One move he swore he performed a million times soon led Kobe Bryant into an uncertain future.
Bryant drove past a defender at the top of the key before losing his footing. Although he stood up moments later and made two free throws, Bryant then hobbled off the court.
In the trainer's room, Bryant then heard he had a torn left Achilles tendon that would require surgery and keep him out the rest of the season.
"This is another challenge in your life," Lakers trainer Gary Vitti recalled saying to Bryant. "The game of basketball comes too easy for you. You need these things."
Bryant had surgery Saturday at Kerlan Jobe Orthopaedic Group, a procedure performed by Dr. Neal ElAttrache and Dr. Stephen Lombardo. The Lakers expect Bryant to stay sidelined for at least six to nine months. And Vitti estimated Bryant will remain immobilized for at least a month.
As Bryant begins this recovery process in hopes to return before the 2013-14 season in the final year of his $30.5 million contract, an informal sampling of outside medical experts suggests that path seems unclear. At least not as definitive as when Bryant stepped on the court this season and averaged a team-leading 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, third best in the NBA.
"My concern for Kobe's recovery is not whether his torn Achilles is going to rehab," said Bob Baravarian, a foot/ankle specialist at the St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica. "My concern is will he still keep the same mental and physical state of mind necessary to get back to an elite level?"
No one doubts Bryant's commitment.
He cemented his 17-year NBA career spanning five NBA championships and a fourth-place standing on the league's all-time scoring list partly because of his unmatched drive and ability to navigate injuries.
Bryant handled all types of ailments in recent seasons, ranging from knee, ankle and finger injuries as well as a concussion. Bryant spent last offseason shedding 16 pounds by tightening his diet in hopes the 34-year-old veteran would have more endurance and energy.
Yet, few believe Bryant will remain the same player.
"There is a strong probability he will come back," said Dr. Thomas Best, the Director of Sports Medicine Research at The Ohio State University. "But the question is, can he come back at the full level he once played? There are a lot of athletes that need time on the field before they come back to normal. We also have to respect the fact about his age."
Bryant will turn 35 this summer and said he will study how other athletes healed from their respective torn Achilles injuries.
Former Galaxy star David Beckham at age 34 tore his Achilles in a soccer game March 14, 2012, and returned six months later, a month ahead of schedule. Clippers guard Chauncey Billups tore his left Achilles last February, an injury that sidelined him for 46 games.
Former Atlanta Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins overcame a ruptured Achilles late in his career. But that injury prompted both Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley to retire.
"The best thing you can do for us as media is say things that he can't do it," Vitti said of Bryant. "That will force him to do it. He's ready to take the challenge."
That Bryant had his surgery the following day led various medical experts to believe he could accelerate his recovery as quickly as five months.
"The faster you fix it, the better," said Dr. Alan Beyer, the executive medical director of Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California.
"Otherwise, the muscle contracts. That makes it harder to heal the tendon."
Bryant has just started his immobilization process, which doctors say mostly consists of ensuring one's foot remains elevated while avoiding walking as much as possible.
After that, doctors said most patients go through various exercises to extend their range of motion. Most treatment involves icing and electronic stimulation. And there remains one important variable to determine whether Bryant will overcome this challenge, one he has proved already many times.
"Mind over matter is extremely important for healing," said Dr. Robert Khorramian, a Santa Monica foot & ankle specialist. "I'm sure he wants to break a lot more records -- getting closer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record and winning more championships. He will be back and with a vengeance. " ___
(c)2013 the Daily News (Los Angeles)
Visit the Daily News (Los Angeles) at www.dailynews.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services