Tim Grover knew what had happened almost instantly. The look on Kobe Bryant's face just wasn’t right. The way he stayed down on the ground, the way he grabbed the back of his heel -- it all pointed in a bad direction.
“I knew,” Grover said. “I knew it was something serious.”
Grover has been Bryant’s trainer since 2007. He’s nursed him back from all sorts of serious injuries and helped him find a work-around to knee issues that once threatened the guard's career. So long as Bryant had the will to do the training and attack the problems, Grover would give him solutions and courses of action.
It’s why Grover’s longtime client Michael Jordan recommended him to Bryant after Jordan retired, and why he’s essentially been at Bryant’s side ever since.
But a torn Achilles tendon -- which Bryant suffered April 12 in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 118-116 win against the Golden State Warriors -- was something altogether different. You can’t do any strengthening exercises to get you back on the court in a few days. You can’t push through the pain. You’re just out, for a good long while.
“It didn’t hurt me as much as it hurt him,” Grover said. “But it’s pretty damn close. I just know how much this means to him and how hard he’s worked to be in this position.”
In the first few hours after the injury, Grover knew what needed to be done. Research everything, give Bryant his options, think it all through with him, help him make the best decisions. Was it better to have surgery right away or wait? Are there options besides surgery? How long would the recovery really take? Who has made the best recovery from a similar injury?
“The guy who jumped out at me was [David] Beckham,” Grover said. Immediately, he began reading up and making calls to Beckham’s camp to find out the keys to success.
As frustrating and heartbreaking as the situation was, there was no time to dwell on it.
“Kobe always wants to know everything,” Grover explained. “Every detail. Why we’re doing this? What our options are? He’s very detail-oriented.”
It’s an approach that’s worked well for them over the years, which is explored in fascinating detail in Grover’s new book, "Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable."
And it’s the approach they’ll have to take going forward.
“This is going to be a mental battle of whether he wants to go through this or he doesn't want to go through this,” Grover said. “Forget the age thing, how many minutes he's played, if he gets in that single mind and says, 'I want to do this. I'm going to do this.' Then we've won the battle."
After talking to him the past few days, Grover said he can already tell Bryant is up for the challenge. The biggest issue will be slowing him down enough to allow the injury to heal before building him back up.
“Kobe always wants to go more,” Grover said. “I remember this one time when we were traveling through China on one of his Nike tours. We go out to dinner, hit a night spot, and when we get back to the hotel, I say, ‘How you feeling? Do you want to get some sleep, then work out in the morning?’ He’s like, ‘Let’s just go right now.’
It was 2 a.m. when they got to the gym. It was 8 a.m. when they left.
“The security guard who let us in fell asleep,” Grover said, joking. “But he just kept shooting. He’d say, ‘I want to make this many free throws, or this many shots from this spot.’
“We just kept going and going and going.”
That trait is what separates athletes like Bryant , Jordan and Dwyane Wade (who has been Grover's client since entering the NBA in 2003) from other superstars. They have a relentless drive, and then they act on it.
“After every game, I used to ask Michael one question: Five, six, or seven? As in, what time are we hitting the gym tomorrow morning?” Grover writes in his book. "And he’d snap back a time, and that was it. Especially after a loss, when there wasn’t a whole lot else to say. No discussion, no debate, no lame attempt to convince me he needed the morning off.
“Kobe is the same. He’s insatiable in his desire to work . . . No one in the game today works harder or invests more in his body.”
Everything Bryant's ever done in terms of recovering and rehabilitating injuries has been to attack it with the same competitive drive with which he's honed his game. To stay up all night getting treatment from Lakers trainers Judy Seto and Gary Vitti. Or to test himself physically and mentally -- seeing how much pain he can handle, and how his body will respond to that pain -- after an injury.
That’s not how this injury works, at least at first. You can’t outwork it.
"But I can't see him not wanting to do this and to come back as Kobe Bryant, the way we know Kobe Bryant," Grover said.