Basketball is a game of split-second decisions and lightning fast moves, giant leaps and great falls.
As Kobe Bryant himself said in a post on Facebook, it was a move he has made “millions of times.”
With a torn Achilles tendon, the question is whether the 34-year-old All-Star will become the latest to join a list of NBA players who have had their careers ended by horrific injury?
MAURICE STOKES — He was the 1956 Rookie of the Year with the Rochester Royals, averaging 16.5 rebounds and pulled down 38 rebounds in a single game. A three-time NBA All-Star as the franchise moved to Cincinnati. On March 12, 1958 at Minneapolis, in the last game of the regular season, Stokes drove to the basket, drew contact, fell to the floor, struck his head and lost consciousness. He returned to the game and three days later scored 12 points with 15 rebounds in a playoff game at Detroit. On a flight following that game, he suffered a seizure, fell into a coma and was left permanently paralyzed. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that damaged his motor-control center. Stokes died 12 years later at age 36. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2004.
BILLY CUNNINGHAM – The Kangaroo Kid was a four-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA first teamer and 1967 champion with the 76ers. He was also the ABA MVP with the Carolina Cougars in 1973. On Dec. 5, 1975 in a game against the Knicks in Philadelphia, he was driving down the left side of the lane with Butch Beard challenging. Halfway down, Cunningham pulled up short, his knee locked, and he fell to the floor in a heap, having torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. In 11 pro seasons, Cunningham averaged 21.2 points and 10.4 rebounds. He was 32. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1986.
CHARLES BARKLEY – The 11-time All-Star and 1993 MVP was averaging 14.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his 16th NBA season as a member of the Rockets and had long seemed indestructible as a he carved out a career as one of the great power forwards of the game despite standing only 6-foot-6. Barkley was in Philadelphia, the city where his NBA career began, positioning himself for a rebound barely eight minutes into the first quarter on Dec. 8, 1999 when he collapsed to the floor, rupturing the quadriceps tendon in his left knee. Typical Sir Charles, as he was being carried off the floor, said: “Just what America needs, one more unemployed black man.” Refusing to let the injury become the last image of his career, Barkley returned on April 19, 2000 in Houston for a game against Vancouver long enough to grab a signature offensive rebound and score a put-back basket, then walked off the court. He was 35. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2006.
ISIAH THOMAS – Perhaps the greatest little man ever to play in the NBA, he was a 12-time All-Star and led the Pistons to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990 and was the MVP of The Finals in 1990. Thomas averaged 19.2 points and 9.3 assists in his 13-year career. Already bothered by an assortment of injuries including a strained arch, broken rib and hyperextended knee, he tore his right Achilles tendon with 1:37 left in the third quarter on April 19, 1994 in a home game against the Magic. “I felt like I got shot with a cannon,” he said. “When I did it, I thought it was my Achilles. I had no control of my foot. I don’t know exactly what happened.” The career-ending injury also kept Thomas off Team USA for the 1994 World Championship. He was 11 days shy of turning 33. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2000.
DIKEMBE MUTOMBO – The eight-time All-Star, four-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time rebounding champ and second-leading shot blocker in NBA history played 18 seasons with six different teams. The great rim protector who made his finger-wag at opponents following a blocked shot his signature, was playing with the Rockets when he collided with the Blazers’ Greg Oden in the second quarter of Game 2 of a first-round playoff series at Portland on April 30, 2009 and fell to the floor. Mutombo had ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his left knee. “It is over for me for my career,” he said that day. He was 42.
YAO MING — The 7-foot-6 center from Shanghai was the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft by the Rockets and an eight-time NBA All-Star. He’d been plagued by an assortment of foot and ankle injuries and it was originally believed to be just a strained tendon in his left leg when Yao had to leave the court just six minutes into a game at Washington on Nov. 10, 2010. An MRI later revealed a stress fracture in his ankle. “You hope this is the last surgery for him,” teammate Shane Battier said. “Good lord. That guy’s seen more hospital beds than Florence Nightingale.” But Yao never played another NBA game and announced his retirement in July 2011 at age 30.
JAY WILLIAMS – The 6-foot-2 point guard led Duke to the NCAA championship in 2001, national college player of the year in 2002 and was the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft by the Bulls. He averaged 9.5 points and 4.7 assists as a rookie in Chicago. On the night of June 19, 2003, Williams crashed his motorcycle into a streetlight on Chicago’s North Side. He was not wearing a helmet, was not licensed to drive a motorcycle in Illinois, and was also violating the terms of his Bulls contract by riding a motorcycle. Williams’ injuries included a severed main nerve in his left leg, fractured pelvis and three torn ligaments in his knee including the ACL. He required physical therapy to regain use of his leg and never played another game in the NBA. He was 21.
SHAQUILLE O’NEAL — At 7-foot-1, 325-pounds-plus, the 15-time All-Star, four-time champion, three-time Finals MVP and two-time scoring champ appeared undentable and unbreakable during his 19-year NBA career. Playing for his sixth team, O’Neal was bothered by foot problems throughout the 2010-11 season in Boston. He returned to the lineup on April 3, 2011, but played just six minutes before limping down the court on a Celtics possession in the first minute of the second quarter. “The doctor thought it was very minor. Scary more than anything,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “But we’ll see.” Shaq returned to play just 12 minutes in two games in the second round of the playoffs against Miami and announced his retirement on Twitter in June. He was 39.