through that same exact crap,” Wilkins added, referring to all the doubters. “And then when I came back and saw the same critics, they said, ‘We knew you could do it.’ Yeah, sure.
“It’s just amazing to me [to see Bryant at No. 25 in #NBArank] just out of respect for who he is and what he’s done. I think he can and will come back from this.
“I don’t know if I’d put my house on anybody; I kind of like my house,” Wilkins said with a laugh. “But I would bet that he’ll come back and be Kobe. He’ll be The Mamba.”
98dMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo