Lakers forward Metta World Peaces gives guard Kobe Bryant a pat on the back… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
TV cameramen yelled and cursed at each other as dozens of reporters scrambled to get an interview with Gary Vitti.
It's never a good sign if the longtime Lakers trainer is the target of a media crush, but somebody had to provide medical details Saturday of the hard news: Kobe Bryant is sidelined six to nine months because of a torn left Achilles' tendon.
NBA teams begin playing around Oct. 31, meaning Bryant theoretically could be back in time for the start of next season.
"I think that's a realistic goal for him," Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said.
Maybe it's too optimistic. Maybe not. Soccer star David Beckham returned from an Achilles' injury in five months. Clippers guard Chauncey Billups needed more than 9½ months.
Bryant had surgery Saturday afternoon to sew the tendon back together. He was hurt barely 12 hours earlier, while driving to the basket with 3:08 to play in the Lakers' 118-116 victory over the Golden State Warriors. He stayed in the game after a timeout, made two free throws because he was fouled on the play, and headed to the locker room.
"When something like this happens, everybody wants to know why, and there's not always a reason why," said Vitti, in his 29th season with the Lakers. "Some of it's just bad luck."
Bryant, 34, was in the process of playing eight consecutive quarters without resting. He averaged 45.6 minutes in his last seven games and was averaging 27.3 points a game.
Vitti agreed that every minute on the court would lead to an increased chance of injury. However, he shot down speculation about the impact of Bryant's increasingly heavy workload.
"To say that he was injured because he played 48 minutes a game the last however-many games I think is a stretch," Vitti said. "Lots of guys rupture their Achilles' tendons and don't play 48 minutes. To make that correlation I don't think is fair."
The franchise tried to move forward Saturday, Bryant's injury interrupting a race for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference.
The Lakers (43-37) have two regular-season games left and lead Utah by one game for eighth place.
The Lakers play both games at home: Sunday against San Antonio and Wednesday against Houston. Utah is on the road at Minnesota and Memphis.
Bryant told Kupchak to deliver something when they met earlier Saturday, a few hours before Bryant's surgery was performed by Neal ElAttrache and Stephen Lombardo of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Group.
"Actually, Kobe gave a message for me to pass on to the guys on the team, most of which I can't share with you [reporters] right here," Kupchak said wryly. "But it was a positive message, as you might imagine, very motivational.
"His spirits were good, certainly markedly different from last [Friday] night. He's proactive in all ways. You wouldn't expect him to wait a week or two [for surgery]. Certainly last night when I got the phone call that he wanted to do it, I wasn't surprised."
Bryant appeared to have been crying before meeting with reporters while wearing crutches after Friday's game.
In the long run, Kupchak downplayed the prospects of the Lakers using their one-time "amnesty" provision to waive Bryant during a one-week window in July.
"That's not even something that we've discussed," he said. "That's the furthest thing from our mind right now."
The Lakers are allowed to cut one of four players on their roster without paying luxury taxes on his salary. Bryant will make $30.5 million next season.
The other eligible players are Pau Gasol ($19.3 million next season), Metta World Peace ($7.7 million) and Steve Blake ($4 million). Players can be amnestied only if they were on the roster dating back to July 2011.
If the Lakers waived Bryant, they would save up to $80 million in luxury taxes but would still have to pay his salary.
It's unlikely they would amnesty him because of the relatively short timetable for his return. If they did, teams under the salary cap this summer would submit undisclosed bids to the NBA office to claim Bryant. He would then belong to the team that bid the highest.
The Lakers could then re-sign Bryant in July 2014, after his current contract expired.
Reaction around the league was predictably sympathetic, if not reverential.
"My players are my favorite, but if I had another one, it would be Kobe," Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers told Boston reporters Saturday. "I just love his heart and his toughness. Heck, I love the fact that he got up and made two free throws with a torn Achilles."
LeBron James was equally complimentary.
"Damn man i feel bad for @kobebryant," he wrote on Twitter. "If there's anybody and i mean anybody who can come back from that injury it would be him!"
Bryant is the latest in a string of injuries this season to blanket the Lakers.
Gasol missed 33 games because of a variety of ailments. Steve Nash has missed 30 games primarily because of a fracture in his leg, though he remains sidelined by a strained hamstring and is a game-time decision Sunday.
Dwight Howard looked slow when returning from off-season back surgery and also missed six games because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
"If you look at our season, it's been a nightmare," Vitti said.
Blake and Jordan Hill missed substantial time because of surgeries, and World Peace recently missed six games after having torn cartilage repaired in his left knee.
Despite the latest calamity, Vitti revealed a way for Bryant to return by the start of next season.
"The best thing you can do for us as media is to say things like 'He can't do it,' and that will force him to do it," he said.