EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant had surgery on Saturday afternoon to repair the torn Achilles tendon in his left leg and is expected to need six to nine months to recover, the team announced.
“When something like this happens, everybody wants to know why and there’s not always a reason why. If you look at our season, it’s been a nightmare,” longtime trainer Gary Vitti said after Lakers practice Saturday. “We had a player come in with a surgery, which was Dwight Howard. Then we had Steve Nash break his leg. Then we had Steve Blake have an abdominal surgery. Then we had Jordan Hill with a hip surgery. Then we had Metta (World Peace) with a knee surgery. We also had Dwight with a (torn) labrum in his shoulder. Antawn Jamison will have surgery after the season is over on his wrist. So, when you try to look at the whys, it’s bad luck.”
Vitti said Bryant would be immobilized for at least a month after surgery. If Bryant were to recover on the short end of the six-to-nine month timetable the team provided, he might be able to play at the start of the 2013-14 season.
“That’s the plan,” Vitti said.
Bryant told Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak as much.
“Speaking to him this morning, that certainly was his goal,” Kupchak said. “I think it would be aggressive to think he could be ready for training camp … (but for the season opener) I think that’s a goal. I think that’s a realistic goal for him.”
Pau Gasol had full confidence in Bryant’s ability to achieve his goal.
“He’s a guy that when you put something in front of him, he will get it done,” said Gasol, who sent Bryant a text message with his support. “He will do it. He will put everything he’s got on the line for it.”
Bryant’s injury was described as a “complete rupture” by Vitti.
“It’s gone,” Vitti said. “So, it has to be sewn back together.”
Kupchak visited with Bryant at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic prior to the surgery and said the 34-year-old guard was in great spirits.
“He actually gave a message to me to pass on to the guys on the team, most of which I can’t share with you right here (laughing), but it was a positive message as you might imagine,” Kupchak said. “Very motivational.”
Howard had a message of his own to impart in Bryant’s absence, addressing the team after practice.
“I just told them that they put this team together for a reason and we all know how to play basketball,” Howard said. “We’ve all done special things in our career before and it’s time to do it again. We’ve all been blessed to play with Kobe but we all have talent, too, and we have to show it.”
Bryant posted several photos to his Instagram account as he prepped for the surgery, including one posing next to Lakers minority owner Patrick Soon-Shiong while he was receiving an MRI.
Bryant fell to the floor with 3:08 remaining in the fourth quarter Friday night while being guarded by the Warriors’ Harrison Barnes. Bryant had played every minute of the game up to that point, scoring 32 points — including back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the game with 3:45 remaining.
“I made a move that I make a million times and it just popped,” Bryant said after the game.
Bryant asked Barnes if he had kicked him in the leg. When Barnes said he hadn’t, Bryant said he knew that a major injury had occurred.
“I was just hoping it wasn’t what I knew it was,” Bryant said. “Just trying to walk it off, hoping that the sensation would come back, but no such luck.”
Following a timeout, Bryant went back into the game and hit both of his free throw attempts with the injury to end his night with 34 points, five rebounds and four assists before being subbed out for World Peace and heading to the locker room.
“MRI, surgery and then recovery,” Bryant replied when asked what his next step is. “I was really tired, man. Just tired in the locker room and dejected and thinking about this mountain to overcome. I mean, this is a long process and wasn’t sure I could do it. Then your kids walk in and you’re like, ‘I need to set an example. Daddy is going to be fine.’ I can do it. Work hard and just go from there.”
Recovering from surgery to repair a torn Achilles can take anywhere from three months to a year. The Los Angeles Clippers’ Chauncey Billups recently went through the process. Hall of Famers Charles Barkley’s and Isiah Thomas’ careers came to an end because of it, as did the career of Bryant’s longtime teammate Shaquille O’Neal.
“I’ve never really had to deal with something like this,” Bryant said. “It’s a new experience for me. Obviously, there’s been a bunch of players that have had the same injury, so all I can do is look at them and what they’ve done and who had more success coming back quicker and healthier and see what they did and see if I can improve upon it.”
Bryant is set to make $30.4 million next season in the last year of his contract. The Lakers have the amnesty clause available to them and must use it during the July 1-9 window provided by the league. Should they decide to exercise it on Bryant, they would save significant luxury tax penalties north of $60 million.
Kupchak, however, said that is not something that the team has considered for Bryant.
“That’s the furthest thing from our mind right now,” Kupchak said.
The GM told ESPNLosAngeles.com that the Lakers are scanning the available pool of free agents and could add a wing player to the roster to add some depth with Bryant out. The San Antonio Spurs released Stephen Jackson on Friday but he would not be playoff-eligible. NBA rules state waived players have to be on a roster by March 1 to be eligible for the postseason.
Bryant, who played an average of 45.7 minutes in his past seven games (including Friday’s) leading up to the injury, was asked if all the playing time could have left him vulnerable.
“Who knows,” Bryant said. “It was all necessary. It’s just a freak situation, I guess.”
Both the Lakers and Bryant’s longtime trainer, Tim Grover, shot down that overuse theory on Saturday, however.
“I’d be shocked if the minutes had anything to do with it,” Grover said. “An Achilles can happen stepping off a sidewalk.
“This is not Kobe’s fault, because he pushed himself. This is not the coaches’ fault. People get hurt. An Achilles is just one of those things that just happens. You can’t blame anyone on this one.”
Kupchak said he did not consider Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni at fault for playing Bryant so many minutes and added that the same scenario could have occurred if Phil Jackson was the coach.
“I don’t think Mike is at blame here for one bit,” Kupchak said. “Even if you take Kobe out of a game, there’s a lot of times where he’ll just get up and put himself back in the game.”
Kupchak and D’Antoni both said they had separate conversations with Bryant about the workload in recent weeks, however.
“I spoke to Kobe about 10 days ago about the 48-minute thing or the playing a lot of minutes and I said, ‘I have concerns,'” Kupchak said. “His message to me was, ‘Mitch, I hear what you’re saying, but we got to get into the playoffs and I’m playing and there’s nothing you can do about it.'”
D’Antoni said Nash (right hamstring) will be a game-time decision Sunday when the Lakers host the Spurs. Jodie Meeks will start in Bryant’s place, but every player’s role will be adjusted.
“It’s everybody’s time,” D’Antoni said. “That’s why it’s a team, but the ball should automatically go to (Howard) more, because somebody has got to take the shots and obviously with Kobe not out there, it’s got to go to somebody. But, it will go through Pau, it will go through Dwight and as long as we’re playing for each other, we should be fine.”
The Lakers were able to hold on to beat the Warriors without Bryant and have a one-game lead over Utah with two games left to play for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“Last night’s injury is certainly another setback and devastating in its own way, but I’ve got complete confidence that this group can win the next two games and get into the playoffs,” Kupchak said.