USA Today -- Kobe Bryant was in no mood to answer the only question that mattered, and no one - not even a Celtics fan - could blame him.
Yet as the Lakers star stood there in the Staples Center locker room with teary eyes discussing his night of ill-fated fortune, how he heard his Achilles tendon poplate in the fourth quarterand how this was the toughest moment of his transcendent career, the question eventually came.
"So this isn't the last game that we'll see you play?" a reporter asked after the Lakers downed Golden State to keep their playoff hopes alive.
"Really? Really?" he shot back before making light of the moment.
Yes, Kobe, this is really happening.
Bryant will undergo an MRI on Saturday to, as the Lakers put it in the team release, "confirm the diagnosis" before later having surgery. The timing, make no mistake, couldn't be more torturous for the 34-year-old who had hinted so many times that next season would likely be his last. As one could predict when it comes to Bryant, he hardly sounded like someone who was entertaining the notion that this could be the end.
"(I was) upset and dejected and thinking about this mountain, man, to overcome," he told reporters. "I mean this is a long process. I wasn't sure I could do it. Then your kids walk in, and you're like, 'You know, I've got to set an example. Daddy's going to be fine. I'm going to do it.'
"I can hear (the doubters) already, and it's pissing me off right now thinking about it."
Beyond the fact that the Lakers will now attempt to sneak into the playoffs without him, there's the reality that - based on a brutal body of evidence from NBA players in the past - he may not return until midway through the season that was his supposed swan song. As Miami's LeBron James tweeted late Friday night, "If there's anybody...who can come back from that injury it would be him!"
But given the fact that Bryant is as diligent a worker and quick a healer as there is in the professional sports world, it's not a matter of whether he can come back as much as it is whether there will be any ripple effect of the injury on his retirement plans. Or, for that matter, the Lakers plans as they pertain to him.
Bryant has one season left on his contract (worth $30.4 million), and would likely return just as the Lakers are facing a free agency period in the summer of 2014 that could have the likes of King James himself on the market. What's more, one has to wonder how center and free-agent-to-be Dwight Howard will assess his situation with this drastically-changed Lakers landscape. Before Bryant's injury, all signs had been pointing to Howard wanting to re-sign with the Lakers.
According to Dr. Asheesh Bedi on the web site, SportsMD.com, the typical return from an Achilles tear and surgery is betweensix and nine months.Bryant mentioned during his postgame discussion with reporters that he'll be doing homework on athletes who have suffered an Achilles tear and, one can assume, proceed to push his way back faster than every man and woman on that list. His goal going forward should be to channel his inner Dominique Wilkins.
As documented inthis comprehensive studyof Achilles injuries in the NBA by analyst Kevin Pelton (who's now with ESPN), the Atlanta Hawks star tore his Achilles at the age of 32, then returned to play his way onto two more All-Star teams before retiring at the age of 39. The what-not-to-do blueprint comes courtesy of Detroit Pistons great Isiah Thomas, who was forced into early retirement at the age of 32 after tearing his Achilles. More recently, Los Angeles Clippers guard Chauncey Billups, who was 35 at the time, returned 10 months after tearing his Achilles on Feb. 8, 2012.
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni will inevitably draw criticism for the way he had used Bryant down the stretch of this playoff push, as he averaged an unheard-of 45.6 minutes in the last seven games while they went 6-1 with Bryant also averaging 28.9 points (42.4% shooting), 8.4 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 3.4 turnovers. But the simplistic connecting of those dots simply isn't fair, mostly because Bryant wields the sort of influence in Laker Land that he's practically a player/coach. D'Antoni was following Bryant's lead in this 11thhour just as he had for most of the season, recognizing that the title count between them - five championships for Bryant and none for his coach - would almost always give his star the final say.
Even with their win over Golden State on Friday night, the Lakers are just one game up on ninth-place Utah. The margin for error is nonexistent because the Jazz - who downed Minnesota on Friday, play at Minnesota on Monday and at Memphis in their regular season finale on Wednesday - hold the tiebreaker because they beat the Lakers in two of three meetings. The Lakers will try to finish this postseason push without Bryant, with a home game against San Antonio next up on the must-win docket and the regular season finale against Houston on Wednesday.
He will be there as an unofficial coach, directing traffic from the bench while All-Stars still abound on this team that has underachieved like no other. Pau Gasol will need to continuehis revival act,while Howard should seize this opportunity to play a more prominent rolethat he had asked for.Point guard Steve Nash missed his sixth consecutive game with hamstring and hip trouble on Friday, but the Lakers are surely hoping he returns on Sunday.
But Bryant won't be there. Yes, this is really happening.