Lakers would prefer Bryant have surgery now

NEW ORLEANS – Kobe Bryant held the NBA’s most famous pinkie aloft for a moment Friday afternoon then suggested that if league officials needed a doctor’s note for him to skip the All-Star game they might as well just remove the splint from his ailing digit.

“All you have to do is take this off,” Bryant said with a slight wag of his finger, “to see how swollen it is.”

Bryant smiled. He knows, for now at least, he doesn’t have much choice whether to put on his All-Star uniform Sunday. If the league thinks he’ll be healthy enough to play for his Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday against Atlanta, then it also considers him capable of waving to the crowd during introductions and running up and down the court a couple of times.

“I’m not complaining about it,” Bryant said. “If I need to play, I’ll play.”

That’s also all anyone needs to know about Bryant’s decision to go against the Lakers’ wishes and put off surgery on his pinkie until the offseason. To Bryant there really was no choice. He needs to play.

The NBA’s most ruthless competitor smells blood in the water. The Western Conference is as wide open as it’s been in recent years and Bryant has his best supporting cast since Shaquille O’Neal was shipped out to Miami. Bryant had already picked up a little pep in his step after watching center Andrew Bynum develop into a dependable partner and he’s become further encouraged about the Lakers’ prospects after they heisted Pau Gasol from Memphis two weeks ago.

That’s why when Lakers owner Jerry Buss sent word to Bryant through GM Mitch Kupchak that the franchise’s preference was for him to have the procedure immediately, Bryant politely declined. The Lakers hope to get back Bynum from his knee injury in the next three or four weeks. If Bryant is out when he returns, it will take the team that much longer to regain its traction. Bryant also is aware how difficult it would be for the Lakers to stay afloat in the stacked West without him in the lineup for six weeks.

“Just the timing and the rhythm that we have and the opportunity that we have, it’s just a smarter decision to continue to play,” Bryant said. “I know Dr. Buss would prefer me to have the surgery … but we want to get things done now.”

The Lakers are worried enough about Bryant’s finger to risk dropping a few seeds or even out of the playoffs altogether. Regardless of how they finish this season the Lakers’ long-term future is bright: Bynum is 20, Gasol 27. Bryant has a lot of mileage on him, but his skills aren’t going to diminish that much from this season to next, provided he stays healthy.

Bryant doesn’t share that patience. He’s desperate to win now. He doesn’t want to end his career with three championships or even four. Michael Jordan’s six titles is the only standard by which Bryant measures himself. It’s that same desperation, that same overwhelming pressure he places on himself, that fueled his maddening trade me-don’t trade me-trade me summer.

This is the same guy who jetted in from his rape trial and hung 42 points on the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs. You think he doesn’t believe he can tape up his finger and keep playing?

He’s even still planning on suiting up for the Olympics in August. “I’m not missing this summer,” he said. “Unless something drastic happens, God forbid. I’ve been waiting to play on this team for too long.”

In truth, Bryant knows he’ll be at risk. The Lakers think the brace will protect his pinkie to a degree, but they also thought it would protect it before he aggravated the injury during Wednesday’s victory in Minnesota. The damaged pinkie is on Bryant’s (right) shooting hand. How many times does he get hacked there in a single game? A dozen?

The Lakers wanted him to have the break’s full five days to rest his hand. Not just two or three. Bryant also wants to sit out Sunday’s All-Star game, but league officials, for now, seem intent on having him make an obligatory appearance. They don’t want to set the precedent of allowing a player to skip the event if he’s still able to play for his team.

That said, the NBA also is aware of how valuable Bryant is to its bottom line. Putting the game’s biggest star at risk in a meaningless game isn’t good business, even if that risk is slight. “We obviously don’t want to jeopardize his long-term health,” one official said. “If (the injury) flares up Saturday or Sunday, we’ll address the situation then.”

West coach Byron Scott, a friend and former teammate, already has pledged to adhere to Bryant’s wishes, saying he’ll sub Bryant out after “one minute” if that’s what he wishes.

So Bryant will do his duty if asked Sunday. He’ll wave to the crowd, maybe even take a couple of shots. Then he’ll take his seat on the bench and save his fight. The Hawks come calling Tuesday, Shaq and the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.

If the injury worsens? Bryant knows he’ll need surgery. He won’t have a choice.

But in his mind he already doesn’t have one.

He has to play.

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Johnny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Feb 16, 2008