Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 29, 2015

Kobe Bryant, On The Edge Of The Abyss

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the story would have headlined sports pages across the country. But this week the news that Kobe Bryant underwent season-ending surgery to repair his torn right rotator cuff wasn’t even the day’s top NBA news. Pride of place went instead to accounts of the Atlanta Hawks’ 17th straight win and the remarkable fact that in running their record to 38-8 the Hawks have covered the point spread in 33 of their 46 games, the highest percentage in more than a quarter century. Or perhaps, depending on one’s rooting interest, the big NBA story was the 8th consecutive victory by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Just when LeBron James and his new teammates made headlines for seeing their record dip below .500, they finally began to come together as a cohesive unit. Their most recent win featured 55 points by point guard Kyrie Irving, just one shy of the franchise record set by James during his first stint in Ohio.

Yet while it may have been below the fold, there was no escaping the news that Bryant, the league’s most highly paid player at $23.5 million this year, had quickly elected surgery after injuring his shoulder while dunking in a game against New Orleans last week. The first thought was that the meager attention paid to the story was just a matter of timing. After all, with the denouement of the NFL season only days away, Super Bowl coverage in all of its breadth from the serious to the farcical leaves precious little room for any other sports news.

Upon reflection though, it seemed more likely that for both writers covering the NBA and for basketball’s most loyal fans, the Bryant story received as much attention as it deserved. While he has those five championships in a purple and gold Lakers uniform and that fat contract that will pay him an additional $25 million next season, Bryant is 36 years old now. This is his third consecutive NBA campaign cut short by injury. In April 2013 he tore an Achilles tendon while playing Golden State. He missed the remainder of that season and the first 19 games the following autumn before finally returning to the Lakers lineup in December. Little more than a week later he fractured his left knee in a game against Memphis. While not officially shut down by the team until the following March, his season, if one can call it that, consisted of just 6 games.

This year Los Angeles coach Byron Scott used his aging star judiciously. Bryant sat out about one out of every four games and played under a strict minutes limitation when he has been in the lineup. But even that couldn’t prevent nagging soreness in his feet, knees and back, as the accumulated wear and tear of 19 NBA seasons took an inevitable toll. At 12-34 the Lakers are next to last in the Western Conference and better than just three other NBA teams. Given that reality and the shoulder injury to his shooting arm, the decision to proceed directly to the operating room seems obvious.

Bryant averaged 22.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists in the 35 games in which he played this season. The latter two numbers were actually slightly better than his career average for either statistic, but discounting the aborted 6-game 2013-14 season, the points average was his lowest since 1999-2000, his third year in the league and first as a starter. Bryant shot just 37.3% from the field, easily the worst scoring percentage of his career.

Kobe Bryant’s place in NBA history is secure. It’s locked in place not just by the five titles or the millions in salary and endorsements. There are the 17 All-Star elections, the most recent this season; proof that his enormous popularity among the game’s fans remains firmly in place. He’s the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer, and has also been named nine times to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team. He was the youngest player in league history to reach 30,000 points, and this season passed Michael Jordan to move into third place on the NBA career scoring list, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. The one thing that is certain is that as an NBA player Bryant has nothing left to prove.

That in turn makes one aspect of the story of the abrupt end to his season both predictable and worrisome. The projected recovery time from the surgery performed on Wednesday by doctors Neal ElAttrache and Steve Lombardo is nine months, meaning that if all goes well a 37-year old Bryant could return to the court about the time next season gets underway. What the Lakers made clear is that they fully expect their star to do just that. There is no surprise in that, for what great player would want to end their career so ingloriously? Bryant has been an NBA player for literally half of his life; it’s little wonder that he can scarcely imagine a life without the crowds chanting his name.

Yet the reality of Bryant’s last three seasons is impossible to ignore. Throughout his career he’s been a workhorse. Even as he has aged he averaged more than 38 minutes per game up until the past two years. In contrast 38-year old Tim Duncan has averaged almost 10 fewer minutes in recent years. But all those minutes add up, leading one pundit to describe Bryant as “36 going on 66 in NBA years.” Bryant’s repeated injuries in recent seasons have been one sign of the impact of his playing time; a certain and likely steep decline in his performance will almost inevitably follow. Kobe Bryant may have nothing left to prove as an NBA star; but in trying to prove that he alone among athletes can defeat time, he is likely instead to write a sad coda to a great career. Sportswriters and fans have seen that painful story too many times before. Perhaps that was the real reason most chose to look elsewhere this week.

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