This is not how it was supposed to end. This is not how a legend like Kobe Bryant is supposed to cap perhaps the most daunting season of his career.
A slew of sensational end-of-season games in which he had placed on his aging shoulders and carried alone his outrageously disappointing team and his own guarantee to make the playoffs? Yes, that would be right.
Or maybe coming up just short — the heroics of these last weeks, when he’d scored 24, 30, even 47 points in key wins only to be bested in the end by an ordinary, average team like the Utah Jazz? That, too, would have been appropriate.
But to be felled by something as unjust and anticlimactic as an injury in the final minutes of a game Friday night — an injury that also finishes prematurely the drama of a Lakers team struggling to answer the most basic question of whether they were frauds or still had enough fight left in them — feels wrong.
What happened in the Lakers’ 118-116 win over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night to keep them a game over a Jazz team that owns the tiebreaker for the final playoff spot robs all of us.
It robs us of either Kobe’s failure and this Lakers team’s final, magnificent crash and burn, or else it robs us of Kobe willing his team to a postseason berth he boldly guaranteed in February.
All that was wiped out Friday night when he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in his left leg. Bryant was scheduled to have surgery Saturday and will be sidelined six to nine months, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti told the Los Angeles Times. Bryant tweeted a link to an Instagram photo of himself (see above) just before his scheduled surgery Saturday.
Bryant, on crutches in the locker room Friday night, drove the cold reality home to anyone who saw the sight: He is done for the season. As is a Lakers team that was dysfunctional, underachieving, thrilling and confusing — but never, until now, one that could not look to Kobe Bryant to either save them or fail them on the floor.
There is no sense pretending now. Whether the Lakers win out against the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets to end this regular season and make playoffs or not, the illusion is over. This team is not a threat in the postseason. That idea, however much or little you believed it, vanished along with Bryant’s season Friday night.
The dysfunction leading up to this moment had been widespread, self-inflicted and well-documented. Mike Brown fired a handful of games into this season, Dwight Howard as pouty and petulant as anything LeBron James did two years ago, Pau Gasol 7 feet of hurt feelings and bitter disbelief that Mike D’Antoni couldn’t figure out how to use him, Kobe pulling all the strings to assign blame for the hot mess to everyone but himself, D’Antoni often seeming openly flabbergasted at was going wrong and how the hell to fix it — on and on the list went of a Lakers team in freefall, of melodrama and distractions and, for a time, losses after losses.
Yet they won some games, and Kobe made his guarantee when they were still a sub-.500 team, and suddenly the Lakers, if not a force, were back in playoff contention. In the last few weeks, under the very real greatness of Kobe, they muscled their way to within three wins of the postseason.
They controlled their destiny, or so we said, over and over. But the idea of destiny and our control over it is a thin and feeble concept. Kobe made a move Friday that he said he has made many, many times before. But this time there was a pop, and pain, and the knowledge he can control nothing going forward for this team. Not anymore.
We all lose now. Those of us, like me, who believed the Lakers would fail to make the postseason and Kobe and his teammates would be left with only themselves and their head coach to blame. And those who thought they would make it, that Kobe’s guarantee was backed by a future Hall of Fame player’s drive to turn will into wins … and even those who thought, once in the postseason, anything might happen for this team, then even the Spurs or Thunder might find themselves in trouble with a rejuvenated Lakers team with the clean slate of a second season boiled down to one seven-game series after another.
Gone is the schadenfreude of watching it all crumble under the weight of the Lakers’ own mess. Or the thrill, and for non-Lakers fans the grudging respect, of Kobe willing a different ending and the pleasure of watching the level of basketball that such a thing would require.
A great player, a great drama, and an ending everyone deserved to see, it’s all gone, severed along with Kobe Bryant’s Achilles. It does not matter if the Lakers make the playoffs now. They stand no chance, if they stood one at all, without the Black Mamba. Perhaps the greatest player ever to don Lakers purple and gold — and all of us who watched his tortured season and waited to know how it might end — have been snake bit.