The Kobe Bryant question, once bantered loudly and hopefully among Lakers fans, has been reduced to a conspiratorial whisper.
This is because the Kobe Bryant question has changed.
It became official last week, when Nick Young was scuffling with four Phoenix Suns while most of his Lakers teammates watched impassionedly from a distance. The television cameras scanned the Lakers' bench and there, in the corner of the screen, appeared Bryant. He was watching this embarrassing mess with no expression, watching his team finally cross the last threshold of humiliation and begin hurtling helplessly toward the NBA's abyss.
The question is no longer, when is Bryant coming back?
The question is, why is Bryant coming back?
Why, indeed, would Bryant risk a third major injury in 12 months to rejoin a team whose future he would only damage? Why would he put further strain on an already-rushed comeback from a torn Achilles' tendon to make a playoff push for a team that would be better off being allowed to fall into the draft lottery?
Bryant could return from his latest knee injury as soon as February, but the Lakers' season is already in mothballs, and their future is already in pingpong balls. He can make the current situation only slightly better, which would make the future situation much worse.
If Bryant is truly the unselfish leader that he claims to be, he would forsake the spotlight and disappear into the practice gym for the rest of the season so the Lakers can finish their fall to the bottom of the standings and cement their odds at a top pick in this summer's loaded draft.
Kobe, we love you.
Now get lost.
Magic Johnson answered the Kobe question last week in an interview with The Times, and his quotes bear repeating.
When asked if Bryant should sit out the rest of the season, Johnson said, "He's got to. What are you coming back to? He's not going to be able to stop the pick and roll; he's not going to be able to stop all the layups."
Johnson emphasized that Bryant would have a legitimate reason to miss the rest of the season. This would not be a tank, it would be a tuneup.
"He's been hurt twice," Johnson said. "'Give him the whole year to get back healthy. Also, his body needs a break. He's broken down twice. Gotta give him a break."
Bryant needs to give himself a break. Remember, his abbreviated six-game comeback in December ended when his knee busted under the stress. He rushes back this time, what body part goes next? And for what? So everyone can marvel that he's a warrior? Everyone does that already. It's hard to say this about a guy who just signed a $48.5-million contract extension, but the only way that deal has even a remote chance of being worth the money is for Bryant to sit.
While the Lakers would be setting themselves up for their first strong draft pick in forever, Bryant would be preparing himself to welcome a top free agent to the team, two moves that could make his final two seasons memorable.
Bryant gets his strength back, the Lakers get some buzz back with some hotshot rookie, who wouldn't agree that Bryant's absence would indeed make the Lakers' hearts grow fonder?
Well, Bryant, of course.
"If you give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can by thinking, 'I'm going to sit out' ... then the motivation's gone, and I refuse to have that happen," Bryant told reporters in Boston on Friday. "It's my job to be ready."
But Bryant's definition of "ready" is often different from the reasoned view of "ready." This is a guy who shot two free throws with that torn Achilles' tendon. This is a guy who has played on one leg, with one hand, with high fevers and low energy. So when he says he's "ready," that only means he's breathing.
And he talks about his job, well, really, what is Bryant's job? It is to lead this team to a championship. Sometimes that means making a big shot, but other times that means making a big pass. Sometimes that means playing hurt, but other times that means ignoring your tough-guy instincts, listening to your aging body, looking at the standings and planning for the future.
"We'll see where it's at in February and see if it's good to go," Bryant said Friday.
Everyone already sees where it's at, and it's not good to go, it's good to stop. Answering the Kobe question in the negative could be the hardest thing Bryant has ever done. It would also be the smartest.
Besides, Bryant always says he plays for June, and that could still be the goal, with June 26 being the date of this year's NBA draft.