Kobe Bryant is considering surgery after tests showed he has a torn labrum in his right shoulder, the team announced Thursday, jeopardizing his participation in this summer's Olympic qualifier but probably not fall's training camp.
Laker team physicians ordered an MRI exam for Wednesday during the club's normal exit examinations, which concentrated primarily on Bryant's knee, bothered by tendinitis most of the season. A subsequent check of his shoulder showed a significant tear, and those close to Bryant said Thursday he was leaning toward surgery, pending a confirming second opinion, and that the recovery would take about three months.
In the case of surgery, Bryant is expected to have the procedure in the next week or so, probably performed by team physician Dr. Steve Lombardo.
The labrum -- a ring of soft tissue that deepens the shoulder socket and, therefore, stabilizes the joint -- would not heal with rest or rehabilitation, but Bryant probably could play with the injury if he chose, with some modifications on the nights the shoulder became especially tender. He played 10 games with it in the playoffs, some in less pain than in others. But, because of Bryant's chosen profession and his attacking, frenetic style in it, team medical personnel have recommended surgery.
Doctors believe Bryant injured his shoulder April 22, in the first quarter of Game 2 of the Lakers' playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, when he attempted a dunk over 7-footer Rasho Nesterovic. He jammed the ball instead against the rim, gripped his shoulder and suffered discomfort thereafter.
Bryant struggled with his jump shot for stretches in what was a short playoff life for the Lakers, whose run of three consecutive championships ended this year in the Western Conference semifinals.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak, in Chicago for the NBA's pre-draft camp, said he was saddened by the report of the injury but optimistic Bryant would not miss any of next season.
"My understanding is if he does elect to have the surgery, he should be back full steam in training camp," Kupchak said by telephone Thursday afternoon.
Still, he added, "I'm deeply hurt and bothered for Kobe, because I know he wanted to play in the Olympic trials this summer."
Bryant, as usual, had plans to work out through the summer, in his typical breakneck approach.
"This," Kupchak said, "is a wrench in all of that."
Bryant notified the NBA and USA Basketball of his injury, of the decision before him, and the possible ramifications of surgery.
If Bryant were to sit out the qualifying tournament, held in August in Puerto Rico, USA Basketball officials would choose a replacement, either a core player or a role player. In its current configuration, the Olympic roster has 12 players, nine of whom were promised spots in the 2004 Olympic Games, assuming the team advances. If he did not play in August, Bryant still would have a place on the Olympic team.
It appears the Lakers will spend another summer banking on recovery from one of their superstars. The last two off-seasons, Shaquille O'Neal had surgery, last year on his foot, only three weeks before training camp. He sat out the first 12 games of the season, tried to play himself into shape and by spring lacked his usual playoff verve.
O'Neal met this week with Coach Phil Jackson and Kupchak, and in the makeup exit meeting told them again that he planned to employ a personal trainer. Jackson told O'Neal that he would consider it a shame if O'Neal were to end his career with only a single league MVP award, and O'Neal apparently agreed.
In recent years, O'Neal has backed Bryant for the award. While O'Neal generally is recognized as the league's most valuable player, he hasn't won the official award since the 1999-2000 season, primarily because he missed 38 regular-season games since.
"I think he'll be motivated for sure," Kupchak said. "I see no reason why he shouldn't be."
Jackson is part of the Laker contingent in Chicago for the pre-draft camp.... While the Laker interest in free agent Karl Malone has been less than for, say, P.J. Brown or Gary Payton, part of that reason was an expectation Malone would remain with the Utah Jazz. There is growing speculation that Malone will leave the Jazz, however, perhaps leading to the Lakers' reassessing his value to them.... Rick Fox's surgically repaired left foot remains immobilized. On his telephone answering machine: "For those of you that heard my cast is hot pink, you are correct."