We Reminisce: The Greatest Scoring Night Of Kobe Bryant’s Career

Today is the eight-year anniversary of Kobe Bryant‘s incredible 81-point explosion against the Toronto Raptors. It remains a huge part of NBA history, since no other basketball player has ever eclipsed the 80-point plateau, save Wilt Chamberlain‘s mysterious 100-point night in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

To celebrate the anniversary of such a seminal game, where #HeatCheck doesn’t even begin to describe the zone Mamba was in, I took a look at what it meant to me, personally, eight years ago.

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It’s a bit blustery to compare Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game to watershed moments in American history. For the vast majority of American citizens, his offensive explosion on a cold January night was a small blip on the radar screen of history. It’s not like the Twin Towers falling during the terrorist attacks on 9/11 or John F. Kennedy‘s assassination in Dallas, Texas. But for a cadre of basketball fanatics, media personnel and NBA players themselves, the day Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a modern, professional basketball game will always remain a lodestone for discussion of Bryant’s scoring prowess.

With Kobe scoring his 30,000th point last season to join Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only NBA players to achieve that milestone, it’s fitting that we discuss Kobe’s most heralded 81.

So, where were you when you saw Bryant’s explosion? Or more likely, in the days before League Pass’s presence became somewhat mandatory in living rooms and on laptops worldwide, how did you hear about it?

In a lot of ways, the 2005-06 Los Angeles Lakers were perfectly contrived to squeeze every last ounce out of Bryant’s gladiatorial demeanor on the hardwood. On a team featuring starters like Chris Mihm at center, Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom at the forward spots, and the point guard that’s already strangely and publicly raised the ire of Kobe before this season, Smush Parker, Bryant was basically it for the Lakers on the offensive end that season. As someone that doesn’t particularly enjoy Bryant on a personal level but who can appreciate his gifts on the basketball court, I always thought this was his finest, individual season. It had to be because after Shaq’s departure for South Beach, he had to produce at a level that we’re still talking about today.

Mamba averaged a Jordan-esque 35.4 points per game in 41 minutes during the 80 games he appeared in. Only Odom, the maligned Parker and Chris Mihm averaged double-figures that season (Odom was the next-highest behind Kobe at 14.8 points per game). To put Kobe’s scoring average in context, no NBA scoring champion had averaged over 35 points per game since Jordan’s ridiculous 1987-88 campaign when he averaged 35 points a night exactly. The 2005-06 Lakers would finish their season 45-37, good for third in the Pacific Division and a No. 7 seed in the Western Conference that spring. They would lose in the first round of the playoffs over seven games to league MVP (it was his second in a row) Steve Nash and his SSOL Phoenix Suns team. That team was coached by Bryant’s current coach, Mike D’Antoni.

The Lakers were awful that year, and save for the scoring grace of Kobe, they probably would have finished among the bottom five teams in the league. I’ve already mentioned their starters, but just look at their roster. Suffice to say, Kobe was their only real weapon, and opposing teams knew that. Even as the focus of every opposing defense, Kobe averaged over 27 shots a game, and still managed to shoot 45 percent. The gameplan for every Lakers opponent that season was to stop Kobe because if you stopped Kobe, you stopped the Lakers. So how in the hell did he drop 81 points on the Toronto Raptors during the Lakers’ January 22 game?

People forget how close this game actually was. The Raptors weren’t very good, but neither were the Lakers. In the first half, Toronto got out to a seven-point lead, and added another seven points in the second quarter for a 14-point halftime cushion. Even though the Lakers were struggling, Kobe was shooting pretty well. Through two quarters, he was 10-for-18 from the field (1-for-2 from three and 5-for-6 from the line) for 26 points, scoring 14 in the first quarter and 12 in the second. That’s a pretty spectacular half, but ho-hum in comparison to what came next. If he’d scored at the rate he did in the second half, his final tally might have been even higher.

A little more than a month earlier, Bryant had dropped 62 points on the Dallas Mavericks… in only three quarters’ time. A lot of fans were upset Phil Jackson didn’t leave Kobe in for the fourth quarter to go after a record, but Kobe sat with the game already in hand. Things were different in the new year against Toronto: the Lakers were losing, by double-digits, and they needed their superstar to do what he does best: rain buckets.

As I said, Kobe was shooting well, but the rest of his team – as was common that season – wasn’t giving him much support. At halftime, the Raptors led 63-49. The Lakers made that entire deficit up and more in a wild third quarter, though. Kobe shot 11-for-15 from the field in the third, including 5-for-6 from behind the arc, and a made free throw. He bested his first half total, 26 points, by one, scoring 27 points in 12 minutes as the Lakers outscored the Raptors, 42-22, to take a six-point lead into the fourth. Through three quarters, Kobe Bryant had scored 53 points. It wasn’t quite as many as he had against Dallas through three, but fans watching on television (I was not one of them, which we’ll get to), had to know they were watching something special.

Click to read more about Kobe’s historic night…

In the fourth quarter, the Lakers built on the lead they obtained in the third. They outscored the Raptors 31-19 to win by 18. Of the Lakers’ 31 points in that final quarter, only a lone three-pointer by Lamar Odom was scored by anyone not named Kobe Bryant. Kobe dropped 28 more points in the fourth on 7-for-13 shooting from the field, 2-for-6 from deep, and 12-for-13 from the charity stripe. All told, Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a basketball game. Simply put: it was the most incredible individual scoring effort in modern history. His performance was a revelation.

To give some more context from that season, ESPN’s Chris Ramsay added a few facts in the sidebar of the recap from the game:

To put Kobe’s superhuman Sunday into some perspective…NBA teams have been held below 81 points 99 times this season. The Lakers were held below 81 four times. They lost to the Wolves 88-74 on Nov. 9. (Kobe had 28). The Lakers lost to Memphis 85-73 on Nov. 14 (Kobe scored 18). The Lakers lost to the Rockets 76-71 on Dec. 18 (Kobe went for 24). And on Jan. 3, the Jazz beat the Lakers 90-80, when Kobe served a league-mandated suspenion. [sic] The Trail Blazers and the Rockets have been held below 81 points nine times this season. And the world champion San Antonio Spurs were held below 81 both times they played the Pistons this year. On Christmas Day, the Pistons beat the Spurs 85-70, and just last week Detroit beat San Antonio 83-68.

NBA fans of a certain age have to remember where they were when they heard the news, and how different our entertainment consumption was just eight years ago. Unless you were a diehard fan, NBA League Pass still wasn’t all that prominent (blogs were few and far between), so perhaps if you weren’t living in Los Angeles, where the game was held, or in Toronto, and you didn’t know about Bryant’s masterpiece until either Sportscenter came on, or if you were checking the online box scores that night. There was no Twitter, and most people didn’t have a smart phone yet.

Personally, I didn’t see what had happened until the next day at work; I missed Sportscenter that night, probably because I was out at the bar since it was a Sunday (and I spent a lot of time in bars those days regardless of which day of the week it was). I was working in Arlington, VA, but living in Washington, D.C., where I had only graduated from college the summer before. I didn’t own a computer that had access to the Internet. Instead I had an old, secondhand PC that did word processing, but only when plugged in, and absolutely nothing else; I didn’t have iTunes or an iPod; my phone made phone calls and sent text messages, like a more expensive burner phone. Today, everything I do is online. Back then, I used to send stories and articles to publications (that never wrote back) in the mail. Yes, the USPS snail mail that’s only in business these days because of federal subsidies. It was a different world, even though it was only eight years ago.

Most people, including myself, can’t remember a specific day in their far past, unless something special happened (see my opening graph on 9/11 and JFK’s assassination). But because I’ve been a diehard basketball fan since before puberty, I remember most of the specifics of the morning after Kobe’s explosion. I turned on my work computer and immediately went to ESPN. When I saw the headline, I jumped out of my seat and got my co-workers’ attention. I told many of them what happened, but most didn’t understand the significance. A couple people that were sports fans, if not NBA diehards, were understandably impressed.

The rest of that day featured little else of note, but I’ll always remember the shock and excitement I got when I first saw the headline on ESPN’s main page. 81 points…in a single game!?! Craziness. Even after Kobe’s 62-point outburst against Dallas in December, I wasn’t prepared for 81, and neither was anyone else. It remains a staggering amount of points to score in a 48-minute game. Sure, we can all laugh and chastise Grinnell College for their Jack Taylor show at the Division III level – Kobe even commented about it – but to score 81 points in this era of professional basketball is still something that’s hard to comprehend. It shook me to see Kobe score like that. It shook everyone. It still does today.

The fact I can still recall the various details of the day after Kobe’s massive output in sharp colors, rather than the fuzzy afterglow that shrounds most of that time period in my life (like I said, I liked to drink), is perhaps the most important reason to re-live it every January 22nd.

I got to revel in history, only a brief time after it happened. I didn’t know I’d be writing about Kobe’s historic night for DIME all these years later, but I knew it would always stick with me. Love him or hate him, Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game will always be cascading around my neurotransmitters until I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Where were you when you heard Kobe had dropped 81, or were you one of the lucky few who actually watched the game?

How long will it take before someone scores 81 points in a game again?

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