Don't ever underestimate Kobe Bryant's ability to play hurt.
I learned that lesson the hard way on February 28, 2001 in Denver. As the sideline reporter for KCAL-TV, I was told to go to the Lakers locker room during the pregame show and report on the status of Bryant, who had a severely sprained ankle and had missed the previous three games. He came into the room on crutches, and his ankle was the size of a softball. He wasn't putting any weight on his foot, and looked miserable. I asked both Kobe and trainer Gary Vitti if Bryant was expected to play that night.
I didn't get a response from either.
"I don't think he can go," I said on the air a few minutes later. "He can't walk. His ankle is so big, I don't even think he can get a shoe on his foot. In my opinion, he's a long-shot to dress."
Exactly four minutes later [I looked], Bryant joined his team for pregame warm-ups, limping noticeably. But once the game started, he found his stride. He finished the game with 38 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists.
That was the last time I made that mistake.
After the game, I asked Vitti how he got Kobe ready to play when he couldn't even walk into the building. He told me that Bryant is as good as anybody he has ever seen at playing through injury. Many others (AC Green comes to mind) would play hurt, but nobody can play hurt at the level Bryant does. It's almost as if he's out to prove that he's indestructible, and the only way to do it is to exceed his normal level of All-Star play.
Over the past three weeks, Bryant is taking this concept to a new level.
Currently, he has two broken fingers on his shooting hand -- a dislocated pinkie and a fractured index. He's played with the flu (Utah), twisted his left knee (Oklahoma City), and strained his right elbow (Sacramento). Throughout all of these ailments, many which would sideline most NBA stars, his statistics have increased. He's leading the NBA in scoring in his 14th season. Until his 15-point effort against Dallas on Sunday (a blowout in which he sat the entire fourth quarter), he had averaged a scorching 38 points per game since December 22.
"He gets motivated [and] activated by injuries," Phil Jackson said. "It's like saying you can't do something and then he has to go out and prove it that he can do it. It's just one of those things about him that [makes him] unique. I think it challenges him."
Vitti, who has been the Lakers trainer since 1984, told me recently that one thing that helps Bryant is that when he gets hurt, he follows training instructions to the letter. For example, Vitti says, if you tell some players to ice a sprained ankle whenever they can, many guys will ice the ankle and then go to bed. Bryant will ice it, then ask a trainer for therapy, then ice it again -- all night long, if necessary. Part of the mistake I made years ago in Denver was that I assumed Kobe couldn't walk, when he was most likely staying off the ankle because the trainers told him to.
Four coaches -- Frank Hamblen, Jim Cleamons, Tex Winter and Craig Hodges -- along with trainer Chip Schaefer, were all with Jackson when he coached the Bulls. They've all told me that Michael Jordan learned how to play with injuries, and actually became quite good at it. But he hated it. The difference, some have told me, is that Kobe almost seems to relish it.
When he suffered the avulsion fracture on his index finger, Bryant and Vitti worked tirelessly to change the splint until they found one that allowed him to shoot cleanly. Once they did, Vitti massaged Bryant's finger with a tight shoestring, then taped it down to minimize swelling. The two men did this morning and night before the Bulls' game in Chicago, and Bryant responded with 42 points.
Like most great players, Kobe rarely talks about injuries. Reporters who regularly cover the team jokingly say that no matter what the truth is, if you ask Bryant about his medical status, he'll respond: "my ____________ (knee, finger, elbow, take your pick) is fine -- next question."
But in a year that has seen the Lakers lose both Pau Gasol and Ron Artest for multiple games with injuries, Bryant's ability to excel while he's hurt is one of the main reasons L.A. has the best record in the NBA. Assuming he keeps it up, he's the leading candidate to win his second league MVP award.
And if he gets hurt, now you know why there's a good chance you won't hear it from me.
John Ireland hosts the "Mason & Ireland" show on ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles.