Within one moment, Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti saw Kobe Bryant both at his most vulnerable and at his most courageous.
The Lakers’ star had just torn his left Achilles’ tendon April 12 against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center, an injury that would leave the purple and gold faithful without anyone to guide them through the bumpy postseason waters. But before that unsettling reality settled in, Bryant pleaded one last case to stay on the court.
“The warrior that he is, Kobe says, ‘Maybe I can run on my heel,’” Vitti recalls, laughing, in a recent interview with this newspaper. “I was like, ‘Come on. You have to go.’”
Vitti granted Bryant’s wish, however, to shoot his two free throws. In what he called a “gentleman’s agreement,” Vitti then alerted the officials and Golden State’s coaching staff the Lakers would then foul immediately so Bryant could leave the game.
All went according to script. Bryant swished both free throws on essentially one foot, walked off the court on his own and then added an extra layer to his many list of amazing plays. It also helped the Lakers tie the game with 3:09 remaining and eventually lead to a 118-116 victory over Golden State, an outcome they needed to salvage a playoff berth.
“I think it’s his gutsiest moment,” Vitti said of Bryant.
Telling commentary considering Vitti’s 30-year career with the Lakers included treating Bryant’s wide array of injuries through all of his 17 seasons. Vitti has seen it all, ranging from Bryant playing three days after suffering a concussion and among various knee, finger, ankle and shoulder injuries. Vitti still marveled at Bryant quickly overcoming a bout of food poisoning before scoring 22 points in Game 2 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Sacramento Kings.
“In the middle of the night, he had crawled up like a shrimp,” Vitti said. “He looked like he was on death’s door.”
Vitti then reverted back to Bryant’s heroics following his Achilles injury.
“To be walking off the floor with his own power,” Vitti said, shaking his head before trailing off. “I’ve seen guys being taken off on wheel chairs for a shoulder injury.”
Vitti refused to say any names, but it sounded like he took a shot at a few players. Miami Heat guard Dwyane was taken off the court on a wheelchair, though he suffered a shoulder injury. Paul Pierce was famously wheel-chaired off the court for an apparent knee injury in Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals, only for the former Celtic to return minutes later and lead Boston to a win over the Lakers.
Bryant’s injury was far more serious, of course. Hence, why his initial moments in the training room with Vitti hardly fit Bryant’s steely image as an indestructible player void of insecurity.
“There was a moment in the training room after he ruptured his Achilles that I saw the frustration and a second of doubt in his mind,” Vitti said. “It was a moment and then it passed. He was angry.”
That soon passed, though.
Vitti recalled receiving a call from Bryant around midnight informing him he planned to have surgery the following morning.
“That’s what’s remarkable about Kobe Bryant,” Vitti said. “He processed all that stuff and all those feelings and got to what we’re going to do next within two hours.”
And with that, Vitti uttered three words that surely applies to how Bryant made two free throws on one leg, walked off the court on his own and processed his rehabilitation plan amid the pain, frustration and tears.
Said Vitti: “That’s really cool.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org