The two free throws Kobe Bryant took after he tore his Achilles were both entirely different and no different from any of the free throws that he had taken. They were different in the sense that it was a heavy, ominous moment. “He is literally on his last leg right now,” said Bill MacDonald as he approached the free throw line with an uneven gait for his last free throws of the 2012-13 season. “Alternately, it has seemed to be his knee, his ankle, his foot and now his Achilles.” Bryant hit both free throws, then lurched to the locker room while his teammates finished off a win.
They were the same in the sense that he approached the free throws in essentially the same way that he approached every other free throw in his career. Bryant was without an Achilles tendon in his left foot, but the muscle memory of a life time of basketball guided two heroic free throws through the net to give the Lakers a two-point lead.
The above video the NBA put together to welcome Bryant back was simple, short, but brilliant in the sense that it captured the emotion from those two free throws, but it also showed that those two free throws, in essence, weren’t any different from what he had done for the entirety of his career. From jersey changes to jersey additions, from short hair cuts to the afro years, from skinny kid to tattooed man — nothing was different in the way Bryant shot free throws, but everything was different about the last two that he shot.
“One day, the beginning of a new career journey will commence,” Kobe Bryant wrote on his Facebook page at 3 a.m. on the Saturday following the tearing of his ruptured Achilles. That morning, none of us knew if those words would come to fruition, and even if they did, no one knew how long it would take Bryant to get to where he’ll be tonight — playing for the Lakers at age 35 after recovering from an Achilles tear that could have ended his career.
Instead, Bryant rehabbed. And he rehabbed. And he rehabbed. We followed Bryant’s recovery from his initial surgery through his first steps, his first shots and his first full practice.
Tonight, Kobe Bryant will make his first game apperance against the Toronto Raptors, a team that he’s had quite a bit of success against in the past. Not only has Bryant dropped 81 points on the Raptors, but he’s hit three game winners against the team (which you can watch here, here and here).
The think about that Facebook post that will forever standout is that he shared a side of himself that we weren’t accustomed to. Kobe was vulnerable.
Vulnerable. In the wild, vulnerability will get you killed. Lean the wrong way on a crossover, slide over too late on a rotation, dig too deep on a double team and someone is going to make you pay. While recording 30,000 career points (and counting), Bryant took advantage of the vulnerable more often than not, taking off-season pilgrimages to gyms and film rooms across the country learning new moves to add to his offensive repertoire. Bryant started out as a skinny kid out of high school relying on athleticism and a slick handle to get to the rim for the majority of his scoring opportunities to an aged, astute veteran who creates shots my mimicking his peers and employing what might be the best footwork from a perimeter player ever. Bryant has feasted on defenses for the better part of the last 17 seasons because he studied how to take advantage of the vulnerable, and did so without mercy.
Kobe’s vulnerability, however, also added a human element to a man who had essentially become a machine. This is a guy who has played through a series of ankle sprains, knee injuries, broken fingers and through illness. Bryant became a guy who would score in a new, unique way to score after it seemed like he couldn’t get any more creative. Bryant became a guy who has as many anecdotes told about him preparing for games in the gym than about him actually playing games. His jump shot looks the same now as it did when he was 20. It’s reliable. It’s mechanical — but Bryant became less of a machine and more of a man when he expressed his frustrations, anger and concerns with coming back from such a rough injury at an age most most ball players don’t live to see on the court.
This is such BS! All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I’ve done millions of times! The frustration is unbearable. The anger is rage. Why the hell did this happen ?!? Makes no damn sense. Now I’m supposed to come back from this and be the same player Or better at 35?!? How in the world am I supposed to do that??
Tonight is when we find out the answers to Bryant’s rhetorical questions, or at least get a glimpse as to what those answers may be. We’ve been yearning for the moment that Bryant walks back on the floor donning the Lakers regal purple and gold. We’ve been yearning for his name to be called, and for the crowd to rise up out of their seats as if their collective backsides were made out of helium. We’ve been yearning for that first shot to be made and for that first choleric eruption from the Staples Center crowd. Tonight is when the fans get what they want and when Bryant leaves his vulnerability on social media and goes back to picking apart an NBA that has been his, and will continue to be his until he ties them up.
Bryant might not have it in his first night back. He might not have it in his second night back or the third or the fourth. But there’s going to be a night this season where we’re going to collective say that he’s back. He’s going to look like the Kobe at some point. He has to many reps, too many tools, and puts in too much work for him not to. Like many other things, that NBA video helped me appreciate Bryant just a tad bit more, which isn’t easy to do after watching a ball player for more than half of your life. His return is tonight, and I couldn’t be happier that Bryant was able to work his way back.
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