Fifteen years ago this month, Kobe Bryant put up 81 points against the Toronto Raptors and redefined what was possible for a perimeter player in the NBA. An almost peerless feat of scoring, the game remains the most compelling distillation of a legacy that still reaches far and wide.
Bryant enters with six minutes remaining in the second quarter. He watches a baby-faced Chris Bosh sink two free throws to increase the Raptors lead to 14. His team-mates are struggling badly on both ends of the floor. Kobe swishes a corner three with his first touch of the ball and you cannot help thinking what everyone thinks, that this is it, this is when it happens.
When it happens. You will now witness the only moment in recorded history when a person turned into an avalanche.
Instead, Bryant, because he is only Kobe when he makes them, proceeds to miss his next three shots. The first is a heavily contested pull-up two. His favourite. Clank. So is the second, but with the benefit of an additional defender covering him. Clank. The third is a failed drive to the basket and a hopeless fall-away with four (four) Raptors players swarming him in the paint. Clank.
He gets the ball again because he always gets the ball and he starts another drive to the basket from the exact same spot on the right wing. He carries. The whistle blows. Turnover.
Bryant remains expressionless. Phil Jackson arches an eyebrow. The Raptors get the ball back and score.
The night before his one-man evisceration of a basketball team, Bryant ate a pepperoni pizza and drank grape soda while a therapist worked on his knee.
It was, in his own words, ‘very sore’ and he admitted to struggling to explode off it. At this point, you also cannot help but wonder whether you were really that different after all. Junk food and painful joints. Minus the therapist, of course.
I suppose the obvious difference is that the following day, fuelled by sugars and trans fats and with only one good knee, Bryant produced the second greatest scoring performance in NBA history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s immortal 100, whereas you and I probably would have – and this is best case scenario – taken some ibuprofen, been overly grumpy with your colleagues and gone to bed at nine o’clock.
One year on from Kobe’s death it remains impossible to fully untangle the Los Angeles Lakers’ most beloved player. He meant so many different things to so many different people. No single portrait will ever capture the infinite textures and shades. But there remains a compelling self-portrait, and rewatching his 81 points against the Toronto Raptors now, his own personal manifesto hidden within the tapestry of a basketball game, seems to be the one thing that helps crystallise his legacy.
The reason for this, perhaps counterintuitively, is that through much of it, the Raptors play the Lakers off the floor. It is only in the third quarter when Bryant goes thermonuclear and his team-mates start playing a daring full-court press that things get all comic book superhero.
What I mean is that for a significant portion of the game it is like watching a bad movie. You know there is a twist coming because it has been obvious from the start and as a result, when the pendulum finally swings, all you can do is roll your eyes. The Black Mamba, issue 415. The one where he defeats the bad guy… again.
Revisiting Bryant’s 81 points 15 years after the fact, I caught myself wondering when it was all going to feel remarkable. Like Thanos, he seemed to weaponise his own inevitability.
Instead of appreciating the game for what it is, a cathedral of scoring, I found myself obsessing over all the small blemishes in the masterpiece because, and only because, Bryant did the impossible in such a way as to make it seem scripted. Imagine that for a second. Being so good you make everything around you seem like nothing more than clever lighting and set design. A few semi-convincing extras.
Returning to the game itself, it is no exaggeration to say that Bryant’s shot selection (fading long twos from the top of the key) and response to repeated double and triple teams (“Pass? Why?”) made me feel slightly unwell. It was hero-ball to the nth degree.
Perhaps his most egregious hate crime toward the analytics community is catching wide open near the top of the arc, only his toes over the line, and choosing to shoot immediately rather than shuffle back an inch or two for the extra point. In the modern NBA players repeatedly turn down free layups to pass to a shooter for a corner three.
It seems obvious to state that we will not see a player like him again. Maybe less so to say that basketball might be better off for it, if only to maintain a faint sense of realism.
When the twist that is not much of a twist does come, that Bryant is an otherworldly talent capable of beating teams on his own, gasp, there’s a sense that something’s not quite right even beyond the apparent certainty of the outcome.
Watching Klay Thompson’s 60 points in three quarters against the Pacers in 2016 as a comparison, and because, well, I miss him, the difference in tone is obvious. It’s not just the frictionless way Thompson moves around the court to open spots or the cartoonish magnetism of the ball to his hands once he does. It’s also in the joy that unfolds around him as he briefly becomes a man disguised as God playing basketball on the easiest possible difficulty settings.
Steph Curry had the time of his life just passing him the ball and throwing up three fingers in the air before he had even caught it. Kevin Durant was beside himself on the bench. Draymond Green was so giddy he did not even commit a technical.
So whereas Thompson effortlessly swept to his points, a 100-foot wave of catch and shoot jumpers and laser beam cuts to the basket, Bryant resembled a man with a cruise liner tied to his waist trying to singlehandedly drag it up a mountain.
He succeeded, and it was all the more impressive for it, but still. You cannot escape the feeling his 81 points were as grotesque as they were beautiful.
His team-mates killed themselves going for rebounds and steals so they could give him the ball, but they never once looked like they were enjoying it. Neither did Bryant, whose demeanour ranged only from ‘furious at the officials’ to ‘complete and total indifference towards the universe and everything in it’. There was no in between.
It is important to note this was Kobe at his most fearsome and most fearless. These were his years in the wilderness, post-Shaq and pre-Gasol, carrying a quite frankly ridiculous assembly of players to a low playoff berth they in no way deserved.
This was not the Kobe that bowed out with 60 points in a comeback win against Utah during his final game. When, for once, his team-mates mobbed him at every timeout. When, for once, the whole world was rooting for him.
What that tells us, and what makes Bryant such a fascinating athlete, is the fact that his persona did not actually change much between points A and B in anything beyond meaningless aesthetics. He tried to convince us he did by switching his jersey number, shaving his head and becoming the first person to ever successfully give themselves a nickname.
But in reality, different generations of NBA players all tell an identical story about him: the one where they think they are the first to practice but are shocked to find him already in the gym, already drenched in sweat and already hoisting shots at 5am. He tells them he has been there for hours. They are not really shocked at all.
In that mythical final appearance you watch him sucking down gulps of air without blinking, readying his body to take his 40th heavily contested fall-away jumper of the night. Ten years prior he was doing the exact same thing against Toronto.
Instead, it was us who grew and evolved and learned to appreciate him more, even as we knew we were just the semi-convincing extras in a narrative that was always his. It was almost as though the planet tilted for him and him alone. His first games came tucked away in empty school gyms in Northern Italy. His final heroic act was streamed in high definition to millions.
Maybe he did soften at the edges after his retirement, finding a certain kind of peace in his staggering list of accomplishments, even if it did not get him as close to Michael Jordan as he would have liked.
On the court he remained as he always was, played as he always did, only swapping out the windmill dunks of his youth for low-post scoring when wear and tear, in other words, time, demanded it of him.
Attack the basket no matter what is in the way. Score the ball by any and every means possible. Win. That was it. The sport of basketball as interpreted by Kobe.
The Raptors game was his way of writing that formula in capitals across the chalkboard. His genius writ large, underlined and with a few exclamation marks just to make sure you really get the point.
After missing those three shots and committing a turnover, Bryant collected a handoff at the elbow, drove straight to the hoop and slammed the ball down over Matt Bonner’s head. He would only leave the game again with four seconds left, the Lakers up 18, and 81 impossible points to his name.
In the end, I think that is what I liked most about him. You learned more from his mistakes and his misses. He treated each bad moment the same, as though it just gave him another chance to right a wrong. If a few racked up together that was fine, too. It meant the payoff would be even greater.
Everyone else chased the ball up and down the floor. He was chasing redemption on every play.
It was as though he took the most difficult shot on purpose, knowing he would probably miss, just to make the story more compelling. But that’s the funny thing. Sometimes he would not even miss, and then his reality became more incredible than fiction.