— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 13, 2013
On April 12, 2013, Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors while making a routine drive to the basket. Bryant had hyperextended his left knee earlier in the second half, but refused to come out of the game because a loss would have put the Lakers in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. His tweet and subsequent Facebook post were an open mixture of disappointment, frustration and determination that sports fans had never seen from an athletic superstar. Returning for his 18th regular season, there’s no way he could come back and play at a Hall of Fame level, right?
The surgical procedure was different … and because of that the recovery has been different. The normal timetable for recovery from an Achilles, we’ve shattered that. Three-and-a-half months [and] I can already walk just fine. I’m lifting weights with the Achilles just fine and that’s different. So we don’t know what that timetable is going to be. It’s kind of new territory for us all.
– Kobe Bryant on August 6, 2013 in Shenzen, China
Turns out Kobe Bean Bryant doesn’t care about conventional wisdom or the time-space continuum that all other mortals abide by. His recovery has been so impressive that some pundits have wondered if Bryant has been using PEDs. This would have seemed like an insane proposition five years ago, but when athletes are recovering from injuries at inhuman rates using strange remedies such as deer antler spray, it’s a question worth discussing.
Achilles tendon ruptures are known for ending the careers of athletes in every sport, but it is a fairly common injury among regular Joes as well. There are cases in which the tendon tore when too much pressure was applied, but it also seems to happen during routine moments in life, such as jogging. It’s completely unpredictable. Although the normal recovery time for this injury is six to nine months, it varies because the recovery seems to be predicated on how much effort one puts into their rehab. Additionally, new surgical methods such as regenokine, which Bryant has used himself to alleviate pain in his knee, are being used to improve recovery times and the overall strength of torn muscles and joints.
Many NBA players have suffered ruptures to their Achilles tendons, and the results are often disastrous. In almost all cases, the production from the player dropped off a cliff, or they immediately retired. Notable players include Elton Brand, Christian Laettner, Gerald Wilkins, Chauncey Billups, Mehmet Okur and Isiah Thomas. The only NBA player to have this injury and sustain his level of play, in this case surpass it, was Dominique Wilkins. At age 32 and in his 10th season, Wilkins tore his Achilles tendon during “a fast walk.” He talked about his recovery process with Grantland:
It took me about a month and a half, two months, to where I could really do anything as far as just walking on it. I was [in] a cast and then they put me in a soft cast. He’s going to have to do a lot of water therapy, a lot of very, very light weights on his ankles, which will help him get his mobility back. It was a nine-month process for me, and the thing is, Kobe is a competitor …
I felt funny mentally. But physically, it was repaired better than ever. In fact, it was three times stronger than my other Achilles.
Wilkins had one of the best statistical years of his career the following season. That was 21 years ago. This is the first time since his injury that someone else with Wilkins’ talent and drive has been placed in such a dire situation. Maybe the magic elixir for shattering the timetable is a new type of surgery, Hall of Fame talent and persistence. We also can’t rule out the possibility that Bryant and Wilkins still wanted to be elite players, or even just that they are simply better than others who suffered an Achilles tendon rupture. Bryant’s recovery is not unprecedented, but it is remarkable, and a testament to his hard work.
The only insurmountable obstacle for Bryant coming back at full strength is Mike D’Antoni, who plays his best players until they run out of gas (PAN TO: New York Knicks fans nodding vigorously). If that starts happening again, Bryant could use deer antler spray, chicken blood or mamba venom and I wouldn’t bat an eye.