On his 37th birthday, Kobe Bryant is in the gym taking shots for the first time in seven months. The last time he made a shot in a game he was in New Orleans and it was January 21st. Since then, rotator cuff surgery and a repaired shoulder has led to a long rehabilitation season with Bryant boxed in, only able to work on his lower body, unable to drop 500 shots in a row, as the swish of the net serenades him.
Now that he is healthy enough to take the stress and pressure of repetitive shots, Kobe’s back at it, maniacal but purposefully aware that today he is 37 years old. His body can break again at any given moment.
Kobe Bryant is confidently approaching his 20th NBA season, having suited up for 1,280 games, playing a mind-boggling 46,774 minutes. In the last two years, he has missed 123 regular season games. In the 17 seasons before last season, Kobe Bryant missed 134 games.
An Achilles injury, a broken knee and a torn shoulder did to his body what years of physical calamity he insisted was bearable- wrist and finger and shoulder and knee and ankle and hamstring injuries- could not do. He was stopped. Turning 35 was filled with consequences of one kind or the other.
It meant that the mind he had so depended on to be his savior could no longer alter what was happening to his body in real time. Yes, his psyche could muffle bone pain and nerve pain and ligament pain but it couldn’t unbreak the already broken. And therein was the paradox of a capable mind but a fragile everywhere else physiology.
The Bryant passage that is familiar is the one closest to our memory. The game against the Warriors when Bryant ripped his Achilles and then walked to the free throw line and sank two free throws as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Or the game in Memphis when he made a move he always made, sailed to the floor and broke his knee and played the fourth quarter. Bryant had played with a torn labrum before and so in training camp he gritted through it once again until a dunk in New Orleans sealed his fate: his rotator cuff was completely torn.
What to make of a player who believed his body didn’t matter, who could take pain and play through pain for years? Now that he is reduced to the casual whims of that very same body that has no memory of its past brilliance, what to expect? There is something very true about gravity that is by definition the narrative from which Kobe Bryant is approaching this 20th season, an amazing accomplishment given his durability for so long. It hardly matters how broken he becomes, he still is in the top 5 in jersey sales. The Lakers are in the top 5 in road attendance, fans simply want to see him play. That it is nearing the end for Bryant, who many remember as a kid, makes him more mythical, not less.
Money slides across the bar now, pressed next to drinks: how will Kobe Bryant go out? On his own terms? Or will one final physical malady drive the nail in the coffin?
Borrowed time is a truth that professional athletes don’t want to think about when they are young. Honestly, they can’t; they can’t see around the corner. Youth is wasted on the young is truer in sports than any other profession. Age brings a special sort of wisdom whereas Kobe Bryant, on his birthday, can put up shots in repetition and appreciate the simple beauty of what was taken away.
After a week or two, though, the illusion will be gone. He will know what he can and can’t do. The step back jumper. The dribble pull-up. The dribble-stop-pivot baby hook. The iso floater. The change of direction reverse layup. The one-legged jump shot. The pump fake then score. The jab step. What is left after 1,200 games?
Last year, Bryant joked about his age in dog years. He’s another year older and still the young players are anxious to be on the same court with him. They know as he knows, these birthdays where he’s putting up shots and getting ready for the season are dwindling down to a precious few. It is the death of infinity even though the birthdays will keep coming.
But preparing for the season may begin and end in August of 2015. This may be his last time putting up shots and getting ready for the year ahead.
photo via llananba