“But you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you—
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”
- The Odyssey – Book 11 (11.547-558)
Thus spoke Odysseus to the ghost of Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks, a champion of soldiers. He achieved much glory on earth, but in his death, his wishes were nothing more than to live again, even without glory, slaving away for another man. Anything other than death. The great Achilles was humbled. As a man on earth, Achilles had very little reason to be humble, or as the Greeks said it, tapeinos.
He had no weakness, save for one spot on his body, his heel. That same heel was the heel that his mother held him by as he was dipped into the River Styx in the underworld, as the Greek mythology goes. The river’s waters rendered his whole body safe from harm, save for the spot where his mother held on to him. As a result, Achilles was one of the greatest warriors Greece had ever seen, and was renowned for his prowess in battle, and for his seeming invincibility. No sword could cut him, no spear could pierce him. When he fought, everyone on his side knew that they would stand victorious, while his opponents shirked back in fear. Few knew of his one weakness. However, as the fates, or the gods, or luck would have it, that heel was the same heel that was skewered by an arrow, flying from the bow of Paris the Trojan. The arrow was poisoned, and even the great Achilles could not defeat it. Thus Achilles died, and it is from that story that we get the name for the Achilles tendon in our heels. Everyone has one, go on, feel it right now. It’s that long, tubular thing at the very back of your ankle. The Achilles, or calcaneal tendon, attaches the calf muscle to the heel bone. Without it, one cannot walk, or jump, or run. Your foot would hang useless below, unable to move to the bidding of their brain. The reason why I bore you will information about the Achilles tendon and its origins is because it establishes for me an interesting irony, based on recent events. Let me explain.
Scoring champion: 05-06, 06-07. 12 All-Defensive teams, 9 of them first team. 14 All-NBA teams, 10 of them first team. 15 time All-Star, and 4 time All-Star MVP, earning him the most NBA All-Star Game MVPs in league history. 2-time Olympic gold medalist. League MVP 2007-08. 5 championship rings. 4th all time on the NBA scoring list. More importantly: 1239 games played (regular season, not including long runs into the playoffs) and 45,390 minutes played. This is Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, and one of the greatest competitors the world has ever seen. I didn’t know much about Kobe Bryant when I was younger. Not being much a sports fan, and seeing as no one in my family cares much either, he was off my radar for a very long time. When I started to get into basketball, I came to respect him greatly. My respect for him came from his insatiable desire to win, and with that, his impeccable work ethic and his on-court escapades that back it up. I have seen no player do the things that Kobe does on the basketball court. You can see his hard work in every juke step, in every hard dribble he takes in the paint against a hapless defender. You also see his brash confidence, his undeniable swagger. He knows he’s the best. And he’s not afraid to show it. As a Boston Celtics fan, most people would expect me to hate that, and to hate Kobe. But I can’t; he’s too good. You cannot hate greatness, and if you are, you’re being petty. More than all this, Kobe Bryant saw every injury as a minor annoyance. He broke his middle finger, he learned to shoot using the other fingers. His knees were falling apart, so he went to Germany, underwent an operation, and was good to go. The man shakes off injuries like they are nothing. You can tell, he always thought he was unstoppable. Indeed, by all accounts, he was.
Fast forward to the 2012-13 season. Kobe’s team, at the beginning of the season thought to be the new favourites for the championship with the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, are floundering. Instead of fighting for the top seed in the playoffs, they are fighting to even make the playoffs after a horrid 17-25 start. However, number 24 was not about to let them go down without a fight. Against all odds, the Lakers climbed the ladder, their record a mediocre, but playoff qualifying 42-37. Their climb up the ladder was led by their 34 year old shooting guard, who gifted fans with some of his greatest performances of the season when it really mattered.
In New Orleans, down by at least 20 points, Kobe led his team to victory, reminding everyone why he is one of the greatest of all-time.
He continued his escapades against the Portland Trailblazers, wowing the fans in the Rose Garden again and again.
Again and again, I was reminded of how the man spits in Father Time’s face, with every jumper, every dunk, every dribble, he proved himself seemingly greater than the passing of the days as his 17th season continued on. On April 12, 2013, the Black Mamba and his team faced off against the Golden State Warriors, a division rival, and another obstacle that Kobe needed to get out of his way. The game was tight in the third quarter, with the Lakers down by 2. The ball came to Bryant, who was isolated against the rookie Harrison Barnes. Kobe spun to his left, heard a pop, and immediately fell to the court. Barnes was called for the foul, and Kobe lay wincing on the ground, feeling his left ankle. He said he had known exactly what it was when it happened, but he didn’t want to believe it. Amazingly, the worn and wearied player stayed in long enough to shoot his free throws, and then left the game. After the game, Kobe was interviewed. This Kobe was a marked change from the usual Kobe. The cool, calm, collected, and utterly cocky Kobe was gone. What we see is a broken man, who is suddenly unsure, unsure of the present, unsure of the future, and perhaps mostly importantly, unsure of himself. He had torn his achilles tendon, an injury that takes half a year to recover from, and no athlete who has suffered from the injury has come back the same. So why did I tell you all this? Why talk about this Kobe Bryant and his torn tendon? I’ll tell you why: it’s because this man who was by all accounts a god, was broken. It fascinates me to no end that the injury that took Kobe Bryant out was an Achilles injury. The god was broken, the unkillable was brought low, just like Achilles. It made me think about human frailty. Even the greatest of all time (some would say), the man who treated sprained ankles like bugs to be squashed, whose cockiness was backed up by his domination of opponents, could still be brought low. No one is exempt from human frailty. Not even Kobe. He went on a rant on Facebook a few days after his injury, expressing his extreme frustration with the whole situation. He was angry, he was sad, he was broken, and most of all, humbled. There were no workouts to make him come back faster. No way to shake this off. The injury, at least momentarily, had beaten him.
I wish and pray for a swift recovery for Kobe Bryant, and hope to see him at full strength again. There are very few players I love to watch more than the Black Mamba. But he reminded me of an important thing, that no matter how high I get, no matter how successful I am, no matter how indestructible I seem, I’m not. I’m a frail human being, and all that I’ve been blessed with is from God alone, and nothing of my own merit. When I feel small, I will ask God for strength. But also, when I feel powerful, I will thank God that it is in his power, and not of mine alone, that I stand. So thank you Kobe, for reminding me of this, hope to see you on the court soon (not that you’ll read this or anything, but I thought it was a nice touch).
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13 NKJV