While the return of Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose has rightfully grabbed major attention this NBA preseason, the current rehabilitation of Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant from a torn Achilles tendon is the biggest injury-related story in basketball. Healthy or not, Bryant's Lakers aren't a championship contender. Yet, due to Kobe's long-term influence on the sport and widespread fame, every development in his path back to the court qualifies as newsworthy. Put simply, the man matters.
We don't yet know if Kobe will be ready for the Lakers' season opener against the cross-arena rival Los Angeles Clippers on October 29. However, he did give some sense of his progress during a media session on Wednesday. From Serena Winters for Lakers Nation:
Though Kobe wasn’t ready to give a yes/no answer, his conversation with the media this afternoon led to some telling hints about his progression. First, we learned that Kobe is running at 100 percent on the anti-gravity treadmill, which means that Kobe is able to run at his full body weight. Kobe said he’s most concerned about his physical shape, noting that muscle endurance, after being out for six months, takes time.
“The explosiveness. The muscle endurance, which takes a little time. And then, you know, I gotta get my fat [expletive] in shape too. Six months of eating whatever the hell I wanted to eat and not running and stuff has caught up to me a little bit so I gotta get in shape.”
Though it’s hard to believe Kobe didn’t keep a disciplined diet the past several months, he insisted donuts and sugar cookies were definitely on the menu. He’s been testing the flexibility and mobility of his Achilles, but still taking it one day at a time. He has attempted jumping, but clarified it was only “a little bit…nothing too explosive.”
The most telling moment of his progress came when Kobe was asked about how long it would take him to get in physical shape once he was give the “green light” to do so. After confidently saying that he’d need “three strong weeks of pushing,” Kobe revealed that he’s already been given the green light.
“I’ve got the green light right now to be able to do that – it’s just a matter of having that flexibility and the strength to be able to run at high speeds out there on the court or on the track.”
The money quote here, of course, is when Kobe refers to his fat posterior. We're used to seeing him in excellent shape, and the idea of watching even a moderately pudgy Kobe Bryant trudge up and down the court is a little goofy. Of course, it's likely that Kobe is just being self-deprecating, because he's committed to the point where he'd never allow himself to step on the court above his typical playing weight.
The substantive issue here is that Kobe appears less and less willing to guarantee a return for the season opener. In the aftermath of his injury, Bryant vowed to return at full strength and claimed to have "shattered" the usual recovery estimates. In recent weeks, though, he's been considerably more conservative, claiming that he's going to take things one day a time and only return when he's able. Wild optimism has given way to cautious hope.
It's a sane course of action, because rehab processes are always prone to unforeseen delays. Yet it also signals a potential shift in how we must process Kobe as an athlete. For years, we've become accustomed to viewing him as an extremely focused competitor who bends injury timelines and typical career paths to his will. Perhaps, at 35 years old, he's now subject to many of the same external factors as every other aging. He's still Kobe, but he could no longer be the exception to every rule.