Kobe Bryant stood in a corner of the locker room with tears in his eyes, lipstick on his cheek and a quotation at his back. It was from a Danish journalist named Jacob Riis, who died nearly 100 years ago, but found an unlikely fan in Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Mike Brown worked for Popovich, so when the Lakers hired him in 2011, he brought typed copies of the quotation to Los Angeles. One of them was placed in a brown frame with a purple mat and hung on the wall next to Bryant's locker.
Brown was fired five games into this season, but amid all the upheaval, nobody thought to take down the quote, which is why Bryant found himself perched in front of it Friday night at the most excruciating moment of his career.
In Los Angeles, Bryant is the rock. His index finger swells to the size of a Twinkie? He learns to shoot with his middle one. His knee barks after three operations? He flies to a doctor in Germany. His ankle is sprained for the hundredth time? He stays up all night to treat it. When the next game rolls around, he plays again, and he scores 30 again. He never breaks, so it becomes easy to mistake him for an inanimate object, and pretend he's indestructible. Pretend he's not human.
Between the regular season and the playoffs, Bryant has logged 54,031 minutes in 17 NBA seasons, nearly 6,000 more than Michael Jordan. Over the past two weeks, desperate to avoid the ignominy of missing the playoffs, he didn't play fewer than 40 minutes in a game and he played more than 47 in four of them. The Lakers' roster, flawed as it may be, was paid for by Dr. Jerry Buss so Bryant might be able to squeeze out one final championship. For more than five months, he gallantly hauled that weight on his slender shoulders, and he barely buckled.
The theater was riveting -- in 48 minutes at Portland on Wednesday, Bryant scored 47 points with eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks, three steals and a win -- but also disturbing. It was like Adrian Peterson rushing 38 times or Justin Verlander throwing 120 pitches, and then doing it again, on short rest. Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni will say he couldn't have dragged Bryant off the court with a trailer winch, and he's probably correct, but D'Antoni is trying to keep a job with a seven-man rotation. He wasn't going to put up much of a fight.
On Friday night, in the 54,031st minute, the rock broke. Bryant drove left late in the fourth quarter against Warriors rookie Harrison Barnes. As usual, he'd played every minute, and as usual, he'd gone over 30 points. He had also hyperextended his knee earlier, but he stayed in, because he shakes off hyperextensions like they're splinters. When he finally fell to the floor, drawing a foul on Barnes, a second haze settled over Los Angeles. "I was just hoping it wasn't what I knew it was," Bryant said. Appropriately, he stayed on the court and sank two free throws, before limping to the locker room.
Bryant said he tore the Achilles tendon in his left leg, and this time, there is no German doctor, no 24-hour treatment, no miracle cure. As hard as it may be to believe, Kobe Bryant is out, and he's going to be out a long time.
The 2012-13 Lakers were never meant to be. They fielded four future Hall of Famers and all suffered at least one major injury. Dwight Howard was limited by a back operation and tore his labrum; Pau Gasol tore his fascia and sustained a concussion; Steve Nash broke his leg and suffered a variety of other lower-body blows. Amid it all, Buss died, and Bryant pledged to make the playoffs in his honor. So he logged the heavy minutes, and now that the Lakers are on the verge, he can't be more than an extra assistant coach.
"Sad and pissed," he said. "It's just s---."
The Lakers beat the Warriors on Friday and remain one game ahead of the Jazz for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. But it's hard to get worked up about that race anymore, considering they may not have Bryant back for an entire year. His contract expires after next season and he's mentioned the possibility of retiring then. One might assume those odds will increase, given that Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley both saw their careers end because of torn Achilles, but it's actually the opposite.
"I was really tired, tired in the locker room, upset and dejected and thinking about this mountain to overcome," Bryant said. "This is a long process, and I wasn't sure I could do it. But then the kids walk in and I'm like, 'I've got to set an example. Daddy's going to be fine. I'm going to do it.'... Players at this stage of their career pop an Achilles and pundits say they won't come back the same. I can hear it already and it's pissing me off right now thinking about it. It's fuel."
However long he's gone, he will leave a chasm in the sports landscape, and not just because he approaches every game like he's trying to make varsity. He spoke publicly less than an hour after the injury, still in uniform, leaning on crutches. Players in similar situations are whisked away and don't utter a word for weeks. Bryant refuses to hide. Every sentence becomes a sound bite, every opinion a topic of debate. It's hard to imagine what everyone will talk about for a year.
The Lakers are now Howard's team, assuming he re-signs in the summer, and he will get all the touches he craves. Meanwhile, Bryant said he would undergo an MRI to confirm the injury, followed by surgery, followed by recovery. No one will be more dedicated to rehab. He will fix his Achilles the same way he tore it, by hammering away, until the rock is whole again.