The biggest headline out of a headline-filled evening of NBA play on Wednesday was that Kobe Bryant is out indefinitely with a severely sprained ankle. He stepped on Dahntay Jones' foot on a baseline jumper attempt that would have tied the game. The shot missed, the refs didn't call a foul, Kobe writhed, the Hawks won and Kobe vowed revenge.
This seems like an important moment in the season. Let's get it all out there onto digital paper.
1. We can't ignore that Kobe Bryant has been one of the dirtiest stars of his generation, right? He's kept himself out of the murmurs lately, but throughout much of his career he was widely considered to flirt with the edge of decency. A 2009 piece by Steve Aschburner, then of Sports Illustrated, hits the key points: the suspensions for whipping out his arm on jumpers to initiative contact, the elbows, a couple of punching incidents. Limiting the discussion only to star players, the only guys dirtier than Kobe in this generation might be Kevin Garnett and Dwyane Wade. (The Bruce Bowens and Reggie Evanses are on their plane of existence.) Even if Jones' play was dirty, Kobe has quite a dirty play karma deficit going.
2. The two arguments here are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Kobe kicked out his leg to draw contact, which is against the rules. Jones landed under Kobe's other foot, which is against the rules and dangerous. In terms of intent, I'm not sure there was a real incentive for Jones to injure Bryant: this happened in the final seconds of the game, and Kobe was shooting to send it to overtime. Jones is trying to defend the shot as well as possible without fouling. He got too aggressive and flirted with danger -- some refs would have called that, and not simply because it was Kobe. And were it not the final seconds of a close game, some refs might have rung up Kobe for kicking out his right leg. No official is going to make that call in crunch time, unspoken rules about swallowing the whistle being what they are. But it looks like they both committed fouls not called. One of those resulted in an injury. Such is life in the NBA. The Kobe Bryant Whistle-Related End-of-Game Scorecard is still pretty lopsided in the Laker's favor, all told.
3. The Lakers are still mediocre enough to lose to a team whose starting lineup included Johan Petro, Dahntay Jones and Anthony Tolliver. Let's not let this fact get lost in the Kobe focus. This was a bad loss. Be but for the grace of the Jazz drawing the Thunder on their schedule that L.A. didn't fall back out of the No. 8 seed.
4. I think Kobe is well past his MJ II Phase, where he tried to emulate the G.O.A.T. at every turn. But vowing vengeance for this injury is extremely MJ. Watch Kobe try to score 50 the next time he plays against Jones. It's terribly predictable and terribly fun.
5. Bruce Bowen does studio work for ESPN's highlights show. He wears giant bow ties and ill-fitting suits. And he was the perfect person to talk about this controversy on Wednesday night given how many ankles he turned by stepping under shooters during his career. This was basically Bowen's trademark move. Hakeem had the Dream Shake. Kareem had the hook. Manu has the Eurostep. Bowen had the ankle breaker. You'd think that Bowen would defend Jones and say he has a right to defend. But he actually did call out Jones a little bit and said players can't slide under a shooter's foot. Ray Allen, Allen Iverson and scores more NBA players wish Bowen had felt that way a decade ago.
6. I know we all think Kobe will be back within a week, because none of us are fools. We know Kobe always comes back quickly. He just refuses to watch. That said, some of us believe this is being trumped up, right? Kobe loves little more than having the image of the toughest guy on the planet. With the speed and manner in which the news about how severe the injury is broke ... aren't you at least a little skeptical it's really that bad? Would you put it past Kobe and his people (in and out of the media) to trump up something or other for image-related purposes? Rare does an opportunity to bolster his image go by that Kobe doesn't embrace. If he downplays the injury and plays Friday, few care. If it's billed as the worst injury ever suffered by man and he plays Friday, we'll add it to his ledger. So it's in that interest that the severity of the injury is ... inflated.
7. What happens if Kobe does miss a few weeks or more ... and the Lakers go on a run to secure the playoff spot, and even play well without him in the first round?