Throughout his 17-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant hasn’t exactly been unfamiliar with the bumps and bruises that come with playing in the NBA. We’ve seen him break his wrist, severely sprain his ankle on multiple occasions and deal with chronic back and shoulder injuries and that’s just the ones that unwillingly pushed him into a suit and tie. The career of Bryant won’t be remembered by the 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, the heart snatching buzzer beaters or the remarkable 2005-06 season that saw Bryant average 35.4 points a game and carry the Lakers to 45 wins despite fielding a team that after Lamar Odom had Smush Parker, Brian Cook and Kwame Brown as its best players. What will always stick out in the career of Bryant are not the extraordinary feats that he gifted us with throughout his career but instead in how he accomplished them as a true warrior.
With Michael Jordan, while the stats, championships and accolades get their share of the conversation, the historically unmatched competitive nature and killer mentality are the things that fans will talk about when reminiscing about the past. In the case of Bryant, it will always be the competitiveness, toughness and pain tolerance he’s shown throughout his career that will define him. In recent memory, who can we remember playing through a torn wrist ligament, bum knees and broken fingers in the NBA? Furthermore, who do we remember pulling off such feats and still playing better than all but a few players in the league? Personally, I found it tough to grip a basketball with a slightly sprained wrist back in my playing days and it was enough that I was useless other than to hopefully scare away anyone who feared a 17-year-old who could grow a beard like someone who had a six pack of Rogaine explode onto their jawline. Meanwhile, Bryant saw it as the perfect opportunity to string together four straight 40-point games and not miss a step at the peak of the injury during the early portion of 2011-12. Likewise, a broken finger usually ruins the next few weeks for someone as they’re either learning how to write left handed and awkwardly holding a pencil like how a civilization that introduced pasta to its people before the fork and spoon probably would look handling their food. Similarly, Bryant basically did as close to the stereotypical “rub some dirt on it” approach as we’ve ever seen, handling and shooting the basketball like nothing ever had happened.
Recently, we’ve seen Bryant do the unthinkable and essentially fend off father time’s attempts at claiming his knees and athleticism with the assistance of the German platelet-rich plasma treatments. In a way, the Achilles injury almost served as a reminder to Bryant that Father Time will not be denied forever. Entering the 2013-14 NBA season, the usual cloud of optimism that surrounded Lakers and Bryant fans has been replaced with the ominous whispers fearing that we might’ve finally seen the elastic band stretched too far. While no one doubts his determination, can he defy attrition from an injury that has ended or debilitated so many careers before him?
With the regular season quickly approaching, it’s pretty safe to say that Bryant will be seen on the court sooner or later but the real question is what will we see? Will we see a player whose offensive skill reigns supreme over most in NBA history … or will we see the shell of the player we’ve had the privilege of watching these past 17 years? I’ve grown to accept that the Bryant we now see is not one that can carry a team to prominence like he did in the middle to later part of the last decade. That said, he remains the only player who strikes me as truly poetry in motion, the only player to seemingly try to top his own level of difficulty with each successive shot taken. At the end of the day, while I’m hopeful we again see the Black Mamba come through that Lakers’ tunnel and avenge the insult that the number 1225 represents, I’ve readied my memories in case we never see that Bryant on the floor again.