Pop Goes the Achilles

After Lakers’ shooting-guard Kobe Bryant’s left Achilles tendon gave way catastrophically last Friday in a game against the Golden State Warriors, he tweeted from his hospital bed a plaintive question: “how the hell did this happen?” Bryant had dribbled hard to his left, a move he’d performed a million times. But this one time, and in an instant, the body failed him.

Failure came as a shock and a surprise even to a player who had seen plenty of injuries. In fact, professional athletes learn to live with, or even deny the prospect of catastrophic damage that haunts them on every play, in every collision, and with every step. The denial is part of the grit they cultivate and depend upon to propel them onward.

Part of the reason this injury happened is surely the player’s venerable age. Last season Bryant, a fluent Italian speaker, began to refer to himself as “Vino,” noting that his play was aging, maturing, and improving like a fine wine. (None will dispute this self-assessment of a player who has been named to the last 15 NBA All-Star rosters.) Alas, though, play at that high level extracts a hefty toll. Bryant may have been fraying that tendon for some time. Dr. Alan Beyer, executive medical director at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, put it colorfully, “Kobe has a lot more miles on his odometer than the typical 34-year-old player.”

Damage to the Achilles tendon isn’t uncommon especially to players over age 30. And the severity of the injury varies. At age 46, Vice President Al Gore tore the tendon during a game of pick-up basketball in 1994 , but because the tendon did not detach, he was able to proceed with a diplomatic trip to the Middle East barely two weeks later. Buffalo Bills’ Pro-Bowler Takeo Spikes and the Dallas Cowboys’ Greg Ellis resumed brilliant careers after tearing their tendons. In 2010 David Beckham, the international football star, returned to the soccer pitch in a mere five months after surgery. An Achilles injury sustained while prepping for the television competition “Dancing with the Stars” sidelined Misty May-Treanor, the beach volleyball star of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, for an entire year. When Bryant’s teammate and rival, Shaquille O’Neill snapped his tendon, however, the injury forced him to retire. The same fate awaited Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley.

Having sustained the same injury myself a few months ago, I can tell you that I feel their pain. I was lucky to find a surgeon who practices patching together NFL football players and other professional athletes. He cleverly drilled and threaded grafts through my heel, stitched bone and sinew with high-tensile plastic, and re-enforced the whole thing with “harvested” muscle fiber of my own from redundant tissue that evolution had forgotten a reason for.

Later, during an office visit waiting for the surgeon, and killing time looking at the medical illustration of the human lower leg and foot, I saw the other reason besides age that these tendons fail. It’s truly a remarkably resilient, intricate, and tough structure to behold. In searching for a metaphor, I thought it looked rather like a cross between the Brooklyn Bridge and those vulnerable rope suspension spans familiar from the old Tarzan movies—the ones that sent pursuers into the yawning gorge after the ape-man’s pet elephant pulled away the moorings. The ankle and heel seem jury-rigged and ready to give way under strain of upright bipedal locomotion and on court moves.

I’ll soon return to bicycling, and therapists say I’ll ski next season. Bryant faces six to nine months of intense rehab, which he won’t enjoy, but like all athletes for whom the will to win is so strong, he’ll endure. The pain to come will not match the searing sting Bryant felt moments after the injury, when, having been fouled, he hobbled 30 feet to the free throw line to score two crucial points: “all net, no rim.” I wish him many more.