At age 36, superstar Los Angeles Lakers basketball player, Kobe Bryant, is apparently at the end of his rope. On his final professional contract, a two-year $48 million deal to make sure he retires as a Laker, Bryant is presently mulling over his third straight season-ending injury after a recent rotator cuff tear in his shoulder that needed immediate surgery. As mentally tough as we all credit Bryant for being over his 18-year professional career, it’s no longer about Kobe’s mind over body… because his body obviously has had enough.
NBA analyst Charles Barkley likes to say, “Father Time is undefeated.” Which means you can’t force your body to do things that it used to do five, 10 and 15 years ago – at least not on a regular basis without paying the piper. Surely, we’ve known Kobe to play through nagging injuries before, but that wasn’t the case two years ago when his Achilles tendon popped before the Lakers’ final playoff appearance.
With Dwight Howard and Steve Nash on his team that year, there was no way on God’s green earth that Bryant would have allowed himself to sit out with an injury after he had single-handedly dragged his team into the playoffs if he could have played through it. However, there are certain injuries that athletes simply can’t fight their way through, no matter how tough they are. A ruptured tendon is one of them because you can’t push forward or jump.
The serious conversations that off-season surrounded how long it would take for Bryant to return from the tendon injury, if he would return at all. Would he still be the same high-flying, hard-charging, take-no-prisoners assassin that we knew him to be, or some new, game-managed, old man, veteran? Kobe put that talk to rest with a reckless abandon, when he returned full blast in last year’s season, only to suffer a left knee injury in his sixth game, while just starting to get his full wind back and minutes up.
With the Lakers not being a playoff-contending team last year, and with a serious need for quality draft picks, Kobe and team management decided to shut him down for the season instead of coming back and possibility making it worse in a meaninglessly season. So Bryant strengthened his mind and body for a second return this season, while excited about a new coach in former Lakers player and champion, Byron Scott, only for the Lakers to lose their #7 draft pick, Julius Randle, in the first game of the season, while Kobe comes up ailing once again before the All-Star break.
Some lucky #7 that turned out to be. And the waiting game for Kobe is on again. However, few of us see much of a need for him to come back to a brutal NBA Western Conference, where the Lakers are nowhere near making the playoffs.
Sorry, Lakers fans, but a miracle is not happening this season. It’s best to shut Bryant down again and hope for the best bouncing balls to draft some new recruits with cap space money to see if Kevin Love would like to come back home to California next season and leave Cleveland and LeBron. There is a chance of that happening.
In the meantime, I’m beginning to pull out all of my Kobe “Bean” Bryant memories. I remember watching the Philadelphian-born baller on the local high school sports shows, where a long-limbed and bald-headed Kobe outshined the inner-city competition, while playing for a suburban Pennsylvania school in Lower Merion. The swaggerlicious kid then prepared to jump the college ranks and go pro, while asking a very popular Brandy Norwood if she would like to attend his senior prom with him.
“What? This kid has that kind of confidence?” I remember asking. Drafted #13 overall by the original Charlotte Hornets in 1996, Kobe was traded to the one and only Los Angeles Lakers —when they were still the kings of the mountain — for veteran center Vlade Divac.
“Are you kidding me? This 18-year Philly kid goes to the Lakers now?” It sounded like something created in a Walt Disney movie room.
A new Afro-style Kobe then proceeded to take over a young, star-laden team that included the likes Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Robert Horry and Jerome Kersey, where the fearless rookie shot a famous air-ball in a 4-1 series loss to Utah Jazz in the playoffs.
Bryant would soon recover in the following years to become the Lakers most athletic player as he sparred for leadership rights with the bigger, badder and broader Shaq Attack. The dynamic, clashing duo went on to appear in four straight NBA Championship Finals, in which they won the first three.
Close to 39,000 points later, with five NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, four All-Star Game MVPs, 17 All-Star Game appearances, two NBA scoring titles, one Slam Dunk Contest title, and three Gold Medals in Olympic and World Championship competition, it may now be time for the “Black Mamba” to finally hang up his professional shoes and join the halls of legends as the Los Angeles Lakers all-time leading scorer and international icon.
Just don’t tell Kobe that. He still wants to keep playing.
Omar Tyree is a New York Times bestselling author, an NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Fiction, and a professional journalist, who has published 27 books, including co-authoring Mayor For Life; The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr. View more of his career and work @ www.OmarTyree.com