In his 20-year NBA career, Kobe Bryant was a five-time NBA champion, two time Finals MVP and an 18-time all-star. But it was a regular-season game against the Toronto Raptors 14 years ago when the basketball legend fashioned his most eye-popping scoring performance.
On Jan. 22, 2006, Bryant had 81 points in a 122-104 victory for his Los Angeles Lakers over the Raptors at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles. It was the second-greatest scoring performance in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game for a Philadelphia Warriors’ 169–147 win over the New York Knicks in 1962.
Bryant’s 81-point game is woven into NBA lore. Years later, Bryant and Raptor Jalen Rose were in a TV commercial that featured the two running into one another at a restaurant and Bryant ordering a martini with 81 olives.
Following Bryant’s death at the age of 41 earlier this week, The Globe and Mail reached out to people who were at the arena for Bryant’s 81-point night. (We show their jobs at the time).
THE FIRST HALF
A game between the 21-19 Lakers and the visiting 14-26 Raptors got low billing that day in the sports world. It was up against NFL conference-championship games, as the Seattle Seahawks were battling the Carolina Panthers and the Pittsburgh Steelers were fending off the Denver Broncos to claim their spots in Super Bowl XL.
Chuck Swirsky (Raptors radio/TV play-by-play voice): And it was late January, the dog days of the NBA season when the all-star break is just around the corner. Most players that time of year are sore, tired and their bodies and minds are just dragging.
Paul Jones (Raptors radio/TV broadcaster): I asked the Lakers communications guy, “Hey who’s here tonight?” And he was like, "On a Sunday night in January against Toronto?” That’s when all the celebrities are off skiing in Vail.
Mike James (Raptors guard): Kobe had a 62-point game against the Dallas Mavericks right before that and they only had to play him for three quarters in that one. I’m sure he was thinking, “Ooh, I can do that in three quarters? I’m going out soon to get me 100.”
Alex McKechnie (Lakers athletic performance co-ordinator): In December against Dallas, at the end of the third quarter the score was 95-61. Phil Jackson came back with his board and it said: Kobe 62, Dallas 61. So sit down.
Jay Triano (Raptors assistant coach): I remember the strategy. We had talked about it as a coaching staff and it was like, how are we going to beat this team? Kobe Bryant is so good. We thought the best way is probably to just stay at home and guard him one-on-one, don’t double-team him.
Morris Peterson (Raptors guard): I was defending Kobe, but I got two fouls early in the game so I was never really in the mix of the game like I would have wanted to. I came back in the game and got another foul, so I couldn’t be as aggressive on defence as I wanted to be. I remember seeing a look in Kobe’s eyes.
James: We had a really good first half, but what I did notice was Kobe had a relentlessness in his eyes, like a weird look in his eyes.
Paul Graham (Raptors TV producer): I do remember that first half and the Raptors were pretty good in it and our storyline at that point was honestly the Raptors had a chance to beat the Lakers.
Triano: I remember the Lakers crowd not being into the game early on. They were like, “What’s going on here? We’re not winning and we should be winning against the Raptors.”
Norma Wick (Raptors TV host/sideline reporter): The Lakers were looking pretty lethargic in the first half. Mike James was having himself a game, hitting five threes in the first half, had 19 points at halftime and the Raptors were up 63-49. It probably rubbed Kobe the wrong way that the Raptors weren’t a particularly good team, and they were off to a good start in his house.
THE SECOND HALF
The Raptors shot 65.1 per cent in the first half and led the Lakers by 14. Bryant had 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting at the half with a plus-minus of negative-seven. In his postgame news conference, Bryant explained his motivation going into the second half. “I felt like we were a little lethargic, so I started going full bore. It just turned into something special and I wanted to keep riding the wave, trying to demoralize my opponents.”
James: In the second half, I was thinking, let’s get Chris Bosh more into the game, get Jalen and Mo Pete some plays instead of trying to make plays for myself. I was passing more, not shooting, but nobody’s making shots. Kobe’s going down the other end and knocking ‘em down. I’m being passive. Kobe’s starting to dominate the game.
Swirsky: Kobe’s mentality was such that he refused to lose. He ignited a Lakers rally.
Triano: At one point we were like, man he’s got 50. Shouldn’t we change what we’re doing? But we were like no, we’re still in this game, we’re still ahead. Our thinking was, “Do we try to stop the player or try to win the game?” It seemed like at the time what we were doing was working okay.
Peterson: When I was checking Kobe a few times, his patience was so beyond other guys. Usually, if a guy pump fakes once or twice, there’s another guy calling for the ball. But Kobe faked three or four times, got me standing on my feet and as soon as he went up and I knew it was coming, he already had the angle he needed to have.
Swirsky: Late in the third quarter, Kobe stole the ball and went for a breakaway dunk to give the Lakers the lead and it was the punctuation mark of the game because it changed the direction and got the crowd into it. I think Kobe exhaled at that point and said “I’ve got this” because he just took the wind out of the Raptors’ sails.
Jim LaBumbard (Raptors media-relations director): Kobe outscored our entire team 27-22 in the third quarter. You knew then the game was over.
Triano: Jalen guarded Kobe for a little bit, Mo had him for a bit, Joey Graham, too. We kept trying to put different guys on him. Then we thought we’ll double team and run a different player at him, but by that point it didn’t matter what you were doing. He was pulling up before the double team got there. He was in that zone. He was hitting everything.
James: I wish they had let me try guarding Kobe that night. [Coach] Sam Mitchell told me, “No, I don’t want you to get in foul trouble.” I was like, “Are you serious? This dude is beyond [on fire] right now, and you’re worried about that?” I probably wouldn’t have been able to do nothing on Kobe that night either, but it would have been one more thing to try.
Peterson: There was a point where the coaches told Matt Bonner and I to trap him. So we came up to half court, Kobe came down, Matt tried to take a little charge, and I tried to come trap him. Kobe just split the defence, made a move and scored.
Dan Gladman (Raptors TV associate producer): One of my jobs in the broadcast truck that night was updating the score bug, which is the editorial line at the bottom of the TV screen that lets the audience know the significant stuff happening, like Bryant 60 points. Once Kobe hit the 60 threshold, it became a busy job, because I think I was updating that line every time he scored. Everybody in the truck was realizing it wasn’t about Raptors basketball or even the Lakers. This was becoming a historic NBA event.
Graham: Very seldom during a broadcast of a game does one guy take over the entire storyline. But Kobe did that night.
Wick: Everyone was just looking at one another “Like pinch me, am I actually seeing this?” It got to the point where every time Kobe touched the ball you expected he would score.
James: You ever see a movie where someone walks into a room and there are strobe-light effects and the person kind of gets caught in a daze? That’s what our team did – we were caught in a daze. I believe we sort of started cheering the ball to go in for him. Oh my goodness, I was so mad at everybody – Sam for the strategy and for not letting me guard him, mad at myself because I lost all my aggressiveness. Everybody was like hip hip hooray for Kobe, and there I was, furious.
Graham: It really turned into a celebration of Kobe and his brilliance and the fact that we were witnessing something very special. We were also focused on the frustration of Sam Mitchell, and the Raptors who were like ‘what’s going on here?’ The crowd was on its feet the whole fourth quarter.
McKechnie: I was sitting with Chip Schaefer, who’s one of our medical staff, and he got 50 we were like, “You’ve got to be kidding. What’s the over/under on 55? 60-65?” it was just incredible the whole thing just kept going and going and going. Amazing.
Triano: It was total pandemonium in that arena going down the stretch.
Jones: When Kobe reached 72 points, I became a fan because I was cheering for history. You wanted to see just where this could go. I remember just hollering out like a fan, “He’s got 72 points!” because I had never seen something like that in person.
Gladman: I remember thinking there in L.A., it’s getting really late back in Toronto, and it’s hard to stay up to watch sports being played on the West Coast. Are people back in Toronto watching this right now?
Jones: I was calling the game, saying, “Kobe squeezes off another one, Kobe shoots from deep, BANG!” It felt like he was just knocking down targets.
Peterson: If I had that many points, I would have been trash talking, but Kobe didn’t. He didn’t throw it in nobody’s face.
Swirsky: It was very apparent at the end of the game, with the Lakers up by a sizable lead, that they left Kobe in to surpass 80. I don’t blame Phil Jackson, because the crowd wanted it. I remember saying, “Folks if you’re not taping this game, you should be because what you’re seeing is iconic.”
Gladman: I thought to myself, I can’t believe I’m witnessing this. At that point, it was a career highlight for me. That’s a rare game where your broadcast has a graphic, top-five scoring performances of all time and there is Kobe on a list with Wilt Chamberlain. That is something even Michael Jordan hadn’t done.
James: I stopped looking at how many points Kobe had. We were getting our butts whipped.
Peterson: I couldn’t think of any other person I would want to score that many points against my team. If it was a guy who usually only scored 10 points a game who came out and scored against us like that, I would probably have been really upset, but it was Kobe Bryant. There was no stopping him that night.
AFTER THE GAME
Bryant had 81 of the Lakers’ 122 points that night, making 28 of 46 shots, including 7-of-13 from three-point range. His 55 second-half points alone beat Toronto’s 43. According to ESPN, he scored against eight different Raptors defenders that night, the most on Rose (18 on 6-of-11 shooting), and Peterson (17 on 6-of-13). He also scored over James, Graham, Bonner, Jose Calderon, Chris Bosh and Pape Sow. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, and daughter, Natalia – then a toddler – embraced him after he left the court. The Lakers used their news-conference room for Bryant rather than the usual postgame interviews in the locker room. Bryant suggested that saving the scoring sheet wasn’t his top priority. “I’m terrible at saving stuff. I really am. [My wife] is much better at it than I am. They’ll save the game sheet and frame it up. When I look back and I have a pot belly and all that, I’ll be happy that she did.” Bryant later recalled talking to retired Lakers star Magic Johnson.“Talking to Magic after the game, that meant more to me than the game itself, because I idolized him as a kid. For him to call me and tell me what a great game it was and how proud he was of me, that meant more to me than 81 points.”
James: I was angry at myself. I wasn’t angry at Kobe. He was great, nobody can deny that. I couldn’t stay angry for long; we had another game the next day. I just knew they’d be talking about this game for years.
Wick: After the game, some of us were looking at the shot chart and I said aloud, “Oh, look at that, the only place he didn’t hit from was the left elbow.”. Matt Bonner, who has a great sense of humour, looks over my shoulder at it and says dryly, “Great we’ll have to put that on the scouting report.”
Peterson: I’m proud to have been part of that night. I’m proud to have witnessed something that was only done one other time. That night I think we did all we could do.
LaBumbard: Our team flew to Denver immediately after the game and got to the hotel after 3 a.m. so I had an instant reason as to why Sam Mitchell wasn’t available for early morning talk-radio requests. It was easier than dancing around the fact Sam didn’t want to talk about Kobe kicking our ass.
James: I had a vendetta against Kobe for like the next six, seven years after that and finally got a chance to guard him when I played for the Mavericks. All I could think about was those 81 points and showing Kobe he couldn’t score on me. But I picked up two fast fouls and had to go to the bench. I was so bad.
Jones: It became a running joke between me and Kobe whenever I saw him at a game over the years that he agreed to sign that game sheet for me, but I kept forgetting to bring it. I kept saying I’ll get you next time I see you. I renovated a basement and couldn’t find it for a while, but now I still have it sealed in a plastic sleeve. I never got it signed.