Wednesday will be Kobe Bryant’s final game in the NBA, ending, after 20 seasons, one of the greatest careers the NBA has ever seen.
Bryant’s work ethic and his competitiveness have practically become legends in the sports world, but what can get lost is how it can negatively affect a team.
ESPN’s Baxter Holmes chronicled a seven-game stretch that led to Bryant’s devastating torn Achilles in 2013. Torn Achilles are brutal for athletes in general, but Bryant, already 34, never recovered into the player he was before the injury, beginning a three-year stretch of injury-plagued seasons coupled with reduced effectiveness.
What led to the injury, partially, was an insane amount of playing time for Bryant, as he logged 274 minutes of a possible 288 in the previous six games. Amazingly, that was Bryant’s decision, not then-Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.
D’Antoni told Holmes how he would try to get Bryant out of games to rest, but Bryant refused. He shared an insane anecdote about dealing with that type of strong-willed personality:
“There was no talking him out of [staying in the game]. I think even at one point, I talked to [Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak] about it. I said, ‘Mitch, he can’t continue to do this. He’s got to come out of the games.’ There was no denying him from doing what he wanted to do. We tried. He told me on different occasions, ‘Mike, I’ll tell you when I’m tired, and I’ll tell you when I need to come out.’
“So be it. I didn’t think we should get into a wrestling match right there in front of 19,000 people, and that’s what it would have taken to get him out of the game, and he just wouldn’t come out. It was unbelievable.
“Obviously, it’s not ideal, and you don’t want that, and you wouldn’t play players like that, but again, there was no denying him from doing that.”
Lakers players told Holmes that they were aware of the tremendous stress on Bryant’s body to keep playing all of those minutes, but that they needed him in the game to stay competitive.
Bryant then tore his Achilles in the 45th minute of the seventh game, thus bringing his season to the end. The Lakers, boasting Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash that season, won just 45 games and were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
D’Antoni said he obviously has regrets about letting Bryant play so many minutes, but noted, again, that he didn’t have much of a choice.
“If you knew [Bryant would rupture his Achilles], obviously, you’d say, ‘OK, we’re not going down that road because that road leads to a catastrophic injury.’ But, yeah, you don’t have that information. Again, for good or bad, Kobe was calling the shots.”
Though that was just three years ago, the NBA has changed. Players and teams have gotten smarter about managing minutes, and it’s hard to imagine a star in today’s era refusing to sit down while carrying such a large load on offence. It’s one of the many ways in which Kobe truly is one of a kind, for better or worse.