Kobe Bryant holding long-term perspective while recovering from ankle injury
There stood Lakers guard Kobe Bryant at the team's practice facility Wednesday in El Segundo, holding court with reporters for nearly eight minutes after practice. He talked about something as depressing as injuries in a straightforward yet friendly manner he typically reserves for fans, not media members.
He sat out Wednesday's practice because of a sprained left ankle that's kept him sidelined for the past four games, but joked he ran "wind sprints in flip-flops." He acknowledged he "skimmed through" a recent GQ profile that highlighted how Bryant has overcome his wounded body parts both literally and figuratively, saying that though "I didn't get the chance to really dig into it," he appreciated the story "made me look a lot better" than how perhaps he's been portrayed otherwise over his career. Bryant also liked the pictures that accompanied the eight-page cover story, joking, "I look better in the photos than I look in person."
But the key difference that stuck out in Bryant's conversation with reporters involved his contention that this left sprained ankle is something he can't currently overcome, and that the big-picture perspective (the NBA championship) is more important than any short-term goal (playing Thursday against Boston).
"It’s important for everybody on this team to understand what we’re playing for," said Bryant, who doesn't plan to suit up against the Celtics. "I would love to come back and play but I’m not ready. So I won’t. We want to win a championship. We have to do what’s necessary to get that job done. So if that means missing a big TNT doubleheader, so be it."
And for the record, he said the latter part of the quote with a smile. This may strike some Lakers fans as a contrast to Bryant's relentlessness to play through his fractured right index finger, despite opponents' constantly jamming it and the resulting decreased shooting percentage in January. They may also see how the latest news contrasts to Bryant's wanting to immediately play after initially spraining his ankle Jan. 29 against Philadelphia after colliding with forward Elton Brand.
After aggravating it the following week against Charlotte late in the first half, Bryant returned for the second half as well as the next game against Denver. But for the Lakers' next game against Portland on Feb. 6 on a back-to-back, Bryant decided he wasn't fit to play, ending a streak of 235 consecutive games, a feat that would leave Cal Ripken proud. Bryant hasn't suited up since and remains unsure of his exact timetable.
I had earlier maintained that the situations involving his finger and ankle are different. Though having a fractured finger is far from enjoyable, playing through that injury is technically doable. As far as Bryant's insistence to play through his ankle before and his decision to take a long-term approach now seems pretty straight forward and doesn't really need much parsing (though I've kind of already done that). The strained tendons and muscles in his left leg have added difficulty to the recovery process, with Bryant noting "tendons are a little different; they have their own agendas on what they want to heal." But his outlook on recovering from injuries appears the same.
Said Bryant: "My philosophy on injuries is if you're healthy, you play."
Even if Bryant's rejected the notion he's changed his approach, or at least his acceptance regarding his latest injury, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson certainly thinks he has.
Jackson has largely been deferential to Bryant regarding any of his injuries and has said on numerous occasions that Bryant's insistence on playing wasn't coming at the expense of his long-term health. But after Wednesday's practice, Jackson said, "I'm starting to think he's looking at the long picture," a philosophy he's believed led to his own 10 NBA championships.
Bryant's teammates made it loud and clear that they welcome his return and obviously would like it to come earlier rather than later. But they also made this clear: The Lakers' four-game winning streak has partly been out of motivation so that Bryant doesn't feel compelled he has to expedite his recovery process.
Bryant shared that he hasn't had trouble sleeping lately because of the recent performances, even if he's still itching to play. He doesn't see the Lakers' schedule (their next game after Boston isn't until next Tuesday at Memphis) and the team's winning streak as variables that would influence his playing, but it nonetheless has made it easier for him to accept his absence, not to mention helping the recovery process.
Yet, amid all this talk about the team's collective effort, this is something Bryant's teammates shared should be expected of them given the overwhelming depth. And the Lakers' most recent win against Golden State didn't have the same dominant performances as the ones against Portland, San Antonio and Utah -- all Western Conference-caliber teams. Chalk part of it up to the All-Star break. But also chalk it up as a reminder that the Lakers can absorb Bryant's absence for only so long, another reason why he'd rather be healthy come playoff time. But in the meantime, the Lakers' supporting cast will gladly fill the void.
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Kobe Bryant, left, grimaces in pain after teammate Lamar Odom accidentally stepped on his ankle late in the first half of the Lakers' 99-97 victory over Charlotte on Feb. 3 at Staples Center. Bryant returned to start the third quarter but lacked his usual quickness. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.