Of course Kobe Bryant will come back next season. This bad outcome may even convince him, basketball's most focused star, to play beyond the expiration of his contract in 2014.
In this NBA season of injuries, the worst of them all happened in the 45th minute of the 80th Lakers game of Bryant's 17th season. He had already scored his typical 34 points Friday to push the Lakers toward their eventual 118-116 win over the Warriors in his drive to reach the playoffs.
This final push to the postseason has been the equivalent of Bryant's run to the championship. He has been playing for a team with too many issues to ever dream of upsetting all of the younger and more coherent contenders in its way. The best Bryant could do was to carry this team out of the lottery and into the postseason. He had been doing his best when, on the simplest move, he felt his Achilles pop as if he had been kicked.
It was called a ruptured left Achilles -- his push-off leg. The Lakers and Bryant himself expect the diagnosis to be confirmed by an MRI.
Here was Bryant on Facebook, early Saturday after he had returned home, typos and all:
This was Bryant laying out the prologue of his next chapter. Of course it isn't going to end this way. Chauncey Billups didn't retire after his Achilles was ruptured at age 35 last year. Billups has been dealing with various injuries since his recovery, but he remains stubborn about returning for more basketball next season, to make this bad thing right.
Bryant will be back, too. Someday, after he has returned, he'll talk about his comeback with pride. It will sound as if he enjoyed the pain and the doubts. Can't we all hear and see it in our imaginations already?
Consider, for a moment, how this apparently devastating injury affects the future of the Lakers, who will be seeking to re-sign Dwight Howard as a free agent and also deal with the future of Pau Gasol -- who had a triple-double to help finish off the Warriors in Bryant's absence.
Bryant's injury should have no effect.
Whether Howard re-signs with the Lakers or decides instead to sign for less money with the Mavericks or Rockets, he can count on seeing Bryant sometime next season. If Howard returns to the Lakers, he needs to understand that it won't be his franchise. Not yet. He is going to see Bryant again, and the only question is whether or not they'll be wearing the same uniform.
Will Bryant's eventual recovery inspire him to extend his career beyond 2014? It is necessary to think in these terms because with Bryant a law of opposites prevails. People say he's old, so he does everything he can do to play young. The Lakers look like they're dead, so he keeps them alive. He looks like he may be finished, and so we have to assume he'll come back strong.
What is most striking is that so many teammates and rivals appeared to react emotionally, with regret, to the news of Bryant's injury. They should all have reason to despise him. Because he is relentlessly demanding of teammates and, by code, ruthless among his opponents. And yet there are strong feelings for the NBA's most accomplished active star this weekend, based on the respect he has earned and the high standards he has fulfilled. Kobe Bryant is going to be missed.
But not for long.