He carried the Lakers for as long as his weary body could carry them, a relentless giant among underachieving mortals.
But, finally, in the last lap of his most difficult season, bearing the burden of a franchise in chaos, Kobe Bryant has finally crumbled.
In the final minutes of the Lakers 118-116 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday, after earlier falling to the floor twice with apparent knee injuries, Bryant suffered a probable torn left Achilles’ tendon that should end his season and perhaps his Lakers career.
Two games from the end of this awful 2012-13 regular season, the Lakers’ season is essentially done. Even if they win those two games to clinch the eighth and final Western Conference seeding in the playoffs, without Bryant the Lakers have little chance to advance past Oklahoma City or San Antonio.
More important for the franchise, Bryant’s Lakers career may never be the same. He has one year left on his contract, but much of next season will probably be spent rehabilitating a most devastating of injuries.
“You work so hard it’s just [bleep],” said a somber Bryant afterward, his eyes reddening. “I can’t walk. I tried to put pressure on my heel. There’s just nothing there.”
The injury occurred when he was fouled while making a move past Harrison Barnes with 3:08 remaining in the game. He had just hit consecutive three-point shots to pull the trailing Lakers back into the game. He had played every minute of this game despite two earlier injuries.
He made the move, dropped to the ground, shuffled to the foul line to sink two one-legged free throws to give him 34 points, then slowly shuffled off the Staples Center court and into the locker room as a once-rowdy crowd was stunned into a somber silence.
“I made a move that I made 100 times and it just popped,” said Bryant.
It probably wasn’t the move that did it. It was probably the million moves he has made before it during 17 years of constant stress and a season of constant use.
Too many minutes. Too many seasons. Too much of this season.
“It’s a tough hit, it’s a tough blow for everyone,” said Pau Gasol. “It’s difficult to digest what happened.”
One has to wonder, was there ever a point when Coach Mike D’Antoni considered giving Bryant a rest? Especially in this game, when earlier he dropped twice to the floor?
Bryant’s pain began early in the third quarter, when he seemingly bruised his left knee when sandwiched between Barnes and Festus Ezeli on a layup attempt. He lay on the ground several long minutes. When he finally arose, a relieved crowd chanted, “MVP,” and, yes, he is the MVP this season simply for being able to stand tall amid this mess.
Then, midway through the third quarter, Bryant banged his other knee, limping alone down the court in obvious pain, and everyone chanting “MVP” again. It’s as if, at some point, the fans weren’t just adoring him, but feeling sorry for him.
Yet not once did Bryant come out of the game, just as he has rarely rested in recent games as the Lakers have battled the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot.
“It was all necessary,” said Bryant of his playing time. “It was just a freak situation.”
Was it necessary? Would Phil Jackson have deemed it necessary? Did the combination of an uncertain D’Antoni and a stubborn Bryant just blow up all over the Lakers’ future?
“I was peeved and sad, I worked really hard to get to this point,” Bryant said. “Just peeved.”
If you’re now secretly hoping the Lakers don’t make the playoffs because that would increase the chances that management would replace D’Antoni, forget it. Because of D’Antoni’s high salary, the Lakers will probably want to see if he can coach this team in good health and with a full training camp.
Another person who won’t be leaving now is Dwight Howard, as the Lakers must do everything to re-sign him, and probably will. There is no way Howard leaves town and nearly $30 million on the table, especially since he will now be the team leader.
“This will take a while to digest,” said Steve Blake, although this punch to the Lakers’ gut already feels real and permanent.
In the end, even the great Kobe Bryant couldn’t carry an entire team for an entire season.
He has crumbled, and, for now, basketball’s greatest franchise will crumble with him.