"Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!" thundered through the Staples Center in the closing moments of the game. Fans -- all 18,997 -- were on their feet chanting Bryant's name and taking pictures of the Los Angeles Lakers' star as he carved out a piece of NBA history, scoring 81 points in a 122-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors.
How times have changed.
Only a week ago, Bryant was bashed by sports writers for taking himself out of a game with the Dallas Mavericks after scoring 62 points when he clearly could have scored as many as 80.
When he hit 81 on Sunday, it was the second-highest total ever, only 19 points shy of the record set by Wilt Chamberlain on March 2, 1962, when The Big Dipper hit 100. Bryant, who was taken out of the game with about four seconds to play, hugged coach Phil Jackson and took a congratulatory phone call from Magic Johnson.
The writers said Bryant apparently thought passing up a chance at immortality would prove he was a good guy and team player. They accused him of making a "misguided choice" and continued on to retrace the "disappointing arc" of his career. Perhaps that lambasting fueled Sunday night's romp. Or perhaps there were other factors at play.
Did League Open the Door?
The NBA, which was concerned about a drop in scoring in the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, told referees to change the way they were enforcing the rules. In the summer of 2004, the refs were told to make calls "tighter" away from the ball and make fewer charging calls. Hand and arm checking, which was technically allowed under the rules, was also changed to make just about any contact by a defender illegal.
When that didn't pick up the game and add to the pace and scoring, referees were instructed last summer to also crack down on their enforcement of pick-and-roll rules. They modified the defensive three-second call, requiring players to actively defend a player rather than simply be close. That seemed to be good for the defense, but it allowed the offense to clear the lane for a player on the drive, like Kobe Bryant.
The proof was in the play and in the numbers. Bryant shot from all over the court and from every angle. By halftime, he had accumulated 26 points, which most players would consider a good game total. In the second half, he scored a staggering 55 points, a powerful night's work even for the league's elite players.
Here's the breakdown. Bryant hit 28 of 36 shots, which is roughly 61 percent; made 7 of 13 free-throw attempts; and also grabbed six rebounds. With all his shooting, he only dished out two assists. The only blemish on his night was that his streak of consecutive-made free throws was broken at a team-record 62, when he missed one with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter.
Dogged by Taunts of Ball Hog
All of this helped the otherwise lethargic Lakers secure a come-from-behind victory. But what does it say about Bryant, whose career and personal life have suffered from power struggles with former teammate Shaquille O'Neal, rape allegations that were eventually dropped, and some pretty memorable selfish plays.
"We are going from the bottom to the top all together so it's important for us to enjoy the journey, and that is what we are doing right now, " Bryant said. "We have four days off coming up here, and I would have been sick as a dog if we would have lost this game. I just wanted to step up and inspire us to play well, and it turned into something special."
Obviously it's impossible for Bryant or any other hard-charging player to escape the allegation of "ball hogging," and after the glow of the game wears off, the 81 points could wind up being more fodder for those who criticize Bryant for being selfish.
That's a criticism that has followed Chamberlain and only one other person on the Top 5 list. On the final day of the 1978 season, David Thompson scored 73 points in an attempt to win the league scoring title. Thompson fell short of winning the scoring title, even though he racked up 53 points in the first half.
Thompson, a prolific scorer throughout his career, was always dogged by the reputation of being a selfish player. Despite his phenomenal total on that day in 1978, he is not often mentioned among the game's greatest players of all time.
In the end, fans are likely to say: "So what?" There is nothing more energizing than to watch and get behind a talented player like Bryant who owns the court. Yes, sports isn't just about winning and losing, but any fan will tell you it's a lot more fun to win.
Now the only question is not whether, but when Bryant will go after Chamberlain's 100-point record. Neither Michael Jordan nor the league's all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ever got close.