Kobe Bryant is no normal basketball player. Whilst some players want to win, he strives for victory so much that even when his body fails him, he continues to hit the NBA hardwood through the pain.
This has been no more evident than this season, with the Mamba regularly ending games taped up in ice packs, hobbling back to locker rooms during his unofficial farewell tour.
But with his career on the court coming to an end, many fans fail to realise just how many injuries Kobe has had to fight through to get to this point.
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In fact, you might be surprised to hear that he has fought through no less than 23 different ailments throughout his career, meaning he’s only gone three seasons without missing a game for the Lakers.
Here we’re going to take a look at every ache and pain that Kobe has fought through to become the player we all know and love – so if you’re after a painful trip down memory lane, you’re in the right place.
1996-1997: Missed Two Games (Flu/Hip)
Following the 1996 draft, Kobe quickly made a name for himself with a stellar NBA Summer League performance, averaging 24.5 points over four games straight out of high school. Despite this, he didn’t start too often under head coach Del Harris, but injury didn’t hold back the Slam Dunk Champion and the Western Conference semi-finalist all that much, missing only two games through a hip flexor injury and the flu.
1997-98: Missed Three Games (Ankle)
Following a solid opening campaign, Kobe averaged 26 minutes a night in a season which saw the Lakers swept in the Western Conference Finals by the Utah Jazz. Vino started just one regular season game, but played in 79 games in total, missing three to a minor ankle sprain – one of his lesser injuries compared to some he’d collect in the future.
1999-00: Missed 15 Games (Hand)
Following an injury-free year, in which he started every game of a lockout-shortened season, Bryant was held up in October 1999 thanks to a broken metacarpal in his right hand. Despite this, Kobe actually finished the game without issue. Several days later he complained about some pain and only then was he diagnosed with a broken metacarpal, adding up to 15 games on the bench in Phil Jackson’s first season as Head Coach.
2000 Playoffs: Missed one Game, and came up big in another (Ankle)
After recovering from his hand injury, Kobe was hit by an injury which helped define his stature as a star in the NBA, following a controversial tangle with Jalen Rose. During game two of NBA Finals, Rose undercut Kobe on a second quarter jumpshot, making Bryant suffer a particularly nasty ankle sprain, making him sit out the third game of the series, which the Pacers won, leaving the series at 2-1 in the Lakers favour.
With game four tumbling out of L.A.’s control, Kobe stepped up with eight points in overtime and 28 points in total through the game, all whilst dealing with continued ankle pain. It put the Lakers on course for their first title since 1988 and cemented Kobe’s place as a team legend.
2000-01: 14 Games Missed (Foot/Ankle/Virus)
Having helped lead the Lakers to their first NBA championship of his era, Kobe followed up with yet another brilliant season, albeit one shortened to 68 games due to a sprained ankle, foot pain and even a viral infection. This didn’t stop the Lakers powering through the season and repeating their Championship feats, losing just two games in the postseason and beating the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA finals.
2003-04: 16 Games Missed (Knee/Finger/Shoulder)
Following the historic ‘three-peat’, and a season of playoff failure in the 2002-03 season, Kobe had been untroubled by injury. However, following off-season shoulder surgery, Kobe saw the problems come back, with finger and knee issues adding to the shoulder problems which he struggled without throughout the season.
On top of this, Kobe was also tackling much-reported legal issues, as well as constant rumours surrounding him and teammate Shaquille O’Neal, who would head to Miami following the Lakers loss to Detroit in the Finals.
2004-05: 15 Games Missed (Ankle/Shin)
With Shaq gone, Kobe was left to lead the Lakers alone. Despite a solid scoring year, Bryant was part of one of the worst Lakers teams of the time and failed to make the playoffs. This wasn’t helped by Kobe missing 14 games with a sprained ankle and then an extra game due to a shin issue.
However, there were better times to come for the Black Mamba the following season – as he registered his season high scoring average (35.4ppg) and scoring his historic 81 point game against the Raptors.
2006-07: Three Games Missed (Knee/Ankle)
The second season straight in which Kobe led the league in scoring, thanks partly to his ability to avoid serious injury trouble. Despite off-season knee surgery to clear scar tissue, Kobe only missed two games with knee issues, whilst a sprained ankle only had him miss one other game through injury over the campaign. In spite of his health, the Lakers couldn’t find championship form, losing to the Suns in the first round of the playoffs.
2007-08: Back in the Finals (Back)
Back to more successful ways, the Lakers were led by Bryant to the NBA Finals once again. What made the post-season party that little bit more special was Bryant’s performance through the Conference Semi-Finals, in which Kobe suffered a back injury – which he played through to make the Finals.
Whilst the Lakers eventually lost out to the Celtics’ big three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce it was a clear statement of intent from the Lakers, who had big things on the horizon.
2008 Onwards: The Most Famous Pinkie in Basketball
Unsurprisingly, Kobe has had issues that have bothered him for years; arguably the most famous of these is the little finger on his right hand, which since 2007-08, he has suffered with the injury. Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Bryant suffered a torn ligament and avulsion fracture in the finger, meaning the bone had broken where tendons connect to the bone.
Despite suffering with the injury, Kobe made the conscious decision to play through the problem and has done ever since. His statement at the time shows just how his mentality and passion for the Lakers stood head and shoulders above his health.
“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," Bryant said, via his website.
“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."
If you ever questioned Kobe’s mentality in terms of injuries that should be more than enough to have you think otherwise.
Later on through his career, the Black Mamba has also had similar issues with other fingers, including the index finger on his right hand (also in 2008) – of all the months of pain, he’s only missed two games through finger fractures.
2009-10: End of the streak (Ankle)
Having helped push the Lakers to their fourth championship of the Kobe Bryant era in 2008-09, playing through injury in the process, Kobe saw his streak of games played tarnished by an ankle sprain that put him out for five games.
Having not missed a game since the 06-07 season, Bryant eventually missed nine total games in 09-10, with knee swelling and the aforementioned right index finger fracture each counting for two games apiece.
He still saw success, though, guiding the Lakers to another Championship, beating the Boston Celtics over seven games in the Finals. It was later reported that Bryant had his right knee drained regularly during the postseason and that Bryant was even avoiding training so not to exacerbate the joint.
2010-11: Playing Through Ankle Problems (Ankle)
After a full regular season without missing a game, the Lakers secured the second seed in the Western Conference. During their opening series against the then New Orleans Hornets, Kobe sprained his left ankle – despite this, he played through the injury to guide the Lakers into the next round.
However, in what was arguably the Lakers worst playoff series performance of the Kobe Era, the Dallas Mavericks swept them aside on their way to the title. This was the last season that Kobe was to play all 82 games of the regular season.
2011-12: The Lockout Season, Seven Games Missed (Shin/Wrist)
In what was a lockout shortened season, Kobe Bryant ended up missing seven games, all thanks to tenosynovitis in his shin, commonly known as shin splints. However, one of the more recognisable injuries which Kobe played through during this season was a torn wrist ligament in his shooting arm.
Bryant was forced to take pain-killing injections whilst dealing with the injury and was often seen wearing a brace to help manage the area. In spite of this, he still averaged just under 28ppg and shot 43% from the field on his way to a second-round playoff exit to Oklahoma City.
2012-13: The Beginning of the end (Ankle/Achilles)
Having played 78 games over the course of the 2012-13 season, not many people would claim that it was an injury-riddled campaign for the five-time NBA champ. However, Bryant arguably suffered his worst injury right at the end of the season, rupturing his Achilles tendon in a crunch game against the Golden State Warriors.
Valiantly, when the injury occurred, Kobe stepped up to shoot (and make) his game-tying free throws following the foul call in which he injured the tendon. Over the following days it was confirmed that Kobe would have to undergo season ending surgery, raising questions about retirement which stuck around ever since.
One of Kobe’s most heartbreaking interviews was made following the game, with the Mamba holding back tears as he spoke to the media. Without Bryant, the Lakers were swept by San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs. Kobe eventually missed around eight months after the surgery and described the injury in-depth during his recovery, per Bleacher Report.
“When I first did it, right there, I was trying to feel if the tendon is there or if it’s gone. I realized it wasn’t there. I was literally trying to pull the tendon up, so hopefully I could walk and kind of hobble through the last two and a half minutes and try to play.
“There's a certain amount of time that they deem necessary for the tendon to heal where you don't overstretch it and now you never get that spring back. So, you just have to be patient, let the tendon heal, and then when that moment comes when they say, 'OK, we can take off the regulator so to speak and now it's on you to train as hard as you can to get back to where you want to be,' that's going to be a good day."
2013-14: The Return Put On Hold (Achilles/Knee)
The Achilles injury was a huge hurdle for Kobe to overcome, and with the injury delaying his start to the 13-14 season, Bryant eventually returned after 19 games of the season. However, the return was short-lived, after he fractured the lateral tibial plateau of his left knee in a clash against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Bryant played through the injury in that game, but was then scheduled six weeks to heal. However, following complications with the healing process, surgery was eventually required, putting him out for the season. This meant that Kobe played only six games all season for the Lakers.
They ended the season with a 27-55 record, second worst in the Western Conference.
2014-15: Unable to Shoulder the Load (Shoulder)
Having recovered from knee surgery, Bryant was able to start the 2014-15 season with a new look Lakers team now coached by Byron Scott. Despite opening the season and famously passing Micheal Jordan on the all-time scoring list, the injury bug bites once again as the Mamba throws down a particularly strong baseline dunk against the New Orleans Pelicans, tearing his right rotator cuff in the process.
Refusing to give in, Kobe played the majority of the game focusing on his left hand. However, following the game, season-ending surgery is once again timetabled for the Hall of Fame lock, ending the Black Mamba’s penultimate season in the league before the All-Star festivities kick in.
Retirement talks intensified following yet another surgery, but like always, Kobe would not be deterred, and was quoted in an ESPN interview claiming that he didn’t care a whole lot about what other people had to say regarding retirement. Bullish as ever.
2015-16: The End of an Era, Retirement (Pretty much Everything)
It took Kobe until the end of November to announce that this season would be his last as a player in the NBA, with a detailed open penned letter to the game posted on The Player’s Tribune explaining his reasons.
The Mamba pointed to numerous years of the grind being a non-factor for his mind, but causing him months of pain for his body. It was clear that even the once infallible NBA All-Star was able to get beat by Father Time, with Bryant pictured post-game in more wrapping than you’d find under most Christmas trees.
Whilst his request for boos has been met with cheers, his dislike of on-court presentations swapped for heartfelt video tributes, plenty of injuries have bothered Kobe this year. Whether its calf problems from exhibition games, to shoulder issues in his final few match-ups, he’s dealt with all of them this season.
In a noble move, Bryant has sat out only 16 games all season – all whilst tackling aches, pain and demoralising losses. In an odd twist of fate, this year’s Lakers have only won 16 games as well, but despite having one of his worst seasons as a Laker, it’s not the losing we’ll remember.
It’s the freakish love for the game which drove a young man from Philadelphia to practically destroy each one of his limbs that we won’t be forgetting. That, and a collection of five rings, a league MVP award and a trophy cabinet of other accolades…