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Blown Achilles may mean end for NBA great

Limping Lakers lose their longtime leader

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LOS ANGELES -- It was a simple basketball move, Kobe Bryant spinning toward the basket, dribbling hard to his left.

Legendary careers are not supposed to finish this way, but when the Los Angeles Lakers guard collapsed on the floor, clutching his leg, fans may have witnessed the passing of an era.

Or at least the beginning of the end for an athlete who has dominated professional basketball for almost two decades.

"We're talking about a unique competitive spirit," said Jeff Van Gundy, a former NBA coach who is an ESPN analyst. "A great player."

Bryant underwent surgery Saturday and is expected to miss a minimum of six to nine months because of the Achilles tendon he ruptured during Friday night's victory over the Golden State Warriors.

Although few are counting him out, there is widespread doubt that Bryant, at 34 with so many years in the game, can return to the form that brought a handful of championships to Los Angeles.

In the short run, his injury pours salt in the wound for fans who watched this season begin with great promise -- the arrival of stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash -- but quickly disintegrate. Now, the team is left fighting for the playoffs without its leader.

"He's the guy everything revolves around, not just strategically but emotionally," said Steve Kerr, who played against Bryant and is an analyst for TNT. "He's the one who's working the referees the entire game, he's the one who's trying to pump up his teammates, trying to fire them up."

Achilles tendon injuries can be especially challenging for older athletes. Former Atlanta Hawks star Dominique Wilkins battled back from a ruptured Achilles late in his career, but the injury forced Shaquille O'Neal and Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley into retirement.

Much depends on the health and vitality of the tissue, which means Bryant's comeback chances will be greatly determined by what doctors found during surgery.

"We could be dealing with a tendon that had a lot of degeneration already," said Dr. Alan Beyer, executive medical director at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, Calif. "Kobe has a lot more miles on his odometer than the typical 34-year-old player."

Bryant's talent allowed him to make the rare jump from high school to the NBA in 1996. Fans might forget the 18-year-old did not become a starter until his third season in the pros, but after that he became a force.

In 2000, the Lakers won an NBA title as the young guard began a long, if sometimes querulous, partnership with O'Neal and coach Phil Jackson.

The trio pulled off a three-peat in the early 2000s. After O'Neal departed, Bryant came back to win championships in 2009 and 2010 with Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom at his side.

That gives him five titles with the Lakers, matching a standard set previously by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper.

Bryant has been named the most valuable player of the regular season once and finals MVP twice. He has won two Olympic gold medals with the U.S. team and been an NBA All-Star for 15 seasons running.

His 31,000-plus points rank him the fourth-leading scorer in league history.

"He had the determination to become a great player," Van Gundy said. "Also a love of the game, which not many guys are able to retain after so many years."

That passion has been tested in recent seasons. Bryant's collaboration with Jackson hit a rocky stretch, the two trading barbs in public, and did not end well. The coach retired in 2011 after the Lakers were swept out of the Western Conference semifinals by the Dallas Mavericks.

The following winter, NBA commissioner David Stern blocked a trade that would have sent superstar Chris Paul to the Lakers, and the team limped through the 2011-12 season, departing the playoffs in the second round.

This season began with the acquisition of Howard and Nash, which seemed to herald a return to glory days.

But then came a raft of injuries, including Nash's fractured leg, Howard's shoulder pain and Gasol's various ailments. Coach Mike Brown was fired a week into the season, replaced by the controversial Mike D'Antoni.

After the team lost six consecutive games in January, Bryant said: "I'm very frustrated and upset about what we're going through right now and how we're playing."

If the Lakers were going to reach the post-season, their longtime superstar would have to carry the load. In recent weeks, Bryant averaged almost 46 minutes a game, raising his scoring average to 27.3 points, third-highest in the league.

There were questions about whether D'Antoni was riding him too hard, whether all those minutes contributed to Friday's injury.

Venting on his Facebook page after the game, Bryant wrote: "All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I've done millions of times!"

Watching from afar, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was amazed to see Bryant stay in the game after going down, shooting two free throws, then limping to the bench.

"I'd have been laying on the floor, crying like a baby," said Rivers, a former player. "He's as tough a competitor as we've ever seen."


-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2013 C10

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