Dwight Howard had his own reasons for wanting to pay Kobe Bryant a visit in April, after the Los Angeles Lakers guard had ruptured his Achilles tendon. Whatever issues had come between the two stars, and whatever issues lie ahead, Howard knew firsthand how isolating and depressing it was to be stuck at home and confined to a bed after suffering a career-threatening injury.
A year earlier, he'd been in the same dark place. Holed up in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, Calif., after back surgery, waiting for a visitor, or even a text message, from someone -- anyone! -- to take his mind off the long road ahead. Occasionally a friend or family member came by. But none of his teammates ever did, and it hurt Howard deeply.
So the week after Bryant ruptured his Achilles, Howard and reserve guard Jodie Meeks paid Bryant a visit at his home in Newport Beach.
"He was just sitting on the couch, relaxing with his family," Meeks said. "I forget what we did. I think we watched a movie or something. It seems like a long time ago, now. But I guess it wasn't."
Meeks didn't have any of the emotional baggage associated with the visit that Howard did. Nor did he realize what a rare thing it was for any of Bryant's teammates to drive all the way to his home in Orange County, an hour south of the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo, Calif. To Meeks, it was just a nice thing to go do. But while the details and context of it all are a bit fuzzy, one image endures. Bryant sitting on the couch, his leg immobilized, surrounded by his family. Meeks had never seen him this way. Very few have.
Meeks' image of Bryant is the same one most of us have: the snarling, uber-competitive gamer who never met an injury that could keep him out.
Weeks earlier, Bryant had badly sprained his ankle after landing on Atlanta Hawks guard Dahntay Jones' foot and played the next game in Indiana with an injury one Lakers insider estimated would keep any other player out two to three weeks. His logic? Just see what it felt like to play with an ankle that was that badly sprained.
As elite athletes go, he'd been relatively invincible.
"It seems that way," Meeks said. "But it's not."
Sitting on that couch, with his left foot in a cast, and his basketball future in question, Bryant was as vulnerable as anyone had ever seen him.
The sight was jarring.
"We all got a shot of reality with that one," Meeks said. "It's one thing to play hurt, it's another to play with [that] injury."
As Bryant prepares to make his comeback Sunday evening against the Toronto Raptors (9:30 ET on NBA TV), that's the question everyone will be wrestling with.
Can he be invincible again? Should he even try to be?
Has this experience made him stronger and smarter? If so, what will that even look like?
So much of what Bryant has been, particularly in his later years, is a symbol of resistance. Other players might get old, but he refuses to. Other men might try to stave off the effects of gravity and age, but only he has the mental toughness and discipline to be able to.