HANG TIME WEST – Cryptic has never been his thing, and so there was Kobe Bryant early Saturday, the morning after, raw as ever on a Facebook post. He was angry and resolute, flinging exclamation points. Typical Kobe, in other words.
The real insight was that he was making no promises for the future. Friday night against the Warriors in Los Angeles will not turn out to be his last time on the court before stepping gingerly into retirement with a torn left Achilles’ tendon – that much he insisted in a declaration that should surprise no one. But his future beyond the planned comeback sometime in 2013-14, the final season on his contract?
The compounding problem is that a lot of doubt already existed. Not only that, it centered on the physical aspect and how much longer he could commit to the monastic workout routine required to play at a superstar level at age 34. Bryant openly questioned whether he would be able to merge body and mind beyond the one more full season. I have known Kobe since he was 17 and had never heard the man of supreme confidence more accepting of being a mortal.
When we sat alone two weeks to the day of the Facebook introspection, he said he planned to decide this summer whether to retire after 2013-14 or plot for the year after that as well. He didn’t want the uncertainty to drag into next season, for the Lakers’ sake and his own. That would allow both sides to prepare for the future.
He was leaning toward retirement, Bryant said in re-affirming previous statements, because “I’m putting my body through a lot to just try to get ready to play every single night. To do what I’m doing right now, it’s not easy. I’ll tell you, it’s taken a lotta lotta commitment.” And that was before Friday night at Staples Center and the workout hill that just got much, much steeper. He was already tiring of constantly feeding the fire. Major rehabilitation on top of that adds to the requirement.
Even before the injury, it was “It’s really about what I want to do, if I want to train and be psychotic with my training. That’s what it comes down to. It’s really how I’m feeling physically.”
Bryant will play again next season, as he exclamation-pointed out. The uncertainty is when and at what level, but no way he goes out like this. The question from there is whether he calls it a career, as he originally seemed ready to do, or whether the injury changes his outlook to the point that one of the all-time greats won’t allow himself to leave on such an unrepresentative note.
Maybe Kobe figures this is his body telling him once and for all the time is right to walk away after 2013-14. Or maybe this time Kobe tells himself to go to hell.
The inner-conflict surrounding the future came screaming out in the Facebook post he said was being written at 3:30 a.m. with his head spinning from pain medication. It began:
“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?? I have NO CLUE. Do I have the consistent will to overcome this thing? Maybe I should break out the rocking chair and reminisce on the career that was. Maybe this is how my book ends. Maybe Father Time has defeated me…Then again maybe not!”
The Lakers have the option to amnesty Bryant, but that’s not going to happen. For one thing, they wouldn’t be able to re-sign him until after the contract expires, after 2013-14 in this case. And they would lose the Bird Rights that allows teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own players, and then possibly not have any real spending power to bring in free agents, depending on what happens with Dwight Howard starting July 1.
Oh, and Howard could be gone too. No Kobe, no D12 – that’ll be some marketing plan built around Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and a team winning 30-something games.
Most of all, the Lakers won’t amnesty Bryant because, based on their timetable announced Saturday afternoon, he will return in six to nine months, or soon enough to play the bulk of 2013-14. General manager Mitch Kupchak, always grounded in reality, told reporters at the practice facility in El Segundo, Calif., he thinks it is realistic that Bryant could play in the season opener. Cut Kobe loose in July in the name of the payroll and watch him sign with the Clippers for the minimum to stay right in the Lakers’ face.