When Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles in his seventeenth NBA season, it was the fourth quarter of a game that mattered, against the Golden State Warriors. When Kevin Durant tore his Achilles in his twelfth NBA season, it was the second quarter of a game that mattered, against the Toronto Raptors. Although six years separate the injuries, and Bryant was four years older when his Achilles ripped like paper, the similarities between the two cannot be dismissed.
Dynamic scorers who attacked from the mid-range, both Bryant and Durant played 78 games in the season the injury occurred. Bryant logged 3,000 minutes while Durant played 2,700 minutes. Bryant took 1,600 shots while Durant took 1,400. It’s not symptomatic of a heavy workload, an Achilles injury. People step off a curb and rupture their Achilles. There is an arbitrariness to it, just as there is a link to fatigue and stress. While Bryant never considered ripping his Achilles, Durant and his camp were afraid this might happen if he played.
He played. It happened. Strangely, we have this irrational idea that athletes at the talent level of a Durant or a Bryant are robotic and nothing could happen to their bodies, and that when everything is on the line, they should play.
How many times has the image of Willis Reed limping on the court been inserted into the dialogue of Durant should play? The image of Kobe Bryant draining two free throws after he ripped his Achilles is mythological. It is supposed to say something about Bryant’s willfulness and masculinity. But both he and Durant and every NBA athlete, and all athletes in general, have human bodies that on one specific play can be the difference between Hall of Fame and Derrick Rose.
Last night, while I was watching Game 5, boyfriend called from Chicago. He was very emotional because it brought back memories of Derrick Rose and the playoff game against Philadelphia when the Bulls had a double digit lead. With one minute left, Rose was still in the game and he ripped his ACL. The youngest MVP in NBA history was never the same. His HOF career was over and a new career was reborn.
What happened last night wasn’t the same thing. Rose wasn’t coming off an injury and inserted into an elimination game in the NBA Finals. I don’t care who you are. Not playing 33 days and then just dropping yourself in the Finals, as a starter, isn’t going to end well. It might not tear an Achilles, but something physical is going to happen to the body. It has to.
A doctor once told me that the body has the last word.
The only reason Kevin Durant played last night was because the Warriors were trailing in the series. And Durant was his brilliant best for the 12 minutes he played. And then there was a disaster.
It’s being called a tragedy but that’s the disgusting hubris that happens in sports, aligning what happens to athletes to what happens to human beings. What happened to David Ortiz in the D.R. was a tragedy, shot in the back, his pancreas, intestines and liver damaged. What happened to Durant was a horrible moment in his career, in his basketball prime. How will he recover? An Achilles injury changes your career. A lot of players have had them. None of returned to who they have been.
Kevin Durant has been a unique figure among basketball superstars. Not heavily recruited out of high school, he attended Texas for one year. In the NBA Draft, he wasn’t the number one pick, but the number two pick. He always seemed to come in second, this quiet, gentle kid.
In Seattle, he had a slow start. The coach was fired but then Kevin picked it up in the second half. His second year, he played with Russell Westbrook. His third year, James Harden. He won the MVP. That was his elite moment. He was so beloved, he and his mother.
But he lost in the NBA Finals. Like water dripping on a rock, he began to change. Or maybe, he didn’t change, he just revealed more of himself. He entered into a war of words with Stephen A. Smith. He criticized the Thunder for letting go of coach Scott Brooks. He railed against the media for their side eye at the Kobe Bryant $38 million dollar golden parachute. In the WCF Finals, up 3-1 on the Warriors, the Thunder lost. Then Durant jumped ship and the fans turned on him. He created an alter ego on Twitter and battled fans who still think he is a front runner.
Durant admits he is seeking happiness. Two NBA Finals MVP’s haven’t gotten him that. As he appropriately has said, it is the Warriors. And it is Kevin Durant. They are two separate things. They are monolithic. That has always been the disconnect. Fans accept KD as the best player in the league. But they don’t accept him as a tribal member of Dub Nation. He’s more like an add on.
And now this. Blame whoever. Blame the Warriors front office. Blame the players who were whispering behind KD’s back about why can’t he risk his injury when Iggy, Klay, Looney and Livingston were risking theirs. Blame Joe Lacob who said a while back the Warriors are light years ahead of every organization. No they are not.
The Warriors fall on their sword like everyone else. It happened last night. It was a disaster. It was a perfect Splash Brothers ending. It changed the NBA.