Tim Grover was asking the same big question Saturday that so many others were, the great unknown hanging over fans of the Los Angeles Lakers and NBA followers in general: Will Kobe Bryant play again?
“It will be his decision whether he wants to come back from this or not,” said Grover, Bryant’s personal trainer who has worked with some of the NBA’s most elite athletes. “Nobody else is going to make it for him. And if he decides to, I’m ready.”
Grover counts Bryant as a friend and an active client on a long list of NBA stars stretching back through Dwyane Wade, Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady, Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and the one who opened the door for him, Michael Jordan. Knowing the Lakers star as he does – and from their contact overnight, in the aftermath of Bryant’s stunning, apparent-Achilles tendon tear Friday against Golden State – Grover has more answers to a lot of little questions than most of us.
But answering that big one? Too soon, he said.
“Until he has a procedure,” the trainer said, “and I become more educated on what’s going to get done, and we put the team together by talking to doctors and other individuals, I can’t make that assessment. It’s unfair.
“The reason I’m not in L.A. now is there’s nothing I can do. It’s not like I can go sprinkle some dust on it and all of a sudden do a ‘Mr. Miyagi’ and he’s back playing again. It makes no sense for me to get on a plane yet. Once the MRI [result] comes out, he’ll share the details. The Lakers’ training staff will get on it, the doctors will get on it, Kobe and I will talk and we’ll figure out a plan of action.”
At which point, Grover, CEO of Attack Athletics in Chicago, will be spending a lot more time in the 714 area code than in the 312.
Grover was watching the Warriors-Lakers game on TV when he saw Bryant go down Friday. “I saw the play and I saw what he grabbed for, and the first thing in my mind was, ‘It looks like an Achilles,’ ” he said. “There is no miracle cure for that one. You’ve got to sit down and go through the process. It changes everything. Out with the old script, in with the new. My hands-on stuff doesn’t really start until the immobilizers are off the foot.”
None of the many NBA players with whom he’s worked faced rehab from Achilles surgery, Grover said. However, he has been consulting on Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang‘s protracted comeback in China from a second Achilles tear; the 2004 gold medalist missed the 2008 Games, then blew out the same tendon in London last summer.
Grover’s experience with Liu’s re-injury and with others who have endured such tear puts him at odds with critics and other speculators on social media that Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni or Bryant himself pushed too hard, through too many minutes, in their team’s desperation to chase a Western Conference playoff berth.
“The one thing about an Achilles, it can happen any time, under any stress movement,” Grover said. “You could walk off a sidewalk and pop your Achilles. It’s just one of those injuries. People get hurt. I can’t blame anyone for this. I don’t think it had anything to do with the minutes he was playing. It’s a freakish injury that just happened.”
The process of rehab for a 35-year-old athlete – Bryant will hit that mark Aug. 23, with months of grueling, repetitive work still to come – is different from a 25 year old, Grover acknowledged. The good news, though, is that techniques and know-how have advanced over the last decade or more. Bryant isn’t necessarily any worse off, then, than if he had done this in 2003.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh, Isiah [Thomas] had to retire when he tore his Achilles at 33,’ but that was, what, 20 years ago?” Grover said of the Detroit Pistons’ Hall of Famer, whose career ended after 13 seasons in 1994. “We have a lot more resources available to us now. Things have changed so much.”
That accounts for the physical side of Bryant’s latest challenge, anyway. The psychological side – whether he wants to come back, how hungry he stays through the grind and how hard he works – is something Grover feels they already have tucked in their back pockets. Bryant and he have done this sort of work before.
In fact, it’s the subject of Grover’s book, coincidentally ready for release Tuesday. In “Relentless: From Good To Great To Unstoppable” (Scribner, 2013), the trainer shares tales from his 20-plus years of experience and lays out his system for categorizing different types of competitors (“coolers, closers and cleaners” in his terms). The book is intended not just for sports audiences but for real-world applications in business and in personal pursuits.
Like Jordan and Wade, Bryant is cranked hard to 11, a “cleaner” of the highest order. In one passage, he offers some insight into Bryant’s will:
Kobe is the same [as Jordan]; he’s insatiable in his desire to work. Some days we’ll go back to the gym twice a day and once more at night, trying different things, working on certain issues, always looking for that extra edge. At his level of excellence, there’s no room for error and no one — no one — in the game today works harder or invest more in his body and surrounds himself with the right people to keep it in peak condition.
But it’s still not easy, and Kobe makes that decision, every day, to do the work. Again: the most talented guy working harder than anyone else.
“I just wrote the blueprint for it,” Grover said. “And I know he’s going to follow it because … that’s him. I’m not trying to get publicity for the book but at age 34, it’s going to be more of a mental battle than it will be a physical battle.
“You take Derrick Rose for an example,” he said, mentioning the Chicago Bulls’ star who has yet to return from anterior cruciate ligament surgery on his left knee last May. “Doctors have cleared him to play, he’s practicing and they say he’s doing real well in practice. But it’s still that mental barrier that he hasn’t been able to go through yet.”
As for Bryant, he and Grover were in touch within hours of the mishap. How did he seem mentally?
“It’s crazy. Most people, when they have an injury like this, they don’t treat the media like he did,” Grover said. “He went in and talked to everybody, ‘Hey, this is what happened.’ He made his little rant on Facebook. Listen, so far, I think he’s in the right frame of mind. I really do.”