There are two things to say about the incredible work ethic, pain tolerance and commitment to the game that Kobe Bryant has shown us over 17 years. The first is that the work ethic, pain tolerance and commitment to the game that Kobe has shown us are indeed incredible -- in his generation, he is without rival as a grinder. That, plus his world-class talent, has turned him into one of the greatest ever.
The second point is that it's something so far beyond reason that we really shouldn't expect it of anyone.
As fans and writers, judgment is part and parcel to observation of the game. It's impossible not to compare players, especially the best. And the images of those players are central to the comparisons. Stats, rings and physical profiles are only pieces -- image fills in the rest. We decide who is a coach killer and who is overly committed to winning. We decide who tries hard and who tries harder and who tries hardest. We decide how impressive it is that this star played through that injury, and how disappointing it is when that star takes a long time to recover from this injury. "Soft" remains a part of our lexicon -- physically soft, mentally soft, all of it.
Yes, the problem with Kobe is that he sets a standard that no one else can reach. It's not physically tenable for humans to spend every living minute in the gym. (That's only a small exaggeration based on everything we know about Bryant.) But Kobe does it. So we expect the other stars to do it. If LeBron James isn't working on his game constantly -- as much as Kobe -- he's never going to reach his potential, right? That's deeply unfair to LeBron and anyone else that comes along to challenge basketball's Mt. Olympus. It's an impossible standard falsely proven possible by a man who until Friday I was not sure was mortal.
Of course, it's all unfair to Kobe, as well. When you mythologize a man still plying his trade, the pressure to live up to the legend must be unbearable. Kobe even hinted at that in his interview after Friday's game and in his Facebook post on the injury. He questions whether he can keep doing it. He talks about being tired. Turning him into a god on Earth gives him no quarter from work. To live up to his legend, he has to keep going. Through ankle sprains, through 47-minute games, through endless sessions in the gym and trainer's room. It's an unfair burden, and now in some way it has cracked him.
That isn't to say we should not require effort from players as fans and writers; effort is so much of this sport, both in the dark gym and under the lights, all year round. The issue is at what point we draw a line and accept that serious effort that isn't quite self-immolation is still good enough. The issue is where it makes sense to accept that a star's sub-Kobe but higher-than-normal workload is what we should expect. Kobe's fans and basketball writers have so elevated Bryant that in some way our genuflection forced the star to keep pressing, keep grinding, keep working when he really probably should have backed off just a little. In some ways, our respect for Kobe's indomitable will led to this injury. (This assumes the injury can be linked to overuse, which ... we'll see.)
Do we want to push LeBron or Durant or, ahem, Rose to play no matter what the doctors say, no matter what their bodies say, no matter how bad an idea it seems? I don't. But the path out of our reality, where only superhuman effort is acknowledged readily, is a mystery. When gods run the floor, how do we celebrate humans?