When the starting lineups were announced for the Lakers before Game One of the 2013 NBA playoffs, something felt off. There were five players on the court wearing Laker uniforms but what I realized was that that thing that felt off was the gigantic hole that could only be filled by one man: Kobe Bryant. The reality didn’t really hit me until the game began. Kobe is the premium octane fuel that does anything he can to keep the Lakers moving forward and running smoothly. When Game One began, it looked like that fuel had been replaced with sugar.
A lot of times the team seemed lost, especially in the fourth quarter which is usually when Kobe turns into the Black Mamba and does the most damage. But this time, it was the Mamba that was crippled.
I was at work when the news broke about the severity of Kobe’s Achilles injury, which he suffered against the Golden State Warriors. I proceeded to look for any article I could on the injury while I repeatedly told myself, its not really that bad, the staff is just being extra cautious. But as updates poured in throughout the day, it began to look like the worst was true.
In his postgame interview that night, the normally stoic Bryant welled up in tears when talking about the ramifications of his latest hardship. This was followed by a rant of frustration on his Facebook page. All this was very uncharacteristic of the Kobe Bryant we’re used to. It showed me a more human side of a man who has spent his entire career brushing injuries aside like crumbs on a coffee table. It showed frustration, disbelief, uncertainty, and anger. Emotions I certainly felt upon hearing the terrible news.
My first semester of college, I tried out for the basketball team after not playing organized ball for a while. The coach was running late so those of us that were there decided to play a game called 21 until he arrived. And these guys were GOOD! Yet, here I was, about to make the last free throw I needed to win the game! I was feeling extremely confident at that point. Until the scrimmage at the end of the tryout. I was on defense when I rolled my ankle pretty bad. When I tried to run downcourt I couldn’t put any pressure on that leg. My ankle swelled to the size of a baseball and took much longer than normal to heal. I was scared, frustrated, and angry. I didn’t know if my ankle would feel the same after it healed and I was terrified to think of a life where I couldn’t play basketball. So in that regard, I could definitely relate.
In that interview, Kobe removed the Black Mamba cape and armor and allowed his true emotions to flow freely. And for those few moments, basketball was irrelevant. I was able to connect with Kobe the man, not the basketball player.
This made me think of Magic Johnson. He’s a man whose circumstances were certainly much more serious than Kobe’s, but who also had to deal with an unexpected turn of events that could’ve affected his career and life. He discovered that he had contracted the HIV virus. He had every right to just give up and be negative and angry and I’m sure there were times when he felt that way. But he handled the whole thing with so much class and grace. He chose to look at the positives and the opportunities that this new phase in his life could create. He did briefly retire from the NBA only to come back and play in the 1992 All Star game and in the Olympics for the Dream Team. He then returned for the second half of the 95-96 NBA season with the Lakers as a forward before retiring for good. He is now a highly successful business man, sports analyst, and advocate for HIV and AIDS.
Like Magic, Kobe Bryant seems predictably optimistic about his chances. He has said he wants to win 1 or 2 more championships and believes he will be back in action in November or December. He has an innate ability to overcome seemingly any challenge that’s thrown at him, which makes this latest hurdle that much more compelling. Coupled with his injury and his most recent off court battle with his mother wanting to auction off old hoops memorabilia, I wonder if he will be able to handle whatever happens in the coming months with the same level of maturity that Magic displayed on and off the court. Assuming he doesn’t come back as the same player, will he be willing to possibly relinquish the role of first scoring option for the sake of the team? Or will he try to force his body to do what his mind thinks he can do, thus jeopardizing the team’s fragile chemistry? As of this writing, he has already started shooting and running drills and is said to be way ahead of schedule.
One thing is for certain, armed with his incredible work ethic and basketball IQ, I hope and believe he will adapt accordingly. And when that happens, the only people who will be frustrated and scared as Kobe rises again will be his opponents.