Kobe and Wilt: Performances for the Ages

When Kobe Bryant scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006, he did more than just exhilarate the Staples Center crowd.  Bryant also managed the highest point total since Wilt Chamberlain’s record-setting 100 for the Philadelphia Warriors on March 2, 1962.

Chamberlain was a center often described as a man among boys earning his way into the record books through brute force.  As a shooting guard, Kobe achieved his goals a bit differently and had the option of the three-point shot.  He certainly had plenty of versatility in his game, able to drive to the hoop while keeping defenders honest with the jumper.  Then again, chances are you are doing a little bit of everything when you score 81 of your team’s 122 points.  Despite trailing by double digits in the second half, the Lakers triumphed 122-104.  Chamberlain managed to contribute his 100 in a 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks.  Despite the differences in their roles, Bryant and Chamberlain’s games actually had several factors in common.

Epic Scoring Percentage of Team’s Points
Kobe’s 81 66% (81 of 122)
Wilt’s 100 59.1% (100 of 169)

For one, both players demonstrated strong free-throw shooting.  That’s not altogether surprising, since efficiency at the foul line can turn a good point total into a great one.  Kobe made 18 of 20 from the line, just a bit better than his 85% success rate that season.  Bryant was always a quality shooter from the line and is 83% for his career.  On the other hand, Chamberlain made 28 of 32 on the big night in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  That far exceeded both his 61% overall in 1961-62 and a career average of 51%.  It also bolsters the argument that Chamberlain was simply in the zone as he dominated the short-handed Knicks.

Clutch at the Line Free Throw Excellence Career Free Throw Average
Kobe’s 81 90% (18-20) 83.6%
Wilt’s 100 87.5% (28-32) 51.1%

Both Chamberlain and Bryant achieved a career-high during the best scoring season of their lives.  Bryant’s average of 35.4 per contest in 2005-06 is nearly four points higher than the 31.6 he compiled in his second most prolific season of 2006-07.  Chamberlain scored 50.4 during the season of his best game, a figure approached only by the year in which he averaged 44.8.  In case you’re scoring at home, that also came the year after in 1962-63.  It may seem logical that a superlative game brings up a player’s scoring average.  Nevertheless, it is also clear that both Bryant and Chamberlain were able to sustain an extremely high level of play well into the following campaign.

Bryant had the luxury of playing his game in Los Angeles before adoring fans who had already witnessed him bring home three championships.  He certainly had the comfort factor on his side.  As Bryant put it after the game, “I grew up in front of these people, and now they are seeing me as an older, young man.”

In Chamberlain’s case, things were a bit more complicated.  Normally the Warriors played at the Philadelphia Civic Center, but the league had scheduled this game 85 miles away at the Hershey Sports Arena.  It was the third time the Warriors had played there that season to appeal to new fans, and still considered a home game for the Philadelphia squad.  That didn’t mean that either team ever got used to the sickly sweet smell of chocolate from the nearby factory that filled the gym.

A strong second half was key for both Chamberlain and Bryant.  Chamberlain managed 59 in the final two quarters, partially because his teammates agreed to feed him the ball even more when they talked in the locker room at halftime.  In Bryant’s case, he caught fire and scored 27 in the third quarter alone.  That was one point more than he managed in the entire first half.  He followed up with 28 in the fourth quarter, including seven free throws in the final 2:35.  In fact, he was fouled twice on three-point attempts during the final frame and drained all six of those foul shots.  When he was allowed to fire away, Bryant shot a dangerous 7-13 from behind the arc.  His teammate Devean George was as awestruck as everyone else: “I never imagined I would see history like that.”

2nd Half Explosion Points
Kobe’s 81 55
Wilt’s 100 59

Both Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain have become heavily associated with their incredible displays of dominance.  Chamberlain primarily used his famous post game, while Bryant drained shots from all over the court.  Even Michael Jordan never managed more than 69 in a game, so with apologies to Chamberlain scoring 81 is a feat that feels like a record unto itself.  Then again, that’s part of the fun in watching sports.  If you attend a baseball game, you might hope to see a pitcher hurl a perfect game.  In basketball, seeing anyone make a run at Kobe’s mark will be a thrill that’s not soon forgotten.

photo via llananba