In characteristic fashion, Bean did not make for stage left until he’d literally done all he could. In an 80-second span, not five minutes after hyperextending one of his knees and tweaking an ankle, he buried a pair of 3-pointers – the second from nearly 30 feet out – to wipe out the remainder of a nine-point Warriors lead. Then, with 3:08 remaining and the Lakers trailing by two, he collected the ball at the left elbow and prepared to work on Harrison Barnes. As he drove to his left against the Dubs’ rookie, however, Kobe crumbled. That for some time he kept his seat on the floor, clutching at his left heel, was bothersome, but to pretend in hindsight that we expected Kobe to do anything less than give more of himself in pursuit of victory would be revisionist.
And, for a precious, fleeting moment, he did just that. After rising gingerly to his feet and plodding his way to the Lakers’ bench, Kobe reemerged, wearing an unfamiliar (compared with the one at which he idles) wince of pain, but reemerged none the less, allowing us, for one final moment, to continue taking for granted his indestructibility.
It was then that the wave finally broke. Upon burying his second free throw to tie the game at 109, it became terrifyingly apparent that business was no longer unfolding as usual. The Lakers immediately scrambled to take a foul so that Kobe could be substituted out. Again, he plodded toward the Lakers’ bench – only he kept going, down the tunnel, concentrating on each step, wearing, for the first time in recent memory, a look not of determination, but resignation.
The only thought I could conjure at the moment Kobe Bryant was forced from the floor was of the unfathomable pain he must have been experiencing. With Steph Curry eyeing 50 in a nail-biter on his home court, with the playoffs in the balance, the most injury-defiant of superstars met his physical limit. This had to be persuasive Eastern European prison guard bad.
It was, as it turned out, debilitating.
As always, however, Kobe did as Kobe does, justifying our blind belief in his preternatural ability to endure and overcome. What we know now that we did not then is that he managed those final free throws and unsettling trip to the locker room with the aid of one Achilles tendon.
Stop. Let that marinate for a second.
Dude buried a pair of freebies – in the final three minutes of two-point game with massive playoff implications – and then walked off after popping his Achilles. Kobe. Bean. Bryant.
This, however, is not a eulogy.
Yes, immediately after discovering the extent to which the NBA’s ultimate warrior, I went there. I’d wager rather heavily that we all did.
Was that it? That can’t have been it. There’s no fucking way. Seriously, THAT WAS IT?
“The hottest love has the coldest end.”- Socrates
Shock. Devastation. Heartbreak. Confusion. Loss. And, for every game I did not watch, and every time I prioritized a couple hundred bucks over witnessing generational genius in person, guilt.
Thoughts turned to the remainder of the playoff push (I’d rather send a mid-first-rounder to the Cavs than another $3 million to Bobby Sarver), the chance of a puncher’s chance at a playoff run (paper thin with Kobe) and the team’s future, financial (at least $70 million, and possibly nine figures, in luxury taxes due next year) or otherwise (Dwight’s show now – yay?), if only because addressing the current state of the Lakers’ union was too frightening. It is fitting that this, most soul-crushing of roller coasters has discovered a new depth of depravity, not only rendering the most energizing victory of this Laker season pyrrhic, but casting legitimate doubt on the future of the touchstone of a generation.
Hours passed, a new day dawned, and with it came a shift. The heartbreak lingered, but the fear and mourning were no more, replaced by defiance (by proxy; again, not my tendon), born of faith in a track record 17 years in the making.
This isn't the end. Why would it be? What, in our shared history with Kobe Bryant, would lead one to view this as the opportune time to doubt him? As Tom Ziller points out, for better and for worse, we’ve not only accepted Kobe’s superhuman ability to shrug off injury, we have reveled in it. We’ve come to demand it. And now, at the first hint of mortality, we abandon ship?
Yes, the Achilles is by far the most serious and time-consuming of the multitudinous ailments he’s accumulated through the years. And yes, given his age and the incredible mileage on his odometer, his game may undergo a transformation, perhaps more resembling that of Paul Pierce more so than Dwyane Wade. But the end? C’mon. Is the prospect of a successful return any less probable than the feats of physical endurance we’ve already seen? This guy does not go out that way.
No one’s gotten rich consistently betting against Kobe Bryant though the years. Provide the NBA’s most voracious student and maniacal workaholic with proof of concept (an athletic scorer no less), plus some forced convalescence for his laundry list of other maladies, and it still looks a sucker’s bet.
We’re not done here.