Kobe Bryant pays price for greatness

Kobe Bryant did in Kobe Bryant.

A man's greatest strengths are often his greatest weaknesses. Line up all of the admirable attributes that led Bryant to the highest level of hoops -- drive, determination, dedication, self-confidence -- and you'll find the reasons he no longer gets to play seasons out on his own terms.

The road to greatness charges steep tolls. Bryant always willingly paid -- and never asked for his change. He was defiant until the end and checked back into the game last week in New Orleans, even though he knew his right shoulder, which he will have surgery on Wednesday to repair a torn right rotator cuff, was out of whack. Then he put up two left-handed shots.

That wasn't the first time he's been forced to shoot left-handed. In his first head-to-head game against LeBron James in 2004, Bryant sprained his shoulder so badly his right arm was dangling like a broken tree branch, but he still tried a lefty jumper from the top of the key before he came out.

He re-injured the shoulder later that season. The Lakers said he could miss up to a month. Within a week, after Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti rigged up a protective pad in a compression shirt he could wear under his jersey, Bryant was back in the lineup.

In 2012, Bryant finished the All-Star Game with concussion-like symptoms after Dwyane Wade smacked him in the face on a drive. He said it felt "weird," but he wanted to see what it would be like to play under those conditions.

He has altered his shooting form midseason to accommodate broken bones or torn ligaments in his hand. Most memorably, he limped to the foul line and hit two free throws after he tore his left Achilles tendon in 2013.

These were pieces that built up the legend of Kobe, and they were steps that led to the fall of Kobe. After the first 16 seasons of pushing his body to the extreme, his body has pushed back vigorously the past three years -- and finally broke down to the point he couldn't finish seasons.

Pain is one of the human body's greatest assets. It's an alert that something needs attention. The ability to ignore that signal can be an athlete's greatest ally. But the problems are never eliminated -- only deferred. There are only so many times you can refinance a mortgage or restructure debt.

That the latest injury is in Bryant's shooting shoulder isn't just his body betraying him; it's also his body delivering a punchline. Of course a guy who's taken almost 25,000 shots in his career would wear out his shoulder. Do you realize Bryant has taken more than 4,000 more shots than any other active player? Four thousand. If you took one step for each of those 4,000-plus shots, you'd walk about two miles.

Bryant knew the longer he played, the less likely he was to have the final word on playing. In a 2013 interview he told me, "Hopefully I'll be fortunate enough to choose when I retire, as opposed to having something physical or an injury that pushes me through the door."

He also weighed the factors that would cause him to leave on his own accord.

"It's a matter, really, if I want to continue to do this, continue to sacrifice as much as I've been sacrificing to play at this level," Bryant said.

When greatness is the only acceptable outcome, there is little room for rational decisions. It explains why Bryant played so many games he shouldn't have. It even explains how Bill Belichick and Tom Brady can find themselves immersed in a deflated football controversy. To play and coach professional football is to compromise your well-being, to subject yourself to physical risk and unhealthy work schedules. After signing off on that, it's not too hard to imagine compromising ethics, especially with the opportunities for historical greatness within reach of Brady and Belichick.

I keep going back to Magic Johnson's revelation in the HBO documentary "Magic & Bird." After Charlie Pierce hypothesized the industrious, Midwestern-valued Earvin Johnson became HIV-positive due to the flashy, greedy, lustful alter-ego of Magic Johnson, Johnson responded: "That's probably true, that the Magic ego swallowed Earvin a little bit. But that's OK because I couldn't have won five championships without that."

Let that marinate. He accepted every consequence -- even a potentially fatal virus -- in the pursuit of winning championships. Even so, Magic Johnson's last moments in a Lakers uniform were spent on the bench in a playoff loss to the Houston Rockets, after coach Del Harris figured there were others who gave the Lakers a better chance to win. Magic came back because something inside him needed the game, and then someone else decided the game didn't need him.

Bryant is wired the same way as Magic, as Tom Brady, as Michael Jordan. It seems their choices lead them to the point where they no longer have a choice. The reality is they never had options at any point -- not given their natures.

You've been watching Bryant for almost two decades. Can you really imagine him doing it any other way?