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Before the natural anguish of learning that his left knee had suffered a fracture, a most improbable sense washed over Kobe Bryant: relief.
"Lucky it wasn't a meniscus," Bryant told Yahoo Sports on Thursday afternoon.
After six games this season, here's the solace today: Six weeks beats six months. Six weeks beats surgery, beats losing the rest of a season, beats losing the time left on a clock ticking closer and closer to the end of a prodigious basketball life.
Once again, Bryant is back to that excruciating place he had never dealt with in his career, the rest, recovery and rehabilitation as the Los Angeles Lakers and the rest of the NBA goes on without him.
Everything is conspiring against Bryant now, and the declarations of his demise promise to grow louder and louder. He is 35 years old, fighting back from an Achilles tear, a fractured kneecap and awaiting the start of a $48.5 million extension over the next two years. The walls are closing, his path to restoration never so perilous, and yet here was Kobe Bryant on Thursday afternoon making clear his belief on those who'd dare doubt his resolve again.
"Only an idiot would," Bryant told Yahoo Sports.
The defiance promises to buoy Bryant one more time, the belief he had started to find his way back from the Achilles as a player again. The explosion wasn't back – and maybe never will be – but his ability to operate with and without the ball, his ability to make shots, big shots, too, had slowly, surely started to return. As one NBA coach who has scouted Bryant heavily in his comeback said, "He still had a long ways to go."
Bryant knows that, too, and yet maybe there's a way that returning to rest and rehab can be a benefit for the last leg of his career. For those who believed Bryant had come back too soon from the Achilles tear, these several weeks promise to give the tendon more time to recuperate, more time to strengthen again.
"This could be his best chance to come back stronger," his longtime trainer Tim Grover said on Thursday.
Bryant's will is forever unshaken, but mind over body can't carry a man forever. There's been a toll on Kobe Bryant – these long 18 seasons, the long summers of work, the playoffs and Olympics – and there's no undoing the damage thrust onto the body. Now, it's a fractured bone in his kneecap and the longer-term issues that can linger.
Three weeks ago, Bryant stood in a corridor of the Verizon Center in Washington and believed so strongly that there had been a blessing in that long, exhausting process to come back from that torn tendon. "The Achilles, the rehab, it re-lit a fire in me, that's for sure," Bryant told Yahoo Sports. "I had been going so long, so long, putting in work – 17 years – and never taking a break, never taking time off. That's a long time to push your body, especially the way I pushed mine.
"Every time I had to find that drive, I would eventually find it … somewhere. But it took a toll. Every summer, I'd finally find that push that would get me there. But it was getting harder to do."
Once more, it promises to get harder and harder for Kobe Bryant. For whatever rest his Achilles gets now, the knee faces the longer ramifications of this trauma to the bone. After his MRI on Thursday, after the news of the fracture, a modicum of relief still washed over Bryant: no meniscus tear, no lost season. Six weeks beats six months, yes, but Bryant is 35 years old, and time is running shorter and shorter. Yes, it could've been worse on Thursday, but it's still so discouraging, so deflating.
Kobe Bryant isn't simply trying to play basketball again. He's trying to be great again, trying to chase his own standards, his own ghosts, and the climb back gets only steeper now.