ANTAWN JAMISON FEARED for his teammate, who was slumped over in the locker to his right, whose feet were drowning in ice water buckets, knees buried beneath ice bags. Through 14 NBA seasons, Jamison had never seen anyone so worn down, someone who, though four months shy of his 35th birthday, moved, Jamison said, like a "105-year-old woman," who sounded so exhausted that when Jamison asked, "Bro, you all right?" his teammate, who by then had played more than 54,000 total minutes -- nearly 6,000 more than any NBA player ever at that point -- could barely even speak.
Others feared too. "We gotta protect him!" Dwight Howard would plead to Lakers coaches, and the coaches tried. "You've got to come out," head coach Mike D'Antoni would beg his star at the end of every first quarter, but the star's response was always the same: "I'll tell you when I need to come out."
The toll mounted.
Jamison and guard Chris Duhon would stare at their teammate, the star, slumped over in his locker, crumbling. Game after game, the cycle repeated, and after each one, Jamison, inches away from the haggard soul packed in ice, knew it wouldn't last, knew disaster loomed. "Man," Jamison believed, "there's no way this guy is going to make it."
March 30, 2013: Lakers at Kings
With the second quarter about to begin and the Lakers trailing the 27-46 Kings by 12, D'Antoni makes his nightly plea to Kobe Bryant: Rest, even for a minute. "Nuh uh, I'm going 48 tonight," Kobe says.
He nearly does, playing all but 23 seconds in a come-from-behind, 103-98 win over the Kings, despite a sprained left ankle and bone spurs in his left foot that had become so inflamed that Bryant needed a crutch to exit the arena in Milwaukee two nights earlier. "Sometimes, you have to will your way through it," Bryant says postgame. "Now is not the time to sit back."
Because now, with eight games remaining after this victory over the Kings, the Lakers trail the Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference (the Jazz hold the tiebreaker). The Lakers essentially have to win out to salvage one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history.
After all, this was a team that in the offseason acquired Steve Nash, a two-time MVP, and Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, which marked just the fourth time in league history that one team had acquired two players with at least six All-Star game appearances each. The starting lineup -- Nash, Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard -- combined for 33 career All-Star selections. They had the league's highest payroll, at just north of $100 million. On paper, it was a superteam, with virtual certainty for a deep playoff run.
Instead, it was a disaster from the start. The Lakers fired head coach Mike Brown after five games and fell a season-worst eight games under .500 in January. When they replaced Brown with Mike D'Antoni, who was cooling his heels after a tumultuous four-year stint -- some might say debacle -- as coach of the Knicks, it was seen as either a stroke of genius or a sign of a franchise blindly lurching this way and that.
"It was almost like, 'What's the world coming to?' It was a like a panic, a mass panic," Lakers center Robert Sacre said of the atmosphere around Los Angeles. Missing the playoffs would've been "catastrophic," then Lakers assistant Darvin Ham said. The team would've been labeled the "biggest disappointment ever," Ham said. It would've been called "one of the most disappointing teams to ever be assembled," Jamison said. A month prior, for the first time in his career, Bryant made a guarantee: The Lakers would make the playoffs.
"I felt like the die had to be cast, even for my teammates," Bryant says today. "It had to be understood -- we're doing this thing. It's not a wishy-washy thing. It's, 'No, we're doing it.' Sometimes, when you're putting it out in the public like that, those things have a tendency to manifest themselves."
Bryant says he felt the weight of that guarantee as the Lakers entered this most crucial stretch, which started in Sacramento.
"Yeah, but I loved it. I f---ing loved it," Bryant says. "It pushed me to a level that I had never been to before -- ever -- in my career."
One down, eight to go.
Bryant leans forward, his eyes wide, as he explains how this was different.
"The amount of [film] study, five hours a night, watching over and over, stop, rewind, stop, rewind, to the point where I would watch the tendencies of an individual player on the weak side," Bryant says. "I'm watching what he's doing, this individual player, when I'm running screen-roll. So he's trying to watch two players. He's not really watching anything. He's just observing. So I know where his head is, so when I come off the screen action, I know that he's really not seeing anything. I can fire this ball very quickly to Jodie Meeks before he even realizes what's going on, and Jodie hits a 3. So I'm seeing everything. It's bam -- here we go. So I took it upon myself to literally control the entire game."
Now, for each team he faces, Bryant watches the previous five games. He watches how teams play elite offensive scorers such as Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and how they cover certain areas of the court with their rotations. He identifies rotations so he can then position his teammates in areas that will manipulate defenses.
As Bryant talks, he moves his hands swiftly but precisely to replicate how he would move his teammates like chess pieces on a board. He is animated and intense, his voice energetic and sharp.
"I was like a conductor," Bryant continues. "Now I knew you can't win a championship doing that. You can't. But we had to get our team [to the postseason]. I had to literally micromanage everything. I called every play. I positioned everybody on the floor, and I manipulated the entire defense according to my will."
Called every play?
"We don't need to get into that," D'Antoni says. "I'm not disputing it at all. Again, yeah. I don't know what to even say."
April 2, 2013: Lakers vs. Mavericks
Three days later, at Staples Center, Bryant and D'Antoni are again discussing playing time, though it's less a discussion and more Bryant dictating terms. But this time, D'Antoni is more understanding, partly because the game is broadcast by TNT, which means longer timeouts, a longer halftime and, as such, a few extra moments of precious rest.
Such an approach becomes the Lakers' modus operandi: If Bryant won't sit when the game clock is running, the Lakers have to maximize his rest when it isn't. During quarter breaks and timeouts, he's the last one off the bench, where he receives in-game treatment if necessary, with members of the team's athletic training staff bringing heat packs for whatever aches. Lakers head physical therapist Judy Seto would work on Bryant's body so often that some teammates felt as if Bryant were a boxer, coming to the corner between rounds, looking worse and worse and needing more and more treatment just to stay on his feet. "She would just prep the body, whatever injury that he might have been feeling, rubbing it out, pressing on things, heat packs, things to keep [him] warm, definitely hydrating him," then Lakers guard Darius Morris says.
At halftime, with the Lakers up 55-40, Bryant is the last one out of the locker room, where he receives physical therapy essentially until he has to return to the court. That is why Bryant isn't present when the Lakers retire Shaquille O'Neal's No. 34 jersey.
With Nash out -- he was nursing a strained hamstring -- Bryant notches his second triple-double of the season: 23 points, 11 assists, 11 rebounds. He adds four steals and two blocks. Even though the Lakers roll by 20 points, Bryant plays the first 47 minutes without a break. In two straight games, Bryant has rested for all of 79 seconds. "I just have to push through it right now," Bryant says after the game while slumped in front of his locker with his legs in buckets of ice water.
To stay fresh, the 34-year-old Bryant doesn't participate in shootarounds and doesn't practice. Instead, he's on the side of the court at the team's El Segundo training facility, lying on a massage table, having his sore frame kneaded.
Typically, Bryant begins his pregame shooting routine four hours before tipoff. He makes around 250 shots in 20 to 30 minutes while the arena is still empty, but at this point, even that is limited. "His pregame routine was nil," says Phil Handy, then an assistant coach and director of player development for the team. "He wasn't doing any workouts before the game. He wasn't really working out on off days. His days were more regulated to getting treatment and rest." Everything was focused on keeping him fresh for games.
"I was like a conductor. We had to get our team [to the postseason]. I called every play. I positioned everybody on the floor, and I manipulated the entire defense according to my will."
Two games and two wins in, D'Antoni knows Bryant's load is adding up. "He has to watch it," D'Antoni says. The Lakers have two days off before they play again, and then they play two games in three days. "We'll have to be careful," D'Antoni adds. "Going forward, we'll try to give him some more time."
"Hopefully," Gasol says, "all those minutes that he's playing won't affect him in a negative way down the road."
How tired Bryant's teammates say he looks after games, well, D'Antoni says this is all news to him.
"I'm not disputing it at all," D'Antoni says today. "I knew it was an abnormal thing, what he was doing. We talked about it. We talked about it every game."
But Bryant didn't budge.
"There was no talking him out of it," D'Antoni says. "I think even at one point, I talked to [Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak] about it. I said, 'Mitch, he can't continue to do this. He's got to come out of the games.' There was no denying him from doing what he wanted to do. We tried. He told me on different occasions, 'Mike, I'll tell you when I'm tired, and I'll tell you when I need to come out.'
"So be it. I didn't think we should get into a wrestling match right there in front of 19,000 people, and that's what it would've taken to get him out of the game, and he just wouldn't come out. It was unbelievable.
"Obviously, it's not ideal, and you don't want that, and you wouldn't play players like that, but again, there was no denying him from doing that. He even said, hey, if other coach didn't take him out, he's not letting me take him out. It is what it is."
If Bryant withheld from his coaches information about how he felt, he couldn't do that with the players.
"We all knew how hard he was pushing, how hard he was trying, how much he was playing," Gasol says. "I think it was remarkable, but at the same time, it tells you that it's probably not a good idea to do it."
If there was concern about Bryant, he says he didn't notice it.
"I didn't pick up on it, and I wasn't conscious about it whatsoever," he says today. "I had one task, which was to get us there. So everything I had with them was all executional. In conversations, it was all about getting my body ready all the way up until tipoff and then getting out there and being ready to go for the full 48."
"People can say he was stubborn, but his stubbornness for that many years has led him to greatness," Morris says. "It's kind of like the gift and the curse of being Kobe Bryant."
April 5, 2013: Lakers vs. Grizzlies
Bryant's voice is weary, rough. "I'm f---ing tired," he says after an 86-84 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. He notches 24 points, nine assists and five rebounds in almost 43 minutes. He asks D'Antoni for a three-minute break in the fourth quarter, but when Bryant returns, his legs fail him, and he misses five of his final six shots, including a 20-foot jumper with 17 seconds left. "I wasn't tired after the last shot," Bryant argues. "I just pulled it a little right."
Bryant has played 137 out of 144 minutes in three games. "I already said two games ago that I was concerned about it," Gasol says. "But he's the best at making plays down the stretch." That's the double-edged sword many Lakers face: They know Bryant needs rest, but they know they need him to win, and right now, they need to win more than ever.
"I was thinking that sometimes, he's playing too many minutes, and maybe we could throw in some younger guys to spare him a couple minutes," Morris says today, "but it was very tough because [of] the way he was producing."
April 7, 2013: Lakers vs. Clippers
Bryant had reached the playoffs in 15 of his 16 seasons, and another postseason berth is within reach, as the Lakers sit a half-game ahead of Utah for the final playoff spot in the West.
To compensate with Nash and World Peace sidelined, D'Antoni shortens his lineup to a seven-man rotation. But the Lakers have only so much in the tank, and the deeper, talent-laden Los Angeles Clippers -- once the NBA's punch-line franchise -- roll them 109-95.
Bryant finishes with 25 points but on inefficient 6-of-19 shooting. He adds 10 assists and seven rebounds. He plays all but the final 39.8 seconds. The Clippers clinch the Pacific Division for the first time and sweep the regular-season series against the Lakers for the first time since 1975. Coupled with Utah's win over Golden State, the Lakers fall to ninth place.
"My hamstrings were extremely sore," Bryant says. "Not like sore, but painful. They hurt. I couldn't stretch them. I have a wet room in my house where I have ice bath, so I'd ice bath, then I'd have to put three layers of clothes on to sleep because I'd be shaking in the bed. But I had to do that in order for my body to recover. God, man. It's crazy."
"But you know what the biggest thing in that stretch was?" Bryant asks. "This is really psycho detail. It was the right ankle. My right ankle was killing me, so I had to compensate more to the left. I had to put more weight on the left to compensate for the sore ankle on the right. It's always bothered me. I sprained it really, really bad in high school. Ever since, it's been nagging at me. But even [from an execution standpoint], the right ankle is extremely important because the left pull-up jumper was extremely important because teams always played this down coverage. And so when I go left and I pull up to shoot and you're stopping and you're jamming the ankle this way to pull up and shoot, if your ankle is bothering you, there's a lot of f---ing pain, and it's tough to shoot that shot. So I had to strengthen the ankle a lot. A lot of times, I had to shoot through pain."
April 9, 2013: Lakers vs. Hornets
The Lakers are tied with the 27-51 Hornets after three quarters. The Jazz, whom the Lakers are fighting for the West's final playoff slot, have just lost to the Thunder, which pushes the Lakers, for the moment, back to the eighth seed. Bryant, who has just seven points through the first three frames, scores 23 of the team's 34 points in the fourth quarter to carry the Lakers to a 104-96 come-from-behind win. But Bryant is perturbed. This game is the first of a back-to-back, and he played 41 minutes.
"You don't look for excuses. You don't wait for anybody else to try to make rotations. You do it yourself."
"This is supposed to be a light year for me," he says postgame.
Indeed, with Howard, Gasol, Nash and World Peace, the Lakers were built for champagne and championship parades in June. Meeks joined the Lakers believing he would be playing in the Finals for the next two years. Jamison spurned richer offers elsewhere after his agent called and said, "Dwight is going to L.A. Nash is there. It might be fun." That's precisely what Sports Illustrated forecast when it splashed Howard and Nash, newly clad in purple and gold, on its October 2012 cover with the now infamous headline, "Now this is going to be FUN."
The season has been a disaster of Hollywood-esque proportions. At the core of the drama are Howard and Bryant, who clash constantly. "The two-headed monsters couldn't coexist, and that really drained the team and just took so much out of us," Jamison says today.
"Despite what was going on the whole year, I kept saying to myself that we're going to win a championship, no matter how hard it will be," Howard says. "I just felt that we had the talent and the will and the right pieces to win."
April 10, 2013: Lakers at Trail Blazers
Four games remain, and the Lakers somewhat shockingly control their destiny, though tonight they face a test. Not only have the Lakers failed to sweep a back-to-back set in 15 attempts this season, but they also have lost 12 of their past 14 games in the Rose Garden.
Although the Blazers are missing two of their top four players because of injury and are starting four rookies for the first time in franchise history, they come out hot behind one of those rookies, point guard Damian Lillard, who scores 17 of Portland's 41 first-quarter points.
But the Lakers have Bryant, who counters with 17 points on his way to a season-high 47 -- a Rose Garden record for an opponent -- and adds eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks, three steals and only one turnover, a line Elias Sports Bureau says has never been achieved in league history. The Lakers win 113-106, and Bryant is serenaded with "MVP" chants, but Gasol calls the performance "bittersweet." Bryant's feat is impressive, Gasol points out, but it is also classic Kobe Bryant Hero Ball, with Bryant shooting 14-of-27 from the floor.
"I'm a player that likes to see a little bit more ball movement and better balance," Gasol says postgame.
"You don't look for excuses," Bryant says. "You don't wait for anybody else to try to make rotations. You do it yourself."
It's the first time in his career that Bryant plays all 48 minutes of a non-overtime road game. He has played nearly 274 out of a possible 288 minutes in the past six games.
"That's what happens when you open your mouth and guarantee that we're getting in the playoffs," D'Antoni says that night.
It's a night when Kobe is among the last to leave the showers and limp across a near-empty locker room. It's a night when he's the last to board the team's charter plane because he spends so long in the training room receiving treatment. Morris, who always sits with Kobe on the plane, notices how gingerly Bryant moves when he sits down. "Yeah, man. You logging all those minutes," Morris tells him.
Bryant arrives at his Newport Beach home at 2 a.m., stretches for 30 minutes and takes an ice bath -- his normal routine. He feels sore, he says, and he notices his left Achilles is tight, but no more than it had been in the past.
"Kobe is who he is," Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti says now. "That's what makes him Kobe Bryant. Kobe is not the most talented player. He'll tell you that. He and I have discussed this. But he's got all those other things that override that. Tracy McGrady was more talented than Kobe, and they were contemporaries. But there are certain things that separate Kobe from the rest of the pack. I don't think anybody would've been able to stop him. I think if Jesus came down and said, 'Kobe, you can't do this,' Kobe probably would've said something like, 'Why don't you stick to making water into wine and raising people from the dead, and I'll take care of this basketball thing.'"
April 12, 2013: Lakers vs. Warriors
It's possible, in retrospect, to see what happened three years ago as something foreshadowed by ominous portents. The last game of Kobe Bryant -- the gladiator Kobe Bryant, the bulletproof, monomaniacal Kobe Bryant -- was full of such moments. But that's how history works. After the fact, everything is clear.
With 10:30 remaining in the third quarter and the Golden State Warriors leading by one, Kobe drives, leaps and is sandwiched between center Festus Ezeli and forward Harrison Barnes. Bryant goes down hard and clutches his left knee. Four teammates surround him as the crowd falls silent. Gasol motions to the bench, and Vitti approaches Bryant, who slowly rises and begins walking with a noticeable limp. He remains in the game and sinks a pair of free throws.
Just over four minutes later, with the Warriors leading by seven, Bryant penetrates and bangs knees with Ezeli. Bryant grimaces and hobbles in pain. He walks to the other end of the court and back. Again, the crowd falls silent.
"Man, this guy might fall apart," Morris recalls thinking.
"Damn, we need to take him out," Ham recalls thinking. "We need to figure out a way."
"People fall down all the time," Vitti says today. "What are you going to do? 'Hey, you fell down twice? We're going to pull you out of the game.' And then he chops your head off."
With 3:08 to play in the fourth quarter and the Warriors leading by two, Bryant, in his 45th minute of the night, drives against Barnes -- and collapses. Bryant feels a sensation in the back of his left foot. "Did you kick me?" he asks Barnes. Barnes says no. "F---!" Bryant says. Teammates surround him. He can feel his Achilles roll up his leg.
And then he does the most Kobe Bryant thing ever. Using his fingers, Bryant tries to pull the tendon back down.
"I just tried to buy a little bit of time," Bryant says now with a laugh. "I was trying to figure out a way to play around it because if I can walk on my heel, maybe I can get around it because I don't have to get up on my toe. I had worked so hard to get us there. I'll be damned if we lose this f---ing game and all that hard work goes to s---. I tried to finish the job."
He couldn't. Not this time. "Everything else, he found a way to get around it, to solve it, to overcome it, to conquer it, whatever," Seto says. "But in the end, he could not argue with this one. It was definitive."
As Bryant slowly walks flat-footed toward the Lakers' bench, he carries an expression that Seto, who has tended to Bryant for virtually his entire career, has never seen before. "There was a face that was like -- it's done," Seto says.
In the huddle, Bryant wears a blank stare, looking off to the side. He steps in small circles, testing his foot, telling teammates it feels as though his calf is in his ankle and he is walking uphill.
In that moment, Ham says, "It's almost like [Bryant] became two people. The competitor and the guy that's -- I don't want to use the term die -- but dies at battle with sword in hand, shield in hand, like gladiator-style. He had given it everything he could possibly give -- killed 50 soldiers, 20 animals. It's finally here, like you have to accept the fact that you're mortal."
Bryant has played every minute of the game. He stays in to sink a pair of free throws and swishes each one, an act that, in retrospect, seems inconceivable. Vitti tells Sacre to help Bryant off the court, but Bryant pushes Sacre away. "No, don't give me any help." He walks to the locker room on his own.
In the training room, Bryant, still in his jersey, sits on the edge of a training table, surrounded by members of the team's athletic training staff. Vitti performs a Thompson test: squeezing Bryant's left calf. If Bryant's foot does not flex toward the floor, his Achilles is gone.
The test is positive. Vitti tells Bryant the news. The room full of people is still, silent. Bryant hurls two Gatorade bottles, both full, at the wall. One explodes. There are tears in Bryant's eyes.
"For a brief moment, it was the first time that I saw doubt -- not defeat, but doubt -- on his face," Vitti says today. "Like, 'Oh, this actually could be it.' It's an Achilles. It's interesting. If you ask him this, that his Achilles was bothering him, he'll tell you the opposite, and that's what scared him about this. It was injury without any forewarning."
"The Achilles is like the beast in sports that every athlete fears," Bryant says today. "It's a long recovery. Nobody has really been the same when they come back from it -- if they come back from it -- and here I am dealing with this s---. I don't know if I can. I'm tired as hell. I knew how much it took just to get to this situation now, and I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this s---."
Eventually, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a surgeon and Lakers minority owner, enters, leans over Bryant and recommends surgery the following morning. Bryant's family enters. His two daughters are crying. He tries to reassure them, but there's a hollow feeling in the air. What is he supposed to say?
Before the game ends, word of the injury makes it to the Lakers' bench. The Lakers win by two for their sixth win in seven games, but as the players walk to the locker room, some wonder if they just witnessed Kobe Bryant's final game. Bryant remains in the training room as players enter the locker room, and the mood is heavy.
"It's almost like an era died," Ham says.
There is also a degree of anger.
"Something should've been done to help prevent this," Morris says.
Bryant showers, puts on a boot and emerges from the training room on crutches. A large media scrum awaits.
His eyes are red, still wet with tears, and he stands before a framed quote next to his locker: "Look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow, it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before."
The quote hangs in the San Antonio Spurs' locker room and is one of the franchise's tenets. Mike Brown, a former Spurs assistant, hung it in the Lakers' locker room before his dismissal.
As Bryant stands there talking about how his Achilles snapped when he made a move he has made a million times, it is hard to not think about how that tendon was the rock and how this brutal, seven-game stretch split it in two.
Vitti is halfway to his Manhattan Beach home when Bryant calls. He tells Vitti that he wants surgery the next morning.
With Bryant sidelined, the Lakers win their final two regular-season games. Thanks to a loss by the Jazz, the Lakers clinch a playoff berth on the final day of the season. The Lakers finish 28-12 in their final 40 regular-season games, tied for the second-best record in the NBA over that span.
The Spurs sweep the Lakers in the first round while winning by an average of about 19 points per game. In Game 4 of the series at Staples Center, Bryant emerges from the tunnel in a boot and crutches in his first appearance since the injury. He sits in the row behind the Lakers' bench. When Gasol checks out of the game, Bryant wraps his arm around him. "It's OK," Bryant says.
"Hey Met, you remember that stretch I had?" Bryant asks Metta World Peace from time to time.
In those seven games, Bryant averaged 28.9 points, 8.4 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 steals and a block in 45.6 minutes per game. In his first 71 games of the season, Bryant had played 80 percent of all possible minutes. In the final seven games: 95 percent, resting for just 16 minutes, 45 seconds.
"I had never worked so hard in my life," he says.
"I think if Jesus came down and said, 'Kobe, you can't do this,' Kobe probably would've said something like, 'Why don't you stick to making water into wine and raising people from the dead, and I'll take care of this basketball thing.'"Gary Vitti
Bryant's 319 minutes in those seven contests mark a staggering figure that only Ray McCallum (320 minutes from March 28 to April 8, 2014) has matched since.
The questions in the Lakers' locker room the night of Bryant's Achilles rupture remain.
"That situation? It's unique," D'Antoni says. "But of course, he's a unique player. That's why some strengths are a weakness. You're not bending his will. He's going to force his will onto everything: the game, the opponents, the team, the franchise."
If D'Antoni could go back in time and change what happened, he would, of course.
"If you knew [Bryant would rupture his Achilles], obviously, you'd say, 'OK, we're not going down that road because that road leads to a catastrophic injury,'" D'Antoni says. "But, yeah, you don't have that information. Again, for good or bad, Kobe was calling the shots."
Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol and World Peace started just seven games together that season and didn't win any of them. Howard left that summer and Gasol the summer after. Bryant suffered season-ending injuries each of the next two seasons. Although Bryant returned from his Achilles injury, he hasn't been the same since. His yearly real plus-minus ranks in the three seasons since the injury are 64, 301 and 331.
But to this day, Bryant wouldn't change anything.
"I believe that when you're up against a challenge, you have to push yourself to the limit," he says. "You have to push yourself until you see what your limits are and you see what you're capable of doing and what you're capable of not doing. Sometimes, you push so hard that you break. But then, when you break, you see what you're made of yet again because you have to rebuild yourself again. But I'd never be able to forgive myself had we not made the playoffs. If I did not push as hard as I could have, I would never know how much I had left in the tank, and I would never be able to forgive myself for that."
Even as others feared for Bryant, he says he never believed he was running himself into the ground.
"It never crossed my mind that an Achilles can snap," he says. "Other injuries -- pulled hamstrings, groins, things of that nature -- yeah, but I've dealt with that stuff before. Never actually a tendon snapping, so that's not something that ever crossed my mind."
On Nov. 28 of Kobe Bryant's 20th NBA season, the Lakers travel to Portland to face the Trail Blazers. Before the second half starts, Bryant reveals to Lakers coach Byron Scott that he plans to retire after the season. Bryant doesn't mean to break the news to Scott, but it slips out when Scott suggests that Bryant play fewer minutes in the second half.
"Hey, you can do whatever you want," Bryant says. "It doesn't matter to me, man. Physically, I'm fine. If you want me to play more, I can play more. If you want me to play less, I'll play less. This is my last year anyway."
"Wait, what?" he says.
Bryant doesn't make his announcement public until the following day, but that night in Portland, he is among the last Lakers to leave the locker room, just as he was three years earlier, when he displayed his most masterful performance during a stretch in which Bryant says he "almost killed myself to get us to the postseason."
In a room empty of teammates, Bryant sits in his locker, in the last place where, for a full game, he was truly himself, where he defied the fears and concerns of those around him, where he pushed himself to destruction, and he says nothing. He sits there. He smiles.