81 Turns 10 As Kobe Eyes The Pasture
I don’t remember going to sleep on the night of January 21st, but I remember waking up, puking, puking again, and again, and so on and so forth, until 6 in the evening the following day. 99 blackberries will do that to a 19 year old. The navy blue sheet that usually separated the living room from my ‘bedroom’ was in a ball on the floor. I had some visitors throughout the day, but I barely left my living room bed. There was little to indicate this would become one of the most memorable nights of my life. Well, little aside from the existence of Kobe and the fact that the Lakers would be playing the Raptors that night.
A month earlier Kobe had outscored the should-have-been NBA Champion Mavericks through 3 quarters, 62-61, after which every Lakers game became appointment ESPN Gamecast viewing. Pilloried throughout the first year of the post-Shaq era as he fought through injuries (as Kobe described it, “I was in a gunfight with a rusty butter knife”), Kobe returned in the fall of 2005 as the Black Mamba, ready to strike “with 99% accuracy at maximum speed, in rapid succession.” In embracing the Mamba, Kobe was finally realizing his cold-blooded, single-minded, destiny.
In 2006 Kobe may have been slightly past his athletic peak, but he was at the height of his technical wizardry. He had developed flawless footwork, the handle of a point guard, unlimited range, and impeccable balance, all contributing to his emergence as the best bad shot taker — and maker — the league had ever known. Freed from his Shaqles and finally empowered by Coach Phil Jackson, Kobe could now destroy the league in the manner he’d always envisioned. With teammates such as Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, Kobe would routinely take on 5 defenders, all fully expecting him to take them on, and be shockingly successful. It was both bizarre to watch and utterly awe inspiring; a true spectacle.
On the fateful night of January 22nd, 2006, I obviously decided to pass the time by tracking the Lakers game on Gamecast, which is essentially watching a live matrix of changing statistics in tandem with an elementary shot chart. Kobe finished the first half with a pedestrian 26 points. Yes he was on pace for 50, but 50 was no longer special. The Lakers would go down as much as 18 points early in the 3rd quarter, at which point Kobe’s already elevated scoring rate began to accelerate. Now every time gamecast updated (usually every 30 seconds or so) Kobe’s point total would increase. By the end of the 3rd quarter Kobe had 53, and the Lakers held a 4-point lead.
My brother Matt and I, at separate colleges and communicating through AIM, were now giddy. In his 62 point outburst against the Mavericks, the Lakers entered the 4th quarter up 34 points, and Phil Jackson could not justify leaving Kobe in. With the outcome of this game against the Raptors still in doubt Kobe would remain in the game. As his point total kept climbing and the Lakers lead kept growing, I began to get nervous butterflies. How long could Kobe keep up this pace? How long would Phil leave Kobe in? First he reached 60, then 70, and then, with under a minute remaining, Kobe hit 2 free throws to arrive at his final total: 81 points. I was full of adrenaline, wasting any energy I had jumping up and down on my bed, and I hadn’t even witnessed the destruction – just a series of x’s and o’s and numbers on a screen. When I finally did, in the highlights posted to nba.com later that night, I felt like I had already seen it and lived it.
Athletic careers follow compressed timelines. Usually, if we’re lucky, the finest last 20 years, and include just 10 years of near-peak performance. Kobe produced perhaps the finest 15 year stretch of extended consistent brilliance the sport has ever seen. In his 17th season at age 34 – the last season prior to his career as we knew it ending achilles tear – Kobe dragged a dysfunctional Lakers team to the playoffs, rightfully earning First Team All-NBA honors for the final time.
The night Kobe tore his achilles, I texted my friend Mickey while on the verge of tears, “he’s done.” And he was. In the 77 games he’s played since the injury, he’s been perhaps the league’s worst player. Early in the season I hoped Kobe would naturally take a back seat on and off the court so as to empower his talented but young teammates and put them in position to succeed. He didn’t. The gunner kept gunning, except now instead of a rusty butter knife he was using butter. It looked like the Lakers were once again sacrificing the franchise’s future for Kobe’s present, an all too common thread over the past few years. Right up until Kobe’s retirement announcement, and Kobe friend and coach Byron Scott’s decision a week later to move D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle to the bench. Kobe would no longer share the court with the developing franchise tentpoles, and the franchise tentpoles would no longer be burdened with Kobe.
The explicit farewell tour Kobe and the Lakers have embarked on is bringing a calm to the organization, the fans, the media, and the man. This season is no longer about trying to win, as the organization had been transparently pretending for Kobe’s benefit, but about Kobe. The media is now supporting Kobe’s All Star selection after spending months lamenting his inevitable appearance. Kobe is appearing in every city one more time, and the crowds in those cities know it will be the last time they get to see him.
Most importantly, the retirement announcement has allowed Kobe to remain Kobe to the end. He can now freely play as he desires, with the rapid accumulation of bad and missed shots warmly received by the fans and media alike as Kobe’s final offering. He can struggle through injury on the road because the scoreboard no longer matters. Efficiency, effectiveness, and outcome once again pale in comparison to the spectacle of Kobe — the same Kobe who 10 years ago today, in his Sunday whites, dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors.