Sorry for yet more Kobe coverage on an otherwise pleasant Saturday, but as we could’ve witnessed the last of the man for the next, oh, ever, it’s worth trying to figure out whether and how he could come back from the most appropriately named injury in sports. During the press scrum after his apparent torn Achilles, Kobe Bryant worked his way up from mewling self-pity to defiant good humor to maybe the most Kobeian line ever, and a glimpse into the collective experience of the ever-maligned modern professional zillionaire athlete.
Here’s Kobe evaluating the possibility of coming back, at age 34, from an injury that ended the careers of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and other mortal humans. Starting from 6:24 of the video:
It's fueling me, it's fueling me. I can feel it already. It's just players at this stage of their career, they pop Achilles and the pundits say they never come back the same. So I can hear it already and it's pissing me off right now thinking about it.
Let's give Kobe at least a partial pass on account of his very bad day. When asked “what emotions were going through [his] head” as he walked off the court, he replied, “pissed and sad,” which aside from confusing adjectives with nouns, goes to the fact that fella just got crippled.
But let’s follow his reasoning. “It’s fueling me.” The “it” refers, I believe, to the injury itself, and to the challenge it presents. That perceived challenge informs his hypothetical pundits, who in Kobe’s mind say that players in his position “never come back the same.” He may be confusing pundits with medical personnel in this case, but all the same, he expects people to doubt that a 34-year-old player with a 40-year-old’s court mileage can return to full All-Universe capability. Maybe someone will say this. Maybe they won’t. In Kobe’s mind that’s a fait accompli, and he “can hear it already and it’s pissing me off right now thinking about it.”
That is, Kobe is already pissed off about people he just made up who are describing a natural progression of injury and decline. The fact that Kobe will be 35 next year already boded poorly for him being “back the same,” because getting old is a bitch that way. Add a major injury that will require months of rehab, and shit, Kobe, what do you expect here, dude? The fact is you probably won’t be back the same. Put this paragraph next to the entrance of your home gym to keep fueling you, if that helps you do another thousand toe-lifts after surgery. The road back is going to be nine shades of holy hell. Can’t wait to see you drop 55 in the Garden in the fall of 2014.
In a reasonable assessment, there's a difference between logical doubts and baseless shit-talk. Kobe seems to be imagining the former and already deciding to construe it as the latter. That's a case of serious swinging stones, coming from one of the most celebrated athletes ever. Being doubted, in Kobe’s mind, must include any voiced opinion that he was not in fact destined to become the greatest player in the history of the NBA. Or perhaps the heretical common opinion of a decade ago that defied him to win a title without Shaq.
Mostly, though, Kobe is manufacturing a persecution complex even as the Doubting Thomases around his locker are asking such questions as
“You’ve had a pretty unbelievable career. Is this the biggest disappointment of it, considering everything that was involved?”
“When you look at the challenge in front of [the rest of the Lakers] now, and I know it’s a little early to be asking you this, but how do they move forward without you?”
“This is a ridiculous question, I know, but we’ve seen you play through everything. I’m assuming this is something that not even you would attempt to play through, right?”
“How confident are you that they can win these last two and get to the playoffs without you?”
“If anyone’s going to get through this, it’s probably you, right?”
Kobe’s motivational strategy permeates sports. Every team that wins a title revels in having defied the supposed legions of supposed critics who said it couldn't be done. Ripping doubters is a stock phrase, plucked from the same musty shelf as thanking Mom and mylordandsaviorJesusChrist. But for Kobe to invoke strawman naysayers already is rich. When, exactly, did this man not get his due? There aren’t a dozen 34-year-olds in America who have had their asses kissed more thoroughly, by more people, over more years, by more media, across more of the world, than Kobe Bean Bryant of Los Angeles, California. By pretending otherwise, he truly is defying the nattering pundits who, let the record show, already were suggesting to him that if anyone’s going to get through this, it’s probably Kobe.