LOS ANGELES — Every season, one roster is awarded the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Each year there’s an MVP and a scoring champion.
But Kobe Bryant's 81 points on Jan. 22, 2006 vs. the Toronto Raptors—that may never happen again. Ten years later, nobody's come close. In fact, Bryant himself has the next-closest mark: 65 vs. the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007.
The game’s 10-year anniversary is Friday night, made even more poignant amid Bryant’s farewell tour. But as Bryant and his Laker teammates swallow the reality of their demise—L.A. is 9-35, Bryant's production is hovering at career-low levels—the ego bruises have added up. Humility, of all things, has become one of the team's greatest assets.
Yet for Bryant, the swagger that leads a guy to score 81 points is still alive.
"He walks around like he’ll score 80 on you everyday," Lakers forward Brandon Bass told Bleacher Report. "He walks around like 'I can score 81 now,' you know what I’m saying? He doesn’t have to say it. He gives that off."
Many involved in today's NBA remember where they were during the performance.
“I’ll never forget it,” Bass said, the thought drawing a wide smile across his face. “I was with the Hornets, and we had just landed in Sacramento, just got to the hotel. I don’t know if it was Chris Paul who called me, or somebody called me, and said Kobe had like 60 something points. So a couple guys went to Chris Paul’s room to finish watching it. Man, it was crazy. I’ll never forget it.”
Lakers wing Anthony Brown, who now replaces Bryant in L.A.’s starting lineup whenever the 37-year-old’s body won’t let him play, was only 13 years old.
“I was in my house, if I can remember correctly,” he said. “I think it was on Fox Sports West or something like that. I knew that was a lot of points, but I don’t think I understood exactly how impactful that was or how many points that really was. But now, after playing in the NBA for half a year, 81 is just that much more special.”
2014's seventh overall pick, Julius Randle, doesn't have quite the same recollection, but the feat still boggles his mind. “I was…11? Probably playing in an AAU tournament,” he said. “It’s crazy—81 points in an NBA game is crazy, man. There’s nothing I can say that anybody hasn’t said before. We pretty much all have the same reaction.”
No individual performance better illustrates Bryant’s drive and dominance. Nor does any other game reveal how much fear he instilled in the opposition. Even players who weren’t yet in the NBA were a little nervous watching it unfold.
“I was in college,” Sacramento Kings forward Rudy Gay told Bleacher Report. “Somebody called me and told me that Kobe had like 70 in the third quarter. So I got right in my dorm and I turned it on and watched the rest. I was thinking ‘I’m going to play in the NBA next year. Can I go out and guard that?’”
The night has its own larger-than-life legacy, but overshadowed by the final tally is how incredibly efficient it was. This game is a masterpiece.
Bryant was dynamite in his prime, but his shot selection often veered toward a maniacal longing to transform a team game into an individual showcase.
That night it didn't matter. Bryant’s splits were sensational. He shot 60.9 percent from the floor, 53.8 percent behind the three-point line and 90.0 percent from the charity stripe. His usage rate was a voluminous 56.8 percent, yet he only turned the ball over three times. The degree of difficulty on almost every field-goal attempt was astronomical, too.
“He did it in so many different ways,” Bass said. “Attacking the basket, mid-range, three pointers, post-ups. I think it’s all mindset. I think Kobe’s mind, in his mind, he wanted to score 81 or 100. I don’t think other people’s minds do that.”
Much is made of Toronto’s defensive game plan, especially in the second half, how it never sent a second (or third) man to squeeze the ball from Bryant’s grasp. Even though it was a close contest until the final few minutes, then-Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell let Bryant dictate every possession.
“I don’t know where I was, but I’m sure Jalen Rose does,” New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said when asked about the game, referencing the current ESPN personality and former Raptors guard who spent significant portions guarding Bryant one-on-one.
Before the Lakers lost their 35th game of the season Wednesday night, Kings head coach George Karl could still recall what was going through his head as he watched the fourth quarter unfold in 2006.
“I was thinking as a coach, saying I would foul him, I would never let him have that many points,” he said. “I’d triple team him or something, just let someone else beat me…I don’t remember the specifics of the game, but there has been a strategy, and I’ve used it on Kobe, that you want him to take all the shots. It’s easier to control everybody else than try to stop Kobe, so try to make him a less efficient player. But if he gets 30, there’s got to be a number—40, 45, 50—where you probably have to change your strategy, but I don’t know what that number is.”
Bryant is one of the two most psychotically competitive players the NBA (and, perhaps, all of professional sports) has ever seen. His 20-season career is the ultimate testament to that, boasting five championship rings, three MVP awards (two from the Finals), 17 All-Star appearances and more points than every NBA player not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Karl Malone.
But the significance of 81 cannot be refuted.
No disrespect to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962, but it’s well-documented that his achievement came outside the flow of an actual basketball game—rife with intentional fouls by both teams to artificially increase the number of possessions.
What’s all the more remarkable is Bryant didn’t even play the entire game. Six minutes were squandered. How many could he have dropped if he wasn’t technically a human being and didn’t require rest?
“One time I asked Kobe about it and he just said ‘I was just in a zone. You put it up at the basket and it just goes in.’ Eighty-one is what we’ve scored as a team in games," Brown said, shaking his head. "To put it in perspective.”
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted