Saturday, April 13, 2013
Kobe and L.A. tradition will be tested
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLA.com
There are some injuries you watch once and never want to see again. Kevin Ware's leg violently breaking. Joe Theismann's leg snapping in half under the weight of Lawrence Taylor. One look and the devastation is nauseatingly real.
Then there are the injuries you watch a hundred times and still can't believe.
No matter how many times you see the play of Kobe Bryant falling to the ground, grabbing the back of his left foot and grimacing in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' stirring victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night, it doesn't look like what it could end up being.
The end of an era.
The end of his ride.
In the blink of an eye, everything changed for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
It says here that it won't be the end because the man himself -- in an angry but determined haze at 3:30 in the morning Saturday -- vowed that he will be back from what appears to be a torn Achilles tendon injury. That this won't be the way he goes out.
"One day, the beginning of a new career journey will commence." Bryant wrote on his Facebook page early Saturday morning. "Today is NOT that day."
For as long as he feels that way, and for as long as he can still summon that fire, he has earned the benefit of everybody's doubt.
The troubling part, though, is that it's not everybody else's doubt Bryant is actually worried about.
It's his own.
"Do I have the consistent will to overcome this thing?" Bryant wrote in a gut-wrenching late-night post. "Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me.
"Then again maybe not!"
As sure as he will always be of his own will and ability, when something like this happens, it is impossible to feel certain of anything anymore.
The sheer randomness of the injury is what's so terrifying. The play on which Bryant popped his Achilles' tendon Friday night was a routine one for him. A step he has "done millions of times!"
In Bryant's mind, he can conquer everything, even randomness, with his will, passion and fire.
He is different. He is better. He is not human.
Until one night he is.
It is the senselessness of it, the randomness of it, that cuts so deeply.
Because it is that deep faith in his own exceptionalism that has always given Bryant his edge. Injuries such as this happen to other people, not to him.
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Yes, he works harder than just about any other athlete in the game to back that up. The stories about his legendary work ethic are all true. The six-hour shooting sessions in the middle of the night. The 40-mile bike rides through the desert. The maniacal early-morning conditioning sessions. All true.
But the belief comes first, then the magic.
The Lakers hold on to that same kind of faith. It's why Bryant is such a perfect torchbearer for this franchise.
They are different. They are special. They always find a way.
These are core beliefs inside the franchise and among its loyal fan base.
But the past couple of seasons, those beliefs have all been called into question, too.
First came the disappointing end to Phil Jackson's tenure in 2011. He deserved a happy ending, or at least better than an embarrassing four-game sweep at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. And until the final buzzer sounded that year, the Lakers and their fans clung to the belief that the basketball gods who govern such things wouldn't let him go out like that.
Until he did.
Next came the failed trade for Chris Paul and NBA commissioner David Stern's decision to cancel it, as acting owner of the league-owned Hornets.
Things like that are supposed to happen to other teams, not to the Lakers. Breaks like that go for them, not against them. And the prized player most certainly doesn't end up down the hall, in the Clippers locker room.
Until he did.
When the Lakers came back this summer with trades for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, all felt right again. Faith was restored. The Lakers were exceptional again. Special. They always found a way.
Until it all fell apart two games into the season, when Nash broke his leg.
Bryant has been the constant through all these crises of confidence. It was his will that held the team together and the force of his spirit that guided the franchise in the dark days after owner Jerry Buss passed away this February.
Bryant was the link. The one who knew what it meant to be a Laker and most deeply understood why they are special.
The one who kept the faith of the faithful.
Without him, it's not clear what happens next. Buss is gone. Jackson is retired. Magic Johnson is busy owning the Dodgers. Derek Fisher is in Oklahoma City. Pau Gasol probably makes too much money to stay another year. Dwight Howard hasn't said this is for him, or proved himself ready to carry the mantle yet.
All of those thoughts surely raced through Bryant's head late Friday night. His fears, his doubts, his emotions were raw. He was angry. He was devastated. He couldn't sleep.
"The frustration is unbearable. The anger is rage. Why the hell did this happen ?!?" he wrote. "Now I'm supposed to come back from this and be the same player or better at [age] 35?!? How in the world am I supposed to do that??
"[It] feels good to vent, let it out. To feel as if THIS is the WORST thing EVER! Because After ALL the venting, a real perspective sets in. There are far greater issues/challenges in the world then a torn achilles. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, find the silver lining and get to work with the same belief, same drive and same conviction as ever."
That belief has sustained him a good long while. That drive has given him his edge. That conviction has rarely wavered.
It is both his greatest strength and his deepest weakness. The one spot he can be wounded. His Achilles' heel.