ATLANTA – The vastness of the vitriol Kobe Bryant unleashed onto the Atlanta Hawks' Dahntay Jones suggested something about the severity of the Los Angeles Lakers' star's ankle sprain. Blood in Bryant's eyes, vengeance in his heart and, maybe most of all, a fear that a most fragile season has been imperiled.
For all Bryant's rage and belief that Jones had slid his foot beneath his own on a fadeaway to leave him no landing spot , a play he told Yahoo! Sports that was "dirty and dangerous," this, too, is a rage over lost opportunity and lost time.
However long Bryant sits out with this severe ankle sprain, however soon he returns and plays with the pain, he understands his body and understood this wouldn't be something he'd simply grit his teeth, pop some Advil and resume elite basketball consequence-free.
When the Lakers ruled out Bryant indefinitely with a "severe" sprain, he still refused to rule himself out of Friday's game against the Indiana Pacers. As Bryant underwent treatment on the swollen ankle on Thursday, the prospects of a return to the floor within 24 hours is bleak.
Back on Monday night, Bryant stood outside his locker and spoke softly of time running out, of urgency, and how his teammate, Dwight Howard, had truly come to understand this most important reality for the Lakers.
"We don't have time," Bryant told me. "We have now."
And suddenly, it felt like everything had started to come together. Howard was growing with strength and spryness from back surgery, Pau Gasol had resumed workouts and inched closer to a return, and Bryant had been playing brilliant basketball. The Lakers had stopped thinking about making the playoffs, and believed they could charge for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
In his 17th season, Bryant thinks of his basketball mortality every day. He thinks of his knees and how he feared that they were shot two years ago, the reasons he'd have to retire far too soon. He thinks of a landscape of younger stars and dynamic teams, and how slight the margin for error lies with these Lakers.
Bryant thinks of his generation of stars in the sport – how they've mostly come and gone – and yet somehow his own willingness to remain on a relentless path allows for him to still tower in the sport. Kobe Bryant isn't supposed to still be Kobe Bryant.
With headphones fastened over his head, music filling his ears in a chilly, empty corridor of Philips Arena past 11 p.m. Wednesday night, Bryant limped to the loading dock and bus. He had gone on a spectacular scoring spree in the third quarter, brought the Lakers back and had most of the arena standing and screaming and now it was all gone again.
Out of nowhere in the hallway, a 20-something fan in a Lakers No. 24 jersey came running toward him, a remnant of a surreal night that had transformed from bright to dark as rapidly as this Lakers season had from bleak to promising. Security stopped the fan and Bryant kept limping into the night, into the uncertainty that comes now.
Here it was, the Hawks' building, and Howard's hometown and Bryant had made it his own at 34 years old. Here it was, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on a run, and yet in a season of stops and starts, the fragility of this franchise's pursuit had come crashing down on them.
For everyone else still talking of rising in the Western Conference, pushing past San Antonio and Oklahoma City and everyone else, Bryant still thinks about the perfectly healthy, perfectly primed LeBron James and the Miami Heat, a runaway championship train. Bryant isn't chasing playoff seeds, nor conference championships – only a sixth NBA title – and that could only come under the most perfect of circumstances.
As much as anything, this was the reason Bryant had so much anger for Dahntay Jones and an ankle sprain he considered the most severe in his past 13 years in the NBA.
Eventually, Bryant will find a way to play with the pain, and play well, but it gets harder now, so much harder. It always comes back to what he's been telling everyone and had said softly outside his locker only a day earlier: Kobe Bryant and these Lakers don't have time. They only have now.
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