(Kobe Bryant. Photo by Noah Graham, Associated Press)
In almost every statistical category, Michael Jordan was superior to Kobe Bryant as of February 2006. He had achieved more rings, points, rebounds, assists, MVP's, Olympic gold medals, and possessed an almost insurmountable legacy. But on January 22, 2006, Bryant accomplished something Michael never did: he scored 81 points in a single game.
On a night where the NFC and AFC Championship games ended in blowouts, and the Seattle SuperSonics beat the Suns 152-149 in double overtime, Kobe Bryant was the major headline. Only a month before, Bryant scored 62 points through three quarters against the Dallas Mavericks, but sat out the fourth period because the game was already decided. Fans and writers lamented that good sportsmanship deprived them from seeing a player score 70, 80, or even 90 points in a single game.
On this night, Bryant took over in a fashion that satisfied -- and amazed -- basketball fans everywhere. The Toronto Raptors, who statistically had the second-worst defense in the NBA, had an 18-point advantage four minutes into the third quarter. Kobe then took over and proceeded to have a 27-point period, one where he single-handedly outscored the Raptors. By the end of the quarter, Bryant was sitting on 53 points and Toronto's lead had turned into a 6-point deficit.
Only 4.2 seconds remained when Bryant was taken out by coach Phil Jackson. After 41 minutes and 56 seconds, he left the floor to a standing ovation from the Staples Center crowd, who had seen one of the greatest performances in sports history. In scoring 81 points, Bryant somehow turned a five-on-five basketball game into his own personal playground.
His 81 points was the second-highest total in the league's 60-year history; only Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 100 points against the Knicks in 1962, scored more in one game. The most Michael Jordan posted was a 69-point outing against the Cleveland Cavaliers. A player had reached 70 or more points just nine times before this, with Wilt doing it six times. Chamberlain's 100-point game was thought to be unmatchable in the modern NBA, though Bryant's performance forced skeptics to acknowledge that if anyone could break it, it was him.
"We were just watching him shoot," said Toronto's Chris Bosh. "He takes the type of shots where you don't think they're going in, but suddenly he's rolling, so he's kind of hard to stop. We tried three or four guys on him, but it seemed like nobody guarded him tonight."
"You're sitting and watching, and it's like a miracle unfolding in front of your eyes and you can't accept it," said Lakers owner Jerry Buss. "Somehow, the brain won't work. The easiest way to look at it is everybody remembers every 50-point game they ever saw. He had 55 in the second half."
(The scoreboard indicates Kobe's point total. Photo by Noah Graham, Associated Press)
Almost instantly, analysts argued that Kobe's performance was more impressive than Wilt's 100-point game. Those who believed this cited that Bryant, as a guard, had a much tougher job scoring than the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain. They noted that the opposition Kobe faced was significantly stronger and quicker than the one Wilt was up against. Chamberlain scored 100 in a season where he averaged 50 points per contest, a feat that, while impressive, simply could not exist in the era that Bryant was playing in.
Few experts could visually make the comparison between Chamberlain and Bryant's games. Whereas Bryant scored 81 in a crowded arena filled with cameras and photographers, Chamberlain's 1962 outburst was un-televised, leaving only a murky radio broadcast of the game as evidence. Chamberlain's teammates purposely fouled their opponents so that Wilt would have more chances to reach triple-digits. Bryant, who made all but one of LA's shots in the fourth quarter, had little leverage in that department, though the fourth quarter in Wilt's game had often been referred to as a farce.
Statistician Harvey Pollack was at the game where Wilt scored 100, making him one of the only people in the world to witness both Kobe and Wilt's career-highs. Pollack contended that because Bryant was still well shy of "the Stilt's" record, it wasn't as impressive. "It's not as great a feat until you match the man's points," he said. "Nineteen points left."
Gary Pomerantz, who wrote a book about Chamberlain's 100-point game, motioned that the social significance in Chamberlain's masterpiece far exceeded Bryant's. ''1962 was a very different America,'' Pomerantz said, noting that in Wilt's era, quotas existed that limited the number of African-Americans a team could have. ''The black freedom struggle was in full flight, and it was a very different NBA. When you size up what Kobe does in 2006 in an NBA game versus what Wilt did at a time when you had the first generation of African-American superstars, it's hard to compare them on that social level. What Wilt did that night in Hershey was to blow that quota symbolically to smithereens.''
It should also be noted that while Wilt's teammates fouled the opposition intentionally to keep 100 a possibility, they did it because the Knicks concentrated more on stopping Wilt than winning the game. The Knicks triple-teamed the "Big Dipper" and held the ball to limit his possessions, which was understandable when you're being embarrassed like that. "They were willing to do anything to stop me," Wilt said on the 25th anniversary of the accomplishment. "I maybe could have scored 140 if they had played straight-up basketball."
A reasonable case can be made for both sides of the debate. A side few people wanted to hear came from Vince Carter, who told reporters that Bryant's scoring barrage was a detriment to the league. "The only bad thing about it is that younger kids, whose minds are easily warped are going to think, 'Oh, I am going out there and do it instead of (honoring) the team concept first.'"
Carter was seen as a shoot-first player in the mold of Kobe Bryant and was ultimately shouted down by members of the press. It turned out that the Nets guard knew what he was talking about. Just two weeks later, Epiphanny Prince from Murry Bergtraum High School broke the women's record for points in a high school game. This was controversial considering that Prince finished with 113 points, played the entire game, and her team won by 105. Asked what was going through her mind during the game, Prince answered, "I was thinking about Kobe."