81

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Let me tell you about the time I went off for 13 against the Lakers.

People ask me about it a lot, but it’s hard to put into words. It was just … I don’t know, man. It was just one of those nights. Six-of-10 from the field — so you know the shot was falling. Grabbed a few rebounds. A couple of steals. Added a nice little block. Honestly, I’m not sure what else there is to say. When it’s good, it’s good.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of that game, and it’s hard to believe where the time has gone. I still marvel at it, all these years later. Here’s a cool video compilation of some of the highlights:

Oh, shit.

You know what — let’s try that again.

Let me tell you about the time Kobe Bryant went off for 81 against the Raptors.

*

When people see a great sports performance, what do they always say? It was like a video game.

See that running back put the moves on that linebacker? It was like a video game. See that two-handed dunk from inside the elbow? It was like a video game. See that home run clear the bleachers and land way across the street? It was like a video game.

And that makes sense. There’s something … visual about it. There’s something about it that says, above all else, I need to see that again.

But Kobe’s 81? Nah, man.

When people ask what it was like to be on the court for The Black Mamba’s masterpiece, and I tell them, “It was like a video game” … I don’t mean it from a visual perspective at all.

I don’t need to see it. I saw it.

No — when I talk about Kobe’s performance that night, I mean it from the other perspective of video games.

That you’re playing against a machine.

*

In my first-ever game against The Great Kobe Bryant, he had … 11.

No, that’s not a typo. Eleven points. That was December 5th, 2005 — the Lakers game before The Lakers Game. Kobe had been on fire that year — my rookie year — and our plan was to try to contain him and “make their other players beat us.”

It was a bad plan.

Kobe adjusted to our defense, got the right guys involved and quarterbacked his team to an easy win.

But the funny thing about that game wasn’t that Kobe had 11 — it’s that I did, too. Eleven, exactly. And again: I was a rookie, remember. So I got my fair share of texts after that game — from friends, college buddies, high school buddies — just messing around. You know, like, You and Kobe, bro. Same number of points.

After our next game against the Lakers, I’d be getting some very different texts.

*

So, to recap: December 5th, we keyed in on Kobe, and he picked us apart.

Guess what the plan was on January 22nd?

(People always grin when I tell them this part of the story.)

It was, “Let Kobe have his.”

(Now you know why they grin.)

I know it seems hard to believe in retrospect, but yeah, that was the plan. We were going to try to stop the other guys — and put Kobe in a situation where he had to beat us by himself.

What’s so ironic is that — as late as the third quarter — we were genuinely thinking to ourselves that we’d executed a really good plan. That’s something a lot of people tend to forget about that night: that we were winning — pretty comfortably, and pretty deep into the game. Kobe had 26 at halftime … and we were up by 14. This is great, we were thinking. You never want to give up 50, of course. But if that’s what it was going to take to beat this particular team on this particular night, then 50 was fine by us.

And that’s exactly what happened. Kobe did score 50 on us — 55, to be precise.

In the second half.

*

Let me start by answering the question that I get asked the most: Yes.

Yes, we knew how many points Kobe had.

We were focused on the game, don’t get me wrong. In this league, you have to be; there are no nights off. But you also have to understand that this wasn’t just some game in some vacuum. This was a Kobe Bryant game — in January of 2006. Translation: This was one of the greatest players of all time (personally, I have him Top 3: Jordan, Wilt, Kobe) … during his very best run … within his very best season.

Quick history lesson:

On December 20, 2005, Kobe got the Mavs for 62 in three quarters. Sixty-two in three quarters. It still rolls off the tongue. It’s 10 years later, and still any hoops head could recite that from memory. Sixty-two in three quarters. It’s like the chorus to a hit song: just stuck in your head, forever. That’s greatness.

Here’s more greatness. Take a look at some of the point totals that Kobe put up in a single stretch, starting with the Dallas game and ending with ours a month later: 62, 37, 45, 48, 50, 45, 41, 38, 37, 51, 37 … 81.

Yo.

That’s one of the best months ever. Not just in basketball history — in sports history.

And listen: Guys were paying attention. Guys around the league were paying very close attention to Kobe that season. Any time you’d see someone, small-talk with someone, from inside the game — teammate, opponent, coach, ex-player, whatever — that was the conversation. How are you … How’s the family … Kobe, man. It was just on the list. And that’s what it was like that whole year — heavy chatter. Once a guy gets to a certain level, the whole league notices.

And so when people ask me if we knew how many points Kobe had during The Game — I just nod. Honestly, in ’06, it was almost as though there were two separate sports: 1. The NBA, and 2. How Many Points Kobe Got? And that’s what I tell people.

Yeah, we knew.

Everyone knew.

*

“Is this really happening right now?”

Lamar Odom and I are both from Queens. He’s a few years older than me, but still: Queens is Queens. We’ve always been pretty close. We also play a similar position — which means that, when our teams would play against each other, we’d usually get in a little time to catch up. A dead ball here, a whistle there — when you’re matched up with a guy, especially if you’re friends, there’s going to be some talk.

At the same time, though, we’re competitors — we’re both trying to win the game. So, while we’re friends … I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re being friendly. We’re keeping that competitive distance.

And January 22nd is no different.

But then later on, deep into the third quarter, there’s this stoppage. One of their guys is shooting free throws. Lamar and I find ourselves standing there, matched up together, hands-on-knees in the paint.

At this point — third quarter, remember — Kobe has already cracked 50.

Anyway, Lamar and I glance at each other, briefly, waiting out that first free throw. And neither of us blinks — we’re still both firmly wearing our game faces. It’s clear that neither of us wants to break, to be the first to concede what is happening.

I’ll never forget his look. It’s this mix — this mix that’s special to the basketball court — of friendship, amusement and pity.

To concede that Kobe is happening.

First shot goes up. A little more stoppage.

Now, Lamar glances at me again and holds his stare for a little longer. I glance back. Still game faces … still games faces … still game faces …

… and then — there it is. In the corner of Lamar’s mouth, I see it.

He’s starting to smile.

First, I see him smile. Then, I see him see me see him smile. Now … he really starts to smile.

After that, it’s too much.

I break.

So now we’re standing there, at the free-throw line, both in full-on grins. Still saying nothing. Just sharing this surreal, once-in-a-lifetime moment together. No words need to be said. It’s all on our faces in those couple of seconds.

Next shot goes up. We head back down the court, still side-by-side.

Finally, I can’t help it, and whisper to Lamar.

Yo. Is this really happening right now?”

His smile grows a little wider.

Lamar looks at me for a second, and I’ll never forget his look. It’s this mix — this mix that’s special to the basketball court — of friendship, amusement and pity. Like, in some strange way, he’s known this game was coming from Kobe.

“Crazy,” he says, and then curls off a screen. “Crazy.”

*

Thirty … forty … fifty … sixty … seventy … eighty.

With the game out of reach, I think that most of us had spent the last few minutes just sort of mesmerized by it all. Just staring at the scoreboard … watching those pixels glow up … witnessing each new point of Kobe’s turn into the next. By the end, I think that we had all become almost, I don’t know, morbidly curious about it. You could see it on our faces. All of us — guessing, wondering, trying to figure it out.

We wanted to know where the number would stop.

When it did stop — when it finally, finally, finally stopped — there wasn’t much left to say.

Eighty-one.

Now, we knew. That was the number.

That was the number that would be staring back at us in the box score. That was the number that would be repeated and repeated on SportsCenter. That was the number that would be on the hats, the t-shirts, the patches, the posters, the Wikipedia pages, the DVDs. That was the number that we’d be hearing, and seeing, and saying, for the rest of our lives.

That was the number that, 10 years later, I’d be writing this essay about.

Eighty-one.

Anyway, like I said: 13 points, on 6-of-10 shooting.

It was a pretty good game.

The Real Story Behind Kobe's 81-Point Game

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