Even in his 17th year in the league, at an age when most NBA-ers are already thinking about their pension plans, and playing with more knocks and bruises on his battle-torn body than the average Hollywood stuntman, Kobe Bryant was unstoppable this season.
Fighting an uphill battle to get his team into playoff contention, Bryant evolved his game to become the most-efficient version of himself. He was shooting at close to his career-best percentage from the field, scoring amongst the league's top players, and improving his passing game to average more assists than he had his whole career. He didn't need this season to improve on his already decorated, mythical legacy: a five time champion, a two-time Finals MVP, an MVP, a 15-time All Star, a 10-time All NBA First Teamer, a double gold-medalist, the fourth-highest scorer in NBA history, and above all, the man with the reputation of being the most dangerous and relentless player in the league since Michael Jordan.
And yet, he refused to rest on his laurels and remained hungry for more. For most of this season, the Lakers - despite high expectations - struggled to find defensive cohesion and chemistry between Kobe, Nash, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol, and faced the threat of missing the playoffs. Kobe, though, was too adamant and too proud to let that happen. He seemed focused on bringing his team into respectability, even if he had to do it singlehandedly. No defender or defensive systems across the league could stop him, they could only hope of slowing him down.
Until he came across the toughest defender of them all: Injury.
Kobe and the Lakers were locked in a typically dramatic battle at home against the Golden State Warriors when Kobe's season ended. They were in a high-scoring shootout as the visiting Warriors, led by Stephen Curry, took a big lead in the fourth quarter and threatened to end the Lakers' postseason dreams. Kobe scored 34 minutes to bring the Lakers all the way back, but his heroics proved costly as the 34-year-old - already putting in heavy minutes in injured limbs all season - fell down to his worst-injury yet. Kobe hurt his Achilles, and even though he got back up to hit two free throws, he had to limp off the court soon after. The Lakers survived the game, but their long-term future was in jeopardy.
Kobe's ruptured Achilles' tendon could keep him out for six to nine months. This is the type of injury that takes a long time to heel, and even fully-healed players only return as a shadow of their former selves. Kobe's injury means that he could potentially be out until early 2014. For a player of his age, recovery can be even slower and tougher. And when he returns, we wonder if he'll still be the type of player that made opponents shake in their sneakers.
This is not the way that we wanted to see him go. Not Kobe. Not the league's most unconquerable warrior, the man that beat everyone and threatened to even give Father Time a run for his money. That is why his injury seems unfair, almost unprecedented. Because we find it hard to believe that anything - including the forces of nature and the laws of physics - could stop a man so determined not to be stopped.
Alas, Kobe's legend was halted by the same cruel affliction that hurt the careers of everyone from Grant Hill to Yao Ming, and is still hurting the careers of young stars like Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. It doesn't seem right, but Injury is the cruelest defender of them all, striking without mercy and without a plan.
But then again, we are talking about Kobe here. The man who beat everything. We'd be foolish to be against his drive, to bet against him coming back with a vengeance, and one day, beating Injury too.