Lakers Therapist On Kobe’s Pain Threshold: “It’s The Highest I’ve Ever Seen”

There’s no end to the mythologizing that’s happening every time we see a new facet to Chris Ballard’s Sports Illustrated feature on Kobe Bryant. First, came Steve Nash‘s hysterical three-word summary of the Mamba, then we heard about Kobe’s text to LeBron after his 2010 “Decision.” Yesterday came an even bigger scoop, when Kobe waxed poetic about the confidence in wanting to go 0-for-30 rather than 0-for-9. Today, Ballard dropped another gem, highlighting Bryant’s almost superhuman tolerance for pain.

Lakers physical therapist Judy Seto, has been around for a while, which is why Ballard spoke with her when compiling his exhaustive, 360-degree look at perhaps the greatest Laker ever in his final years in the NBA.

Seto told Ballard about Kobe’s recovery from his torn Achilles’ tendon at the end of the 2012-13 season, which necessitated he miss the playoffs.

Plus, the fractured lateral tibial plateau in his left knee that knocked him out of the rest of the 2013-14 after he was only able to come back for six games. Of the former, the Achilles injury, she mentions Kobe’s high threshold for pain, unusually high in her expert estimation:

“[his pain threshold] is the highest that I’ve ever seen. He channels his focus so well in terms of just the task at hand. But also when he’s had pain, he can block that out. I mean, I think a good example is when he tore his Achilles, he made those free throws. He blocked it out and focused. He didn’t let his mind go to the place of, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ At one time it was a career-ending injury. Your mind starts to wander and go down that road. Everyone around you, the distraction, not only your team is wondering how you’re doing, the other team, the game, the fans in the stands, everything.”


“One of the things I saw that cemented for me his pain level, besides that episode, was he dislocated his finger. I think he was playing I want to say Cleveland, maybe Miami. But it was during the first quarter. He dislocated his finger. It’s basically like, this bone was over here. The head trainer, during a timeout, he relocated it, had him go back in.

“I think that trait makes him who he is, and his ability to focus also allows him to channel his energies. It’s not that he doesn’t feel pain; it’s how he responds. Everybody responds to pain a little differently. There’s some people that if you have an injury, you perseverate on it, an injury here can manifest to an injury over here or somewhere else in your body. It can be extremely debilitating. That’s the other stream.

“…But he’s at a level where he does not allow it to control him. But that’s how he is with so many aspects of his life, so… I think that’s why he is who he is. “

Like all medical professionals, sometimes Seto has to ask what level of pain or discomfort a player might be in to assess the damage. Usually Seto and others in her field ask for a simple numerical measurement between 1-10 to explain how much pain a player is suffering from. With Kobe, however, it’s basically impossible:

“I don’t even ask him. He just looks at me. ‘Why are you even asking me this? What’s the point?’

“So there’s no point in asking him, ‘How bad is your pain?’ He would just go, ‘Why are you asking me about my pain? Just take care of whatever the problem is and let me get back to what I need to do, or I can’t do it, so tell me I can’t, then we’ll deal with it.’

“It’s kind of like useless. I mean, I’ll have to ask him, ‘Does it hurt?’ I have an obligation to ask. But I don’t think I’ve asked on a scale of zero to ten how much it hurts because it doesn’t matter for him.”

It’s no wonder he hit the free throw with a torn Achilles’ tendon, and refused to leave a game, or even go back in the locker-room, after dislocating his finger; Kobe Bryant feels pain, but his will is strong enough to block it out, like a contemporary Übermensch with a different set of medical guidelines than us mortals.

These little vignettes from Kobe’s life continue to paint a picture of the same demonic work-horse we’ve turned into a legend for more than a decade now. Except, myths are fantasy, and Bryant’s story is real — if a tad hyperbolic.

You should really go check out the whole piece of Seto’s discussions with Ballard, and if you haven’t already, the fully-formed feature for the magazine has already entered the must-read basketball canon.

What do you think?

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