Kobe Bryant and the Most Famous Pinkie Finger This Side of Dr. Evil
As you probably have heard by now, Kobe Bryant has chosen not to have surgery to repair the torn ligament/avulsion fracture in his right pinkie finger. Here is the explanation posted on Bryant's official website:
After seeking numerous opinions from hand specialists, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has decided to forgo surgery on his right pinkie. Fresh off his Olympic Gold Medal performance in Beijing, Bryant expressed that he did not want to miss any time on the court when Lakers training camp opens later this month.
"I have always felt that I can still focus and play at a high level even through various injuries. That's really just part of the game. When the doctors told me recovery from a procedure could be 12 weeks, I just decided now was not the time to have surgery. What it really came down to for me is that I just didn't want to miss any time 'punching the clock' for the Lakers, given all we are trying to accomplish as a team this NBA season. I am just really excited and looking forward to being there with the guys when camp opens in a few weeks. That is a real bonding process and if I can avoid being on the sidelines for that, God willing, I will," said Bryant.
That "punching the clock" reference could certainly be interpreted to be a not very thinly veiled swipe at the work ethic of Bryant's former teammate, Shaquille O'Neal, who famously did not have offseason toe surgery in the summer of 2002 because he got hurt--in his words--on "company time." O'Neal missed the first 12 games of the 2002-03 season and the three-time defending champion Lakers got off to a slow start, ultimately slipping to the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs; the Spurs eliminated them in the second round and went on to win the title. Bryant finished third in MVP voting that season while also making the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team and if not for his efforts--including an incredible February in which he averaged 40.6 ppg as the Lakers went 11-3--the Lakers could very well have missed the playoffs entirely. Despite all of the various nonsense that has been spewed about the reasons for the tension between O'Neal and Bryant, that season is when the conflict really boiled over publicly and this was all a result of O'Neal's delayed surgery: when O'Neal came back out of shape he wanted the Lakers (i.e., Bryant) to slow the ball down and feed him in the post but Bryant's reply was that O'Neal needed to get in shape, whereupon O'Neal retorted that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense in the paint). Nothing made the contrast between Bryant and O'Neal's priorities and perspectives more obvious than their statements and actions that season.
This brief trip down memory lane is relevant because it surely has a lot to do with Bryant's current decision--not that he is trying to revive some played out "feud" or even prove some point. No, Bryant is simply practicing what he has always preached and lived by: his primary focus is to make sure that he is in shape and on the court during the basketball season. That is why he has played through a variety of injuries during his career, only sitting out when it was simply impossible to get on the court, in marked contrast to O'Neal's annual extended in-season vacations. Keep in mind that LeBron James missed five regular season games last year with a much more minor finger injury than the one Bryant suffered in February (Bryant did not miss any games and, other than the game immediately following the injury, his level of performance did not decline). Paul Pierce left an NBA Finals game in a wheelchair only to miraculously reappear moments later. In contrast, it is no exaggeration to say that you would literally have to drag Bryant off of the court to keep him from playing. In a January 12, 2004 game versus Cleveland, Bryant sprained his right shoulder (which had been surgically repaired the previous summer) but he convinced Coach Phil Jackson to put him back in the game; Bryant tried to play with just one arm before Jackson finally took him out of the game. Just months earlier, Bryant played the final 10 playoff games of 2003 with torn tissue in his right shoulder socket (Bryant averaged 32.1 ppg in 12 playoff games after averaging 30.0 ppg in the regular season; both numbers were career-highs for him at that time).
There have been some stupid--yet very predictable--responses to Bryant's announcement. Let's play "Myths and Facts":
1) Myth: The fact that Bryant is not having surgery proves that this is a minor injury.
Fact: Bryant has a completely torn ligament in his pinkie finger, plus an avulsion fracture. In layman's terms, that means that the ligament tore so violently that it ripped away pieces of bone from the finger. The reason for the tape job that Bryant wears when he plays is that without something to take up the slack for the ligament his finger would simply droop to the side. During All-Star Weekend--shortly after Bryant initially injured the finger--I spoke with Bryant about the extent of the damage:
I asked Bryant if his doctors have discussed with him the possibility that he may permanently damage the finger if he elects to forgo surgery and play out the rest of the season. He replied, “No, I’ll just be the cool grandfather who can stretch his pinkie all the way out to here (gestures to the side). There is no ligament there holding it in. I got lucky. This knuckle right here (points to the base of the finger) was down here (points midway down his hand) but I didn’t hurt this one (points to the middle of his pinkie finger). So I’m not going to have any damage or any fingers that look like Larry Bird’s.” He added that the most painful part of the injury happened when trainer Gary Vitti pulled it back into place, a moment of agony that was captured on national television. “After that, it felt like the finger just wasn’t there. It felt like a spaghetti noodle,” Bryant concluded.
2) Myth: Bryant is using/has used/will use this injury as an "excuse" for his performance.
Fact: I defy anyone to find an example of Bryant publicly mentioning his finger injury other than in a direct response to someone's question about it.
As explained above, Bryant was diagnosed with a torn ligament and an avulsion fracture months ago; it is ridiculous for anyone to act as if Bryant is faking or trying to make some excuse for his performance. The injury is not painful on a constant basis but whenever the finger is struck Bryant gets that numb "spaghetti noodle" feeling for a few minutes. Bryant could have gotten the finger fixed this summer but then he would have missed playing in the Olympics. My guess is that if he makes it through this season and the playoffs unscathed then he will have surgery on the finger as soon as the Lakers are finished playing next summer. If you consider Bryant's injury minor, then I suggest you whack yourself on your right hand hard enough to cause a torn ligament with an avulsion fracture and then see how well you are able to go about your day to day activities for a period of months without having surgery. Obviously, this is not equivalent to blowing out an ACL--an injury that has to be surgically repaired to resume playing competitive sports--but Bryant's willingness and ability to play through this injury--and to do so at a high level--is commendable.
3) Myth: Bryant timed his announcement to draw attention away from Andrew Bynum's return to health.
Fact: The L.A. Times reported about Bynum's status on September 6. Bryant made his announcement about forgoing surgery three days later. When exactly would have been the "right" time for Bryant to make his announcement? Anyone who thinks that Bryant did anything other than consult with various doctors, make a decision and then announce it is simply looking for reasons to criticize him.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM