"Age ain't nothing but a number." -- Aaliyah
Age is far more than a number. It's a lethal first step, limber grace, the difference between being able to bounce over a Gatorade cooler or a Chrysler.
And yet our love of sequels penetrates deeper than familiarity; it's rooted in the belief that the warrior always has enough time for one last saga. The themes are always the same: technology has improved our basic chemistry, experience outweighs horsepower, a veteran's cunning can exploit a rookie's gaffes. It's the reason why people paid money to watch a 78-year old Clint Eastward defy senescence by thwarting Grand Turino thefts, transcending prejudices, and exacting retribution on gang members too young to have seen Dirty Harry.
But myths are just another form of optimism. And it's currently almost impossible to avoid being pessimistic if you're a Lakers fan. Yesterday, the team announced that Kobe Bryant fractured the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. Official prognosis: six weeks of rest, no surgery. Unofficial translation: the Kobe myth continues to unravel.
For the last 18 years, Lake Show acolytes have believed in Kobe Bryant with a messianic adulation typically only reserved for free tacos. So it goes when you win five championships while cultivating an image of monkish discipline and ninja dexterity. No matter how many journalists crop up to dispel his ultimate closer reputation, he's widely considered the top choice among players, general managers, and Mike D' Antoni to take the last shot. Even if the last shot is a double-teamed fadeaway 26-footer.
Few lines are thinner than fearlessness and delusion. Being the best does not require absolute confidence, but it certainly helps. That's why Kobe at 17 became the first high school guard to ever leap straight to the NBA. At the time, respected scout, Marty Blake declared: "He's kidding himself. Sure, he'd like to come out. I'd like to be a movie star. He's not ready."
You don't tell Kobe Bryant when he's ready; he tells you. That's why he probably returned too early, well before his left leg had the opportunity to fully re-acclimate to the gladiatorial stresses and balletic cuts required to play in the league. Due to calf atrophy, the size differences in his legs looked like a physiological instantiation of the movie, Twins. The Lakers had no chance to stop him from himself. Nor can you blame them for welcoming the return of the all-time time scorer in franchise history, the leading All-Star vote getter despite playing just playing six games.
For the last three months, the Kobe return odyssey has inspired Royal Wedding devotion in sports talk radio, television, and this column. Consider it a testament to his impact, past greatness and self-mythologizing. The latter has only been fed by the 3D-Imax theatrics: the "Seasons of Legend" comeback trailer that stopped just short of Kobe materializing to take a selfie while shouting, "I am He-Man!;" the Nike ad that tried to convey the somber gravity of Schindler's List, his entrance theme music of Darth Vader's Imperial Death March.
The deification extends to reporters who refused to question the logic of giving him a salary cap-clogging two-year extension before he had even had the chance to play a single game. It trickles down to the announcers continually parroting obsolete truisms about Kobe's ability to penetrate and score on a whim. At a certain point, it feels like we're lying to ourselves to preserve our memories and forgive our own declining foot speed.
Kobe went on the record to say that "only an idiot" would doubt his return from his latest setback. All doubters may be idiots, but it's difficult to believe that he'll return to anything resembling the old Kobe Bryant. The last six games have been excruciating to watch. He's hit some vintage shots and exhibited brilliant court vision, but he also racked up more turnovers than anybody in the league last week. His first step went from quicksilver to quicksand and his 11.6 Player Efficiency rating ranked next-to-last among players on the active roster.
At times, watching the Lakers play with Kobe on the court felt like Toy Story when the humans walk in the room. It reminded you why Phil Jackson (perhaps apocryphally) claimed, "I don't want to coach Kobe Bryant when he's no longer Kobe Bryant."
This was partially expected. Adjustment takes time, especially when point guards for the Lakers have the longevity of Kamikaze pilots. You don't quickly recover from a ruptured Achilles when you've logged more NBA minutes than any 35-year-old to ever play the game. But at a certain point, you start to wonder when Kobe will become the knight from Monty Python who keeps fighting despite all of his limbs getting chopped off.
Yes, Kobe Bryant is one of the best basketball players of all time. That's why this matters and why it's so depressing to watch his body deteriorate. Sports rarely obey a consistent narrative for very long and despite the multi-million dollar shoe campaigns and black-and-white tint, we're watching the decline of Kobe Bryant at flipbook speed.
The first words I instinctively wanted to write were, "This isn't supposed to happen." But that's another lie. Of course, it was. Heroes eventually die, but so does Darth Vader. And the man who wrote "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number" falsified documents in order to illegally marry its 16-year old singer. Aging is our own personal crisis. For the rest of the world, it's just another way to clear room.
If I were Lakers management, I'd treat the rest of the season like the owners from Major League. Every loss is another ping pong ball for the draft lottery. As a fan, it's impossible not to want to suspend my faith and pray for some sort of miracle anti-aging serum to be concocted at the same Teutonic lair where Kobe previously received knee-rejuvenating treatments.
But for the first time since any of us can remember, it's difficult to avoid skepticism about Kobe's future. Never before have I wanted to be proven an idiot.