Following Kobe Bryant’s final season has been a bit surreal. After he announced this season would be his last, he has been showered with cheers, treated to tribute videos from NBA legends, and been as well received as he ever has been. Considering this is a guy who has received “MVP” chants in opposing stadiums over the course of his career, this is saying something.
But time is getting shorter. We are now past the halfway point, the Lakers playing their 44th game on Wednesday and their 45th tonight against the Spurs. There will only be 38 more of these regular season contests (starting tonight) and a few other moments to celebrate it all before it’s over. The finality of that hasn’t yet fully sunk in, but it will. This week, for me at least, that process took another step forward.
It started with the final tally of votes for the All-Star game being released. Kobe maintained his lead as the top vote-getter, outpacing reigning league MVP Steph Curry and the always present LeBron James. Kobe has been named an all-star every season the game has occurred (curse you 1999 lockout!) since 1998. Injuries have kept him out of several contests, but this year I don’t think anything could keep him from stepping on that court one last time.
Second, though, has been the build up to today, January 22nd. Ten years ago today Kobe scored 81 points against the Raptors. It is, for many, his greatest individual performance and the feat by which he will most be remembered. That was the night where it all sort of came together — him being incredibly hot, the Lakers playing poorly enough where his scoring exploits were a needed component for the team to compete, and the Raptors being just bad enough defensively to give him the room to establish his rhythm. It all culminated with him getting to 81.
In the lead-up to today, we have gotten the best glimpse into that night to this point. First was this fantastic oral history of the game put together by ESPN’s Arash Markazi. Arash spoke to many people — broadcasters, front office members, players, and more — who were all there that night and/or involved in some way. There were so many great anecdotes revealed, but one of my favorites was the exchange between Kobe and Brian Shaw from the night Kobe outscored the Mavs 62-61 through three quarters:
A month before playing Toronto, Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks by himself through three quarters 62-61 (the Lakers’ lead was 95-61). Bryant played only 33 minutes that night and sat out the entire fourth quarter of the Lakers’ blowout win over the eventual Western Conference champions. When he was asked after the game how many points he would have finished with had he played the fourth quarter, Bryant shrugged his shoulders. “Probably 80,” he said. “I was in a really, really good groove.”
Brian Shaw: After the third quarter, the players were on the bench and the coaches went out and huddled on the court. Phil asked me to go ask Kobe if he wanted to stay in the game and try to get 70 and then come out. So I went up to Kobe and said, “Hey, Coach wants to know if you want to stay in for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, get 70 and then come out.” He looked up at the scoreboard, and he said, “Nah, I’ll get it another time.” I looked at him and I kind of got mad. I said: “What?! You have a chance to get 70 points. How many people can say they scored 70 points? Just stay in the first few minutes and get another eight points, get 70 and then come out of the game.” He said: “I’ll do it when we really need it. I’ll get it when it really matters.”
Kobe Bryant: Brian was mad. He was like: “Man, are you crazy? You know what you could score tonight?” I just said, “I’ll do it when we really need it.” Brian was like, “What?!” It was something that just rolled off my tongue because I trained extremely hard and the physical tools were there. I just felt like I could have a game like that again.
The concept of “I’ll do it when we really need it” is so outlandish to me, yet, when you listen to Kobe talk about his preparation heading into that season, totally believable and understandable at the same time. Friend of the site @basquiatball recorded a bunch of games from that season and let me borrow the DVD’s (I’ll return them some day, J.D.!) and I have randomly watched multiple games from that season. Kobe really was on a level that is hard to describe. He was simply beyond what defenses what prepared for.
The second tribute I really enjoyed was the five short videos the NBA released about that night:
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) January 19, 2016
— NBA (@NBA) January 19, 2016
— NBA (@NBA) January 20, 2016
— NBA (@NBA) January 21, 2016
— NBA (@NBA) January 22, 2016
Looking back at that night combined with this week’s news of Kobe being named a starter in the ASG really has reminded me that we are getting close to the end. Ultimately, this makes me sad, but also gives me pause to remember to appreciate what Kobe has done in his career. The first to approach Wilt’s 100 and closing down his last season, the memories of what he’s accomplished really will live on forever.