LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant emerged from the Lakers' locker room at 10:55 p.m. Pacific Time with his family. He climbed into the back seat of a golf cart, his left foot in a walking boot, dangling off the side.
Someone said, “You'll get through this, man,” and Bryant replied, “Yessir.” And he was off, driven to the loading dock at Staples Center after tearing his left Achilles' tendon – in the 3,013th minute of the 78th game of his 17th season of this remarkable career.
“I made a move that I've made a million times,” Bryant had said at his locker earlier Friday night, “and it just popped.”
And so much popped with it. The pursuit of a playoff berth that Bryant had so heroically --and now, tragically – fueled was rendered pointless in the wake of this vapid, 118-116 victory over the Golden State Warriors. These 48-minute nights, this stubborn battle to push past limits of pain and exhaustion that should've long ago conquered him –- over.
Bryant vowed to come back from this, and was already gathering motivational fuel for what will be at least a six-month journey to return to the court. We don't know what version of him will come back from this at age 35, but we know this: What we've had the pleasure of witnessing from Nov. 3, 1996 –- Bryant's NBA debut -- until April 12, 2013 has been like nothing we are likely to ever witness again.
“It's fueling me; I can feel it already,” he said. “Players at this stage of their career pop their Achilles and the pundits say they never come back the same. So I can hear it already and it's pissing me off right now.”
Nobody is foolish enough to declare Bryant's career over on this night, because he will never go out like this -- never let his body betray him. But it's OK to recognize that the era Bryant championed -- from All-Star weekend with the 50 greatest in Cleveland in 1997, to the five championships, right through those one-legged free throws -- was an incredible ride.
After collapsing to the floor while planting his left foot for a drive on rookie Harrison Barnes in the fourth quarter Friday night, Bryant reached immediately for the back of his leg. He asked Barnes, “Did you hit me? Did you hit me?” It was the telltale sign of a torn Achilles; you feel like you've been kicked in the back of the leg when that's not what happened at all.
Bryant sat on the floor, rocking back and forth. He looked scared. I've been watching Kobe Bryant play basketball on and off for 17 years, and I've never seen him look like that.
“[Expletive],” he said, as he rose to his feet and tried to walk.
“[Expletive],” he said again, and anyone who knows him even a little bit knows what those expletives were.
He shuffled to the bench during the timeout that he'd called, in the hopes that somehow, the feeling and the muscle in the back of his leg would return. It did not. And so with 3:08 left and the Lakers trailing by two points, Bryant shuffled back onto the court -- the unmistakable limp of a man with a torn Achilles -- to sink his two free throws.
“I was just hoping it wasn't what I knew it was,” Bryant said, his eyes red and tearing up. “I was just trying to walk it off and hoping that the sensation would come back. I had no Achilles; that was the sensation.”
Bryant had just pushed the Lakers back from the brink again with back-to-back 3-pointers that erased a six-point deficit. He was on his way to a full, 48-minute shift for the second straight game. For the fifth time in seven games, he would log at least 47 minutes.
Until the back of his leg popped.
“Just a freak situation, I guess,” he said.
Was it? Bryant no doubt will second-guess himself for refusing to sit down more than a few seconds at a time down the stretch of this desperate push for the playoffs. He averaged more than 45 minutes per game in April, the highest workload of any month in his career, and became the first 34-year-old to log 3,000 minutes since Michael Jordan and Gary Payton in 2002-03, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
He refused to second-guess the coach who continually allowed him to demand that kind of work. The coach, Mike D'Antoni, was already doing that himself.
“He just wouldn't budge on it,” D'Antoni said of Bryant's insistence on never leaving the floor. “And there's a part of me that didn't want him to budge, either, because he's so important. If you had it all to do it all over again, maybe. I'll second-guess it and look at it. But he's an incredible competitor, it happened, and we'll go forward.
“It's my call at the very end, and he gets hurt,” D'Antoni said. “I'm not going to sit here and go, ‘Well, maybe he wouldn't have gotten hurt if he didn't play.' You don't know. We made decisions collectively and tried to make the best ones we can and right now that's turned out not to be great. But it might not have been good anyway if you're a couple of games out and not making the playoffs, and then he can rest all summer.”
It's too easy to blast D'Antoni now for running Bryant into the ground, but it is a fact that goes on his performance review as the Lakers limp on without Bryant into a world of uncertainty. It's a grim world that expands far beyond the Lakers' continued quest -- not over, by the way -- to secure the playoff spot that Bryant had so relentlessly pursued.
The Hall of Famer who was driven in a golf cart to the Staples Center loading dock has one year left on his contract at $30 million and won't be able to play until at least Christmas, maybe the All-Star break -- maybe later. The team he'll rejoin at that point presumably will belong to Dwight Howard, who is at odds with the coach who allowed Bryant to play all these minutes. Howard had said Wednesday night in Portland that slowing down the offense and playing “inside-out” would help save the players' legs on the defensive end. Asked before the game Friday night if Howard's theory made sense, D'Antoni said, “No. But that's OK.
“You can't play defense some other way?” D'Antoni said. “You can't make an excuse defensively. You've got to play defense.”
So Bryant's injury isn't about the short-term question of whether the Lakers hold off Utah and get into the playoffs without him. It isn't about what happens if and when they get there. It's about who stays and who goes now on this Lakers team, from the coach to the free-agent center to the amnesty candidates Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace.
More than any of them, it's about Bryant himself.
An MRI Saturday will show what Bryant expects to be a complete tear of the Achilles, and the most devoted, maniacal training specimen in modern sports will begin the long road back --the longest journey of his career.
If anybody can do it, someone suggested to Bryant in the locker room, it's him. Right? Bryant rested his head on the handles of his crutches and exhaled deeply, like a tired, broken man staring at more work than he ever imagined.
“I was really tired, man, really tired in the locker room,” he said. “Just upset and dejected and thinking about this. It's a mountain to overcome. And this is a long process. I wasn't sure I could do it. But when the kids walked in I've got to set an example. ‘Daddy's gonna be fine. Gonna do it. Work hard and let's go from there.'”
An era of greatness came to a cruel, abrupt halt for Kobe Bryant Friday night, and a new journey began -- another challenge, a mountain bigger than any he's climbed.