11 Years Ago, 81 Points and Immortality

It’s really a testament to the power of imagination. There’s a lot of players who come up now who don’t think 80 points is possible. You think 50 and if you are really hot- 60. I never had that limit. Ever. I never, ever thought that way. I always thought 80 was possible. Always. I think that game is a testament to what happens when you put no ceiling to what you’re capable of doing (Kobe Bryant)

Eleven years have passed since Kobe Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. What is your perspective of that game now, as opposed to then?

C.J. Hampshire: At the time I thought it was the greatest scoring exhibition I had ever seen, granted without much resistance from Toronto. But still, he took 46 shots. His second half scoring was unreal. I expected him to get tired and he seemed to get better as time went on. I thought he would get to 90 but when there was five minutes left, he looked gassed. Over the arc of time, it is apparent to me it is one of the true hallmarks of the sport. There’s Wilt and 100 and then there’s Kobe and 81.

Alex Khalifa: Kobe was always going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I think that game added to his legacy even further. He certainly carried an otherwise unremarkable team into the playoffs that season.

Julian Billick: It added an exclamation point to the narrative that Kobe Bryant was a NBA player who could single handedly, if the wind was blowing the right way, beat a team by himself. Everything he did after that game, only supported the conclusion of him being one of the all-time extraordinary scoring talents. Replays of that game, you see what he could do. It wasn’t just a 3-point barrage. I think he took 16. But it was his entire arsenal. The step-back, the jab-step, the dribble pull up, the fadeaway. Eleven years later it hasn’t lost its luster.

Valerie Morales: He has defined the adversity narrative. That has always been his touchstone. The Lakers were trailing in that game and needed him. And so he delivered and then some.  The Raptors had a double digit lead which was what started the binge in the first place. Kobe had to shake them off and in doing so he had the greatest night of his career.

Aside from Kobe’s points, what is the most striking part of that game?

C.J.: That Toronto had Chris Bosh on that team. And Jalen Rose. And they were still helpless. Or should I say hopeless.

Alex: It’s crazy that the rest of the Lakers made only 14 field goals. Stranger still, ten of those came from Chris Mihm and Smush Parker. Talk about a one-man team.

Valerie: That the game bumped off the AFC Championship Game from the opening of SportsCenter. I remember Stuart Scott saying something like: ‘who can knock the Steelers going to the Super Bowl from the first story. Kobe scoring 81.’

Julian: That Smush Parker is part of Kobe’s greatest moment. Karma exists.

What responsibility does Sam Mitchell have in what Kobe did? For better of worse, he will always be attached to that game negatively.

Valerie: It took him (Sam Mitchell) a long time to get another coaching job after that. Even at Minnesota last year he was still wearing the interim label. I think it will always be his scarlet letter. Coaches openly criticized what he didn’t do. I read in Bleacher Report, George Karl saying he would have fouled Kobe, triple teamed him, never let him get his points. The consensus among players and coaches was that Sam Mitchell’s strategy never changed. Kobe’s a great scorer but it could have been a 50 point night.

C.J.: I think a lot of the Sam Mitchell shade has to do with a way to back-end Kobe criticism. Like on a special night, no one gives Kobe credit. So Sam takes the fall and becomes the story. Kobe was going to score. Kobe was going to make shots.  Smush Parker was the point guard.

Alex: Former Raptor Mike James has criticized Mitchell for failing to double team. He also described Mitchell as being too stunned to react to Bryant’s performance. There is no question that Mitchell has learned from nights like those. Of course, Bryant was operating on another level in that game.

Julian: The Toronto players had to deal with the humiliation afterwards. They are immortalized on film forevermore. They are the ones who came out publicly against Mitchell. Jalen Rose has been pretty brutal on Mitchell about it. Does Mitchell deserve some of the blame for not changing strategy? Yes. And why could the Raptors do nothing on offense with Chris Mihm, Luke Walton and Smush guarding them.

Obviously Steph Curry is someone who can come close to that number. Anyone else?

Alex: I wouldn’t even bet on Curry accomplishing that, but he would be at the top of the list. I also think Kevin Durant has the ability to get hot enough and at least challenge that figure. He’s one of the best in the league from long range which is a major ingredient.

C.J.: Durant. It would take a good three point shooter having a superb night. But the thing is you would have to be on a bad team. You’d have to carry the team all the way through the 4th. Curry or Durant might have big numbers but they’d be sitting down in the 4th because they would have too much talent on their second unit.

Valerie: I look at Westbrook’s game and on a great shooting night he might hover around the 60ish, 70ish mark beccause he’s the only thing the Thunder have going. Westbrook can get to the line 20 times in a game. He drives to the rim. If he has one of those perfect jump shooting nights he can hit 20 of 40 shots. He can make 20 free throws.

Julian: Durant, but his team would never be bad enough for him to carry them. The other thing is none of the players you would think could do it because of scoring talent have the mindset to just chuck the offense and take over for an entire second half, eff teammates. That’s what made Kobe unique as a player, his psychotic breaks during games.

When the Raptors honored Kobe last year, there was no mention of the 81 in the video? Still bitter?

Valerie: It was a regular season game in January. Get over yourselves.

C.J.: It’s the Raptors. Name one Raptors moment? Oh, Kobe punked y’all for 81. They are bitter and will forever be.

Julian: Yes, they are bitter. Ten years later, they couldn’t cut that piece of basketball mythology out the history books.

Alex: . It’s not as if Kobe did it against Toronto in a Finals game. Maybe the Raptors didn’t want their fans seeing footage of Kobe scoring against them altogether.

Is 81 points Kobe Bryant’s greatest achievement?

Alex: No.Kobe guiding the Lakers to the 2009 title after all the chatter about him never winning a championship without Shaq. Pau Gasol made major contributions too, but that trophy silenced a lot of Bryant’s detractors.

Valerie: No. It’s his greatest individual achievement but the sport will always be a team game. The three-peat put him in rare company. The only shooting guard other than Michael Jordan and John Havlicek to win three titles in a row. And it goes without saying, beating the Celtics in game 7 when the Celtics had a 3-2 series lead was the legacy moment.

Julian: No. The first title win without Shaq.

C.J.: Yes. He beat a NBA team by himself. He beat a NBA team with a young Chris Bosh on it. That season, Bosh scored 22 points and pulled 9 boards. Kobe beat him. He beat a NBA team after that team had a double-digit lead. He was the best player on the other team. Everyone knew he was the best player. Everyone tried to stop him (sort of) and couldn’t. He was an alien in a human’s body. He didn’t tire until the very end.


photo via llananba