When Los Angeles Lakers mega-star Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in the final week of the 2012-13 regular season, it introduced new doubts into the course of his career. Although Bryant has aged better than virtually any other 34-year-old perimeter scorer in history, this particular injury has proven very difficult to rehabilitate for older players. Kobe has set his likely return at six-to-nine months after surgery, but it wouldn't be shocking if he came back in compromised shape, simply because the challenge is so great.
At the same time, there's been a fair amount of optimism surrounding this situation due to Bryant's maniacal focus on seeking out whatever course necessary to keep himself in optimal playing shape. If anyone were to return from this injury without losing much, it would be him. Not surprisingly, less than four months after his surgery, he claims to have "shattered" the usual timeline for rehabilitating an Achilles tear. From Jonathan Hartzell for NBA.com:
However, recent reports suggest he may be ready to return for not just the start of the 2013-14 regular season, but as early as training camp. While on tour in China, he said the surgery performed was innovative and thus his recovery has been unique.
“The surgical procedure was different […] and because of that the recovery has been different,” Bryant said in the southern city of Shenzhen. “The normal timetable for recovery from an Achilles, we’ve shattered that. Three-and-a-half months I can already walk just fine, I’m lifting weights with the Achilles just fine and that’s different. So we don’t know what that timetable is going to be. It’s kind of new territory for us all.”’
Obviously, this could just be Bryant’s pride and Lakers’ public relations getting in the way of the actual facts. A return to the NBA after only five months of recovery from a devastating injury seems ridiculous for any player and especially ridiculous for Bryant, who is entering his 18th season in the NBA and turns 35 years old on August 23. And the thought becomes absurd when you factor in the additional offensive burden he will need to carry next season with Dwight Howard gone.
But this is still Kobe Bryant. A freak (according to Steve Nash) and one of the most intense competitors sports has ever seen. He returned exceptionally from a knee injury which he received an experimental procedure for in 2011. So while it may be absurd to expect Bryant back from his Achilles injury so soon, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Hartzell's last point is worth extra attention, because it brings up the possibility that Kobe has pursued new treatments to change his rehab process. While Kobe is a tireless worker, it's possible that the usual medicine can only do so much given the basic limits of the human body. If Kobe has relied upon different treatments, then those strictures may have changed.
On the other hand, it's still early enough in this process that we should not assume Kobe's timeline is set and/or not open to complications and delays. If the goal is to return by training camp, then he still has nearly two full months in which various things can go wrong. As with any rehab, the proper approach (for everyone, but especially those on the outside who don't know specifics) is to avoid believing that one good sign portends a smooth path towards full recovery.
But it's fine to exercise cautious optimism, and Bryant's confidence suggests that we can expect to see him as soon as he's cleared by doctors to play. Kobe has said he has three or four years left, but this injury proved that an aging player can have the path of his career changed in a brief moment. The man wants to get back on the court while his body still allows him, and that might mean pushing himself to a previously unseen degree.