Even if he wore a plastic mask that extended his hairline to the top of his lips with two holes for his eyes. Even if the mask altered his vision and made him feel like he was in a sauna as he tasted and felt his own sweat. Even if he played only three days after suffering a broken nose and a concussion in a meaningless All-Star game.
Bryant looked different in the Lakers’ 104-85 victory Wednesday over the Minnesota Timberwolves. But his game looked the same. He still scored points (31). He still shot and made plenty of baskets (11 of 23 from the field). He still punished double teams by feeding everyone else around him (eight assists).
The man behind the mask stayed the same. But everything surrounding him changed.
“It’s been an experience,” Bryant said. “I never had one before so…”
Bryant’s led the league in scoring this season despite nursing a torn ligament in his right wrist. He hobbled last season with a surgically repaired right knee and a sprained left ankle. Bryant won a championship two seasons ago with a sprained right knee and an arthritic index finger. Bryant and his teammates have seen it all.
So much that they remain numb to it. So much that they expected Bryant would of course play in Wednesday’s game. So much that his performance hardly dazzled them.
But Bryant asks a reporter “don’t jinx me man” after suggesting there’s no injury that can stop him from playing.
That’s because this injury nearly did. Bryant says he was “just curious” in wanting to play through the All-Star game despite Miami guard Dwyane Wade giving him a hard foul in the third quarter of the All-Star game. Even though he conceded “things seemed a little weird,” Bryant said he hardly knew that’s what a concussion felt like.
Once he was diagnosed with that after the game, things changed. He couldn’t expedite his recovery process through constant treatment, toughness and adjustments. Bryant couldn’t simply tell the Lakers he could play. He had to follow the NBA’s new policy passed in December that requires players to remain asymptomatic for 24 hours after the initial concussion, successfully complete a series of tests and then seek approval from a neurologist.
“It's definitely different,” Bryant said. “In that sense you’re pretty helpless. you have to be patient and hope for the best.
Yet, the same outcome happened.
Neurologist Vern Williams said Bryant “passed them all with flying colors,” including neurological, bicycle, Axon and treadmill tests as well as a game of two-on-two. Williams said the "significant majority" of Bryant's symptoms were more related to whiplash and medication he took for a sore neck than to the concussion itself. And Bryant met Williams less than an hour before tipoff to prove he remained asymptomatic.
There still remained challenges. His five turnovers showed both his discomfort with the mask. His bandage tape behind his lower neck and frequent massages from Lakers physical therapist Judy Seto show his neck still bothers him. His refusal to take off the mask during the game points to his revelation that “nose is too tender.”
But he had the right mindset on navigating it. Bryant’s stoic mood prompted teammates to respect his toughness so much they didn’t even bother giving a nickname to his mask. Bryant’s practical nature regarding competition made him take no offense to Wade’s foul, especially since the two remain friends. His endorsement regarding the NBA’s policy showed his understanding on the seriousness surrounding concussions. The man behind the mask showed something else too.
“I always try to stay positive,” Bryant said. “When I wake up tomorrow morning, I'm not going to have headaches.”
And with that, Bryant still remained the same person behind the mask. Even if he had to wear a new one.