With 3 minutes 8 seconds left in the Lakers’ game against the Golden State Warriors, Kobe Bryant pushed off on his left foot, felt a pop and crumpled to the court. The referee called a foul. Bryant stood, shot two free throws and limped off the court.
It was April 12, 2013, and Bryant feared that his storied career was at an end.
“My heart sank, because I could see by the manner of his walk that he had ruptured his Achilles, because I had ruptured my Achilles the year before,” Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong said in an interview Sunday, just hours after Bryant, his daughter Gianna, 13, and seven others died in a fiery helicopter crash. “So I went to the locker room. He was distraught.”
His wife “Vanessa was in tears,” Soon-Shiong continued. “And I said, ‘Kobe, I’m, at this moment in time, either a Lakers owner or a doctor. You choose.’ He said, ‘Patrick, you’re my doctor.’ ... And I said, ‘Then my recommendation is that you should have surgery the next day.’ ”
Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times and is a part owner of the Lakers, was also Bryant’s friend, mentor and basketball “assistant” when the two played hoops at Soon-Shiong’s home court during Bryant’s recovery. He choked up as he spoke about the loss of a legend, about how he will miss the long conversations the two shared about all aspects of life and about Bryant’s aspirations as he underwent recovery.
“ ‘I’ll take care of it,’ ” Soon-Shiong told the Lakers star, “ ‘and I’ll manage you the way I managed myself when I ruptured my Achilles.’ Because my goal for him was, he had to come back. And if the treatment was correct, he had to dunk again.”
Soon-Shiong’s guidance was “unconventional.” Generally, he said, when someone tears an Achilles tendon, surgeons will put a cast on the injured leg, wait two to three weeks, and then do what is called tendon transfer surgery.
But “I believe very much that there’s a window in which your inflammatory and stem cells grow and regenerate your Achilles,” he said. It worked for him, and he said he was comfortable when Bryant took his advice. Still, “to me it was a very difficult decision.”
“I was in [the operating room] while Dr. [Neal] ElAttrache was doing the surgery, and I was his quasi assistant,” Soon-Shiong recounted. “I wanted to ensure that some of the processes — without going into the details — would maximize the ability of the stem cells.”
Months of physical therapy followed. During that time, Bryant would go to Soon-Shiong’s Brentwood home and they would play on the indoor court.
“And he recovered,” Soon-Shiong said. “My greatest joy was when he did his first dunk in the game and I leapt out of my chair [courtside] and said, ‘Yes! He’s back!’ ”
Soon-Shiong has memories and memorabilia from their times together — including a painting of Bryant dunking the ball against the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, as well as Bryant’s size-14 Nikes, which he left behind in Soon-Shiong’s locker room the last time the two men played.
But the item that means the most to him is the Sports Illustrated special issue, published when Bryant retired. Soon-Shiong had it framed. At the top of the frame is the cover, with Bryant in Lakers purple and gold. Below it, the magazine is opened to show a photo of Bryant dunking the ball against an opponent on the right and a signed page on the left.
The inscription is simple and heartfelt: “To Pat, Thank you for saving my career! Kobe 24.”
As a friend, Soon-Shiong said, Bryant was intense and curious, fun and funny, and “burning, burning for excellence, burning to strive to be the best in anything.” Bryant was a family man and a pianist, an animator, an inspiration and a global citizen.
Soon-Shiong became a minority owner of the Lakers in 2010. He had always been “a rabid fan” of the team, the sport of basketball and No. 24. It didn’t take long for them to settle into a pregame ritual, one that required Soon-Shiong to attend every home game — or send wife Michelle in his place.
It started when Bryant came up to him courtside and gave him a hug.
“And then, he said, ‘You know, you’re going to have to do this every game,’” Soon-Shiong recounted.
Soon-Shiong visited with Bryant in the locker room before games, allowing him to see how the shooting guard transformed between the locker room and the court. His body, his face, his posture would all change “and he’d get locked in.”
The last time the two friends met, the doctor and the basketball star, was when the Lakers hosted the Dallas Mavericks at the end of December. Gianna, who was known as Gigi, was with her dad that day, and he looked, Soon-Shiong said, “at such peace. I’ve known him for such a long time, there was always this burning in him.”
They made plans to have dinner together, the Soon-Shiongs and the Bryant family.
“Sadly, that dinner with Kobe will not come to pass,” Soon-Shiong said. “Today the country mourns, the world mourns. I can only share our prayers and our thoughts with Vanessa and the children on this very painful day.”