Halfway across the country, Tim Grover witnessed Kobe Bryant's body rebelling on him Friday night. From the knee to the ankle, the longtime trainer for Bryant watched his client crumple to the court only to watch him rise again and again, only to defy the years and months and minutes chasing Bryant to the brink.
Now, Bryant had made a hard cut to push past Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors and suddenly he collapsed to the floor, reaching back to clutch his heel.
"I told myself, 'If he goes out of the game right here, it's the Achilles,' " Grover said by phone late Friday. "But whatever it was, I knew he was going to shoot the free throws first."
Bryant left for the locker room and the diagnosis turned out to be downright devastating: a torn Achilles tendon, the season gone and a career in peril.
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Halfway across the country in Chicago, the man responsible for spending thousands of hours with Bryant and steeling Bryant's body for so long against the threat of catastrophic injury, sat in the somber silence of his living room.
"I thought about all the work, all that he puts into this," Grover said. "I thought about what it means to him."
Seventeen years in the NBA for Bryant, and the title of Grover's magnificent new book "Relentless" speaks to the excesses that inspired Bryant to keep coming and coming in this career, this season, this playoff push.
For the past two games, Bryant had refused to sit a minute. Across the season, he had averaged 38 minutes a game. In a back-to-back victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, Bryant had 47 points in 48 minutes. He had pushed too hard, gone too far and, finally, his body relented on Friday night.
Bryant needed someone to save him from himself, and Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni didn't have the strength to do it.
Bryant mocked the suggestion this could've been his final game in the NBA, that his career could've come crashing down on Friday night. Before Bryant ripped that Lakers uniform off his back at Staples Center, he was talking comeback, talking about studying those who had returned fastest from Achilles injuries, and doing it even faster. The Lakers wouldn't even rule out his return for the start of next season, saying he will need six to nine months to recover after having surgery.
With the way Grover works with Bryant, with the way they honed every muscle in the body, this star had forever sidestepped these monumental mishaps. Bryant's will is peerless, but a part of everyone had to understand that returning in six months, nine months or a year from this injury doesn't mean returning to his old self again. It doesn't mean that Bryant won't be diminished. Bryant had been brilliant this season, and there's no assurance that'll ever be true again.
No, Bryant is too stubborn to go out that way – too immensely proud – but most fascinating will be how he returns to basketball, how dominant he'll still be. That will drive him now, that will be the inspiration he'll carry with him every day. Bryant had wondered whether he had the capacity to keep working so hard, to keep sacrificing so much in preparation for the seasons. For Bryant, the return from this torn Achilles will be one more thing that Michael Jordan never had to do, one more way to separate himself in history.
Over a year ago, Bryant had a terrible shooting night in Miami and refused to leave American Airlines Arena. He showered, tossed on his practice clothes and returned to the arena floor for a long, hard workout. It was a strange, surreal scene. Mostly, it was Bryant.
After he had left the building, I sent him an email: What was that about?
He responded in the words of, yes, Achilles: "I want what all men want. I just want it more."
All these years and months and minutes, and Kobe Bryant could defy them no more. The greatest player of a generation heard the pop, clutched his heel and knew he had torn his tendon. It was over, Bryant understood. Two free throws and goodbye. Two swishes on one leg.
Halfway across the country, Tim Grover understood, too. Inside his living room, he wiped away the tears and felt that sinking, funereal feeling wash over him. For Kobe Bryant and him, this was the end of something, and maybe the beginning of something else, something more.
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