Earlier in the offseason, we fretted over the prospect of Kobe Bryant returning too soon and shouldering too heavy a burden as he recovered from his Achilles tear from last April. Bryant is no stranger to playing through significant pain, few NBA players in history have gutted through more, but a tear like this (especially at an age like Bryant’s) is a significant departure from the broken fingers and fluid-filled knees that Kobe has had to deal with in seasons past.
Second to Kobe, only one man knows Bryant’s body better. Lakers trainer Gary Vitti has been a Kobe confidante since his rookie season in 1996-97, and despite some misgivings over Bryant’s social media-related offseason choices, Vitti says Bryant is taking an exacting, intelligent approach to what will be a career-altering rehabilitation.
Not only that, Vitti goes into detail over the last play of Bryant's 2012-13 season. One that saw Bryant and Vitti enter into what the trainer calls a "gentleman's agreement" to let the Kobester shoot two free throws immediately after tearing his Achilles in a game against the Golden State Warriors. From Mark Medina’s Inside the Lakers blog:
Vitti granted Bryant’s wish, however, to shoot his two free throws. In what he called a “gentleman’s agreement,” Vitti then alerted the officials and Golden State’s coaching staff the Lakers would then foul immediately so Bryant could leave the game.
All went according to script. Bryant swished both free throws on essentially one foot, walked off the court on his own and then added an extra layer to his many list of amazing plays.
“I think it’s his gutsiest moment,” said Vitti.
Considering that Bryant is the type of player who worked through playoff games after having his knee drained, and considering that he’s played with a broken finger, two set shot free throws ranking as Vitti’s choice for “gutsiest moment” is saying something. Then again, that’s coming from a trainer with the understanding of just how painful an Achilles tear can be.
A tear that left some worried that Bryant would attempt to return too quickly, taking on too much responsibility for a Lakers team that may not even make the playoffs. According to Vitti, Bryant is taking a sensible route:
“Don’t rush it,” Vitti advised.
He estimated Bryant remains a “few weeks away” before advancing to full-weight bearing running and then basketball-related activities. Vitti also said “there’s no projected date” on whether Bryant will play in the Lakers’ season opener Oct. 29 against the Clippers or in any of the team’s eight exhibition games through Oct. 25.
“I thought he was going to be worse with pushing, pushing, pushing,” Vitti said of Bryant. “But he’s been very, very smart about the entire process.”
Now, Vitti is a co-worker and Lakers employee, but also a friend. So he could be planting a brave face in the press. That said, the longtime Lakers trainer has never been afraid to speak candidly and openly to reporters on the record, pulling no punches along the way. Personally, if Gary Vitti says Kobe Bryant is going “smart,” then I’ll believe Kobe Bryant is going smart. Very, very smart, even. About the entire process.
That’s not to say Vitti is entirely enthused about Bryant’s offseason dalliances, such as that 40-foot high dive he posted on Vine in August. Gary was not a fan. From the Daily News:
“I wasn’t real happy with it,” Vitti said. “I initially thought it was like when he jumped over the car.”
“He didn’t think that was funny,” Vitti said of Bryant. “At least he was smart enough to plant his toes.”
The Lakers enter 2013-14 as an old, banged-up team. Nobody knows how Steve Nash will respond in a season that will see him turn 40 partway through, Bryant’s injury could put the kibosh on a huge chunk of Kobe’s game, Pau Gasol is coming off a miserable season that saw him deal with all manner of heel and knee injuries, and new addition Chris Kaman is no stranger to the training table, missing a total of 108 games out of 476 available contests over the last five seasons.
It’ll be heaps better than 2012-13, Vitti surmises, when just about every member of the Laker rotation dealt with significant physical setbacks on their way to a disappointing first round sweep in the playoffs. Vitti admits that there were some days where he “was afraid to go to work,” fearing that yet another calamity (from Bryant’s rupture, to Nash’s “freak” leg fracture, to Dwight Howard’s surgically repaired back and torn labrum, to Steve Blake’s infamous encounter with a parking lot spike) would beset the team.
Even though Vitti told Medina that 2012-13 was “the toughest year for me,” that doesn’t mean 2012-13 wasn’t without its highlights. Even if they came just after a lowlight.
In a blog post aside, Vitti revelation of the "gentleman's agreement" is telling moment not only in the annals of Kobe’s gutty career, but also in the very public reflection of Bryant and Vitti’s working relationship. Vitti knows what sort of pain Kobe Bryant could play through, and yet still thought this gutsy moment trumped all his other gutsy moments.
That goes a long way toward reminding us what Kobe Bryant is up against. Thankfully, according to his working partner, he’s taking it slow and smart.