Kobe Bryant’s return from Achilles injury met with optimism by those who know
The horrific fall Kobe Bryant took nearly six months ago shattered his left Achilles tendon. The injury doomed the Lakers’ playoff fortunes. Bryant’s ongoing rehab has fueled uncertainty for the Lakers (2-2) entering tonight’s game against the Dallas Mavericks (2-1) at American Airlines Center on when he will return, let alone how he will play.Despite the skepticism, one important segment remains unfazed.Former Atlanta Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins, former Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas, Pistons guard Chauncey Billups and Hawks forward Elton Brand represent a panel of NBA players that have injured one of their Achilles tendons. They also remain unanimous Bryant will return and play with enough effectiveness that already ensured him five NBA championships and a fifth-place standing on the league’s all-time scoring list.“It absolutely means something,” Bryant said, when informed about the optimism. Brand, at 28, ruptured his left Achilles tendon while playing against former Clippers teammate and current Lakers forward Chris Kaman in an offseason workout in 2007. Brand played only eight games the following year and has faced a statistical decline in five years since in stints with Philadelphia, Dallas and Atlanta.Billups, at 35, tore his left Achilles tendon in 2012, sidelining him for the remaining 35 games with the Clippers. He returned the following season, but an injured left peroneal tendon limited him in 20 games. In interviews with this newspaper, Wilkins, Thomas, Brand and Billups explained their optimism for Bryant’s recovery and offered their perspectives on how they handled their respective Achilles injuries.How do you see Kobe Bryant recovering from his Achilles injury?Wilkins: “He’s doing the right thing in not trying to rush it. That patience is going to pay off. Kobe has that competitive nature and work ethic. Those two qualities alone will bring him back and play the well.”Thomas: “I believe he can still go out and be his dominant self. If he can’t, mentally how would that affect him? I haven’t met one great player that has ever accepted being dominated gracefully. (laughs)”Billups: “Kobe’s going to be fine. He’ll be back playing and doing the things he normally does. If you work hard in your rehab, it’s going to show on the court.”Brand: “He wasn’t the greatest player and the best player in the league through all those years for nothing. He works tirelessly. He’s going to find a way.”Will Bryant have to change his game?Wilkins: “Having that Achilles tendon tear is going to make him pace himself and appreciate the fundamental side even more. He won’t rely on that athleticism that he had. I went through that. It makes you a better player. Not that he needed to be better. It’s just a different way to stay effective.” Thomas: “He’s still going to be able to score. He’s going to be able to still post, get to the foul line and his jump shot is always going to be money. Will he be as explosive as a dunker as he was last year? That I don’t know. But will he be able to score? Absolutely.”Billups: “Somebody like him accomplished every single thing he could ever want to accomplish. This just brought on another challenge for him and something he can say, I’m going to conquer that too. That’s the mentality that he’ll take on and do whatever it takes to be successful.”Brand: “I think he’ll still be able to drive and be explosive like he was last year where he was finishing at the rim because his body and his knees were feeling better. I think he’ll still be able to do it.”What did you make of Bryant making two free throws on a torn Achilles and walking off the court on his own?Wilkins: “I thought immediately then, that even though he tore his Achilles, he’s ahead of his recovery because he walked off the floor. A lot of people who tear those Achilles tendons, you can’t even walk or get off the floor.” Thomas: “I didn’t want anybody to help me walk off the court. Bill Laimbeer and I used to talk about this all the time. We don’t want anyone carrying us off. If we’re leaving the court, we’re walking off on our own or we’re limping off on our own. When I saw Kobe limping off on his own, I saw that as a great player’s lonely walk and journey off the court.”Billups: “You can stand there and shoot. If I could’ve just stood there, I would’ve been able to play the rest of the season. If I could stand right there, I would’ve kept it and shot it. But you just can’t run. (laughs)”Brand: “I couldn’t even walk. That’s why I was amazed Kobe had the strength and resilience to go over and knock down those free throws. People don’t understand that usually you can’t even get on your tippy toes after that happens.”How did you process your injury?Wilkins: “I was thinking how I would come back and if I would come back. At that point, I was determined to prove all the critics wrong. I just did that. I worked for nine months, twice a day. I came back and had my best all-around season.” Thomas: “I had already announced I was retiring. So I knew it was the end. It was kind of a joyous moment for me knowing that as an athlete I had given my all and I had left it all on the court. I wouldn’t have wanted to go out any other way than having my body break down and knowing that I didn’t have anything left to give.”Billups: “I was devastated. I’m an older player. I was wondering about the ramifications that come with that. I was in my free-agent season. There was a lot of expectations for me on the team [with the Clippers]. You know have an uphill battle in front of you.”Brand: “The doctor said this could put a damper on my career or it could be over. You just don’t know how you’re going to rehab from something like that.”What challenges did the rehab process entail?Wilkins: “It was time consuming. But at that time, I didn’t think of it that way. Now that I look back, I’m wondering how I did that. But I was trying to look at the goal at the end of the road.”Billups: “I set short goals all the time. Obviously your end goal is to get back on the floor. I set a lot of short goals and getting out of the boot and going from there to being able to walk a little faster to being able to to when’s the first itme I’m going to be able to golf. I set very short-sighted goals. That’s what kept me engaged.” Brand: “It was painful. The sensitivity and the scar tissue being built up, you have to break that down. There’s a lot of flexibility and strengthening exercises with regular icing, electronic stimulation and the [weight-bearing] treadmill. It was tedious.” How did your game change once you returned?Wilkins: “I learned how to play the game on the ground more than in the air. I learned to become even more fundamentally strong. When I was shooting and stuff like that, it made me appreciate the little things more, such as back-to-the basket moves, jump hooks and fadeaways.”Billups: “You have so much time off from that foot and that side of your body. Of course your leg is not as strong and your left leg. Mine wasn’t that strong as my right leg when I first came back. You have to deal with that and compensating a little bit because it’s not as strong. That’s probably what led to my peroneal tendon being overworked. That’s how I can relate those. It all stemmed from my Achilles.”Brand: “Once I started playing, mentally for me it was tough for me to jump off my left foot again. I didn’t have the same explosiveness that I had. I regained and then I lost it. I didn’t have it. I had to change my game a little bit where I jumped off two feet and I was a little bit slower.” Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error What does Bryant take away from their respective recoveries?“You obviously look at the situations that were successful and try to draw from that,” Bryant said. “I try to ignore the ones that weren’t successful just to stay positive.”There’s plenty good and bad.After rupturing his right Achilles Jan. 28, 1992, at 32 years old, Wilkins returned in nine months the following season, increased his scoring average from 28.1 points per game to 29.9 and made two more All-Star appearances before retiring seven years later.Thomas tore his right Achilles tendon that same year, marking his last game of a storied 14-year career that entailed two NBA titles, one Finals MVP and 12 All-Star games.