Lakers star Kobe Bryant, center, suffered a torn Achilles tendon Friday against the Golden State Warriors. (Noah Graham/Getty Images)
Whenever Kobe Bryant does something exceptional or extraordinary, my phone immediately goes into convulsions, usually in the form of text messages from a friend of mine.
To protect the innocent (and perhaps from his wife), let's call this gentleman "Easy," an old nickname he earned while we were both undergrads.
When Bryant awkwardly fell late in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' game against the Warriors on Friday night, he asked Warriors rookie Harrison Barnes if Barnes kicked him in the back of his leg, or at least made contact.
When Barnes said no, Bryant knew he had a torn Achilles.
For the first time, Bryant is facing what could be termed an insurmountable challenge, even though he's in the twilight of his career.
He underwent surgery Saturday, and the initial recovery range is 6-9 months. Saturday morning, though, I hadn't heard from Easy, who usually serves as my wakeup call during Kobe-inspired events.
"You in mourning?" I texted him.
"Still crying," Easy replied in a moment's notice.
I've watched Easy mature since our immature college days, as he's married and soon-to-be a father of three, but the one thing that remains constant is his irrational defense of one Kobe Bean Bryant.
"He'll be back in December," Easy texted.
After my response of telling him that's wishful thinking, he grew more steadfast.
"He will be a 23-points-per-game player. He's not your normal player."
It was at this precise point I understood why Bryant fans are so ardent, so stubborn and so irrational. It's because Bryant, through all his transformations and number changes and hair changes, has never really changed.
A unique force
He's unique in that way, perhaps more unique than any champion of his stature in the modern era. He's supremely talented, but unlike Michael Jordan, who learned to submerge his talents into a team system, or Magic Johnson, who learned to become more assertive and aggressive as time went on, Bryant's been one thing and one thing only.
A serial, maniacal, single-minded competitor intent on doing it his way, or no way at all.
That statement isn't meant to bash Bryant; in fact, it's said from a place of admiration. Because of his checkered personal and professional history, Bryant's approach to the game might not be spoken of in the same flowery terms as his predecessors — but it should be.
Think about the eras he's crossed, playing at the highest levels. He started out competing against Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Glen Rice, Mitch Richmond and Reggie Miller in the late 90's. Then after that group made their transition off the court, he was confronted by Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, etc. And as that group is on its last legs, Bryant is still barking with the latest crew: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant, to name a few.
Bryant's sustained excellence is a byproduct of his outright stubbornness not to go away, not to be outdone by anyone. While many fans have openly lamented whether their favorite player "still wants it" or asks, "Does he bring it every night?", Bryant has, without question, played as if his life was on the line virtually every night of his career.
It's been branded as selfish or mocked as if he's trying to be Jordan-lite, but Bryant has faced more challenges than Jordan has, whether self-inflicted or not.
Jordan's career made a comfortable progression from the point he entered the league in 1984 to his 1998 retirement (he played for the Wizards? No, that was a bad dream). Jordan climbed the ladder, conquered his challenges and stayed on top, to the tune of six championships.
Bryant's career has been more seismic, making it more difficult to judge him. He had the unmitigated gall to want to achieve championships without having Shaquille O'Neal blocking his personal shine, which goes against everything the NBA taught us about so-called "champions" in the modern era.
Yes, Bryant has been selfish, but it doesn't mean it hasn't been to the collective public's enjoyment. Heck, this season was almost a celebration of Bryant doing everything his way in an attempt to will the Lakers to the playoffs, as opposed to doing it "The Right Way."
But that's what makes Bryant — and this late, unexpected detour — so compelling, which is why none of us can take our eyes off the game's preeminent champion this side of Jordan. This May will be less interesting without Bryant around, whether you love him or hate him. Of the "immortals," i.e. players who are in the top 20 of all time, almost none have had a happy ending. I watched as O'Neal, as a Celtic, looked behind him to see if someone kicked the back of his leg in 2011 against the Pistons. No one had; it was an Achilles tear and his career was done.
Magic Johnson's last meaningful game was Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals, where a younger Jordan gleefully took the NBA throne and never looked back. Larry Bird was a miserable shell of himself, deeply affected by a back injury that never got better.
Isiah Thomas thought he was kicked in the back of his leg, too, in his last home game as a Piston when he tried to use his trademark crossover on Penny Hardaway. Achilles. Done.
Back to Easy.
He believed the Lakers were going to come back on the Mavericks in 2011 when they were down three games to none in the second round.
"It's irrational, but I believe it," he said.
The Lakers were swept the next day.
He believed the Lakers would be better off without O'Neal after the big fella was traded and remarked not only would Bryant win more titles than O'Neal, he would be ranked higher on the all-time list. Bryant has won two more titles since then; O'Neal one.
"It's irrational, but I believe it," Easy said of his prediction, before Bryant's 17th year in the NBA, one of his better all-around seasons as a professional.
"I know I'm crazy, but I believe in Kobe."
Bryant's 27.3 points, six assists and 5.6 rebounds are his best numbers since 2008, when he was 29. And telling from his emotional and raw postgame interview Friday, followed by his even more raw and more vulnerable Facebook post — where he contemplates whether Father Time has caught him but quickly turns it into another challenge — Bryant has full faith in the irrational.
I'm starting to believe in the irrational. See you in the 2013-14 season opener, Kobe.
You too, Easy.