One afternoon, during my senior year in high school, a couple of my classmates skipped the first period and came late because they decided to watch Kobe Bryant make history – making the second best scoring output ever in the NBA. When they got to school around the second period, they immediately told everyone – especially to me, since they knew that I’m a big Lakers and Kobe fan – about it. Everyone was blown away, and we couldn’t stop talking about it. I was, of course, ecstatic and proud. I couldn’t wait to get home to watch the replay – hoping I could catch a replay (we only had dial-up Internet connection then; not good enough for streaming videos).
That was a decade ago, and it was one of the best feelings I’ve had in my Kobe/Lakers/NBA fandom. Since then, I’ve several times re-watched highlights of Kobe’s 81-point game as well as the entire game itself. And with its tenth year anniversary having recently come and gone (January 22), I re-watched it once more. But this time around, with the sentiment of Kobe’s career drawing to its close hanging in the air, there were some things that I was reminded of and fully realized as I watched.
First of all, the 2005-06 Los Angeles Lakers roster was atrocious. It’s made up of Kobe, Lamar Odom, and other players who were: a.) mediocre; b.) young and green; or c.) had no business being in the NBA.
With the exception of Lamar Odom, Kobe didn’t really have anybody else. Sure, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf, and Andrew Bynum – who all proved to be important pieces a few years later – were in that team, but during that point, they were unproven first to third-year players with limited minutes and uncertain futures. Also, most notably, the Lakers are basically handicapped with awful players like Smush Parker and Kwame Brown in their starting lineup! That Lakers team wouldn’t have made the playoffs if Kobe didn’t drag them to it. And please don’t tell me that it was mostly on coach Phil Jackson. Yes, his presence and coaching contributed. But no rational mind would dare conclude that the Lakers got to the playoffs due to the success of his triangle offense sets, considering that Smush and Kwame were participants.
During that season, Kobe’s epic scoring outbursts – en route to a career best 35.4 points per game – were compulsory to bring wins to such garbage team (if healthy, this is what Kobe would have done with the present LA Lakers team). Thus, scoring 81 points in that game arose out of necessity. Maybe the last few points out of free throws were “paddings”, but a huge chunk of that 81 was genuinely required to get the win. The 2005-06 Toronto Raptors was a bad team (they ended with a 27-55 record), but the Lakers were still being beaten by 18 in their home floor. Again, that Lakers team was garbage and incapable of competing in the NBA without Kobe’s presence.
Which brings me to the realization that Kobe Bryant didn’t have the chance in his career to belong to a Lakers team that he didn’t need to carry the weight on his shoulders. Even when he was playing with Shaq, he didn’t exactly just “come along for the ride”; there were definitely stretches in which he’s the one doing the carrying. More so true in the latter part of his career. Kobe never had an opportunity to play with capable younger teammates that can legitimately take the burden of carrying the team to a championship off his back, so that he can be a bit more relaxed and play more of a supporting role. That’s one of the advantages his peer Tim Duncan has in his career. Duncan had Tony Parker, and now, they have Kawhi Leonard. Thus, Duncan is still in a good position to win a sixth championship.
There’s always a part of me that wishes Kobe’s career would have turned out differently. I wish he would have arrived and experienced a point in the latter part of his career wherein he wouldn’t be required to hold the kind of mentality that compelled him to pursue 81-point games. I wish he won a sixth championship, not necessarily with him dragging his team towards it, but being a mentor and supporting piece – just going along for a joyride. Heck, right now, Kobe is no longer the bitter, obsessive, cold-blooded assassin that he used to be. He’s smiling often – on and off court. This new-look, “elder” Kobe at the dawn of his career is simply concerned of enjoying himself when he plays. Now, how infinitely better it would have been if this happy version of Kobe is in a team that has young stars who can take him into another championship?
But to be honest, though I would have loved a sixth ring for Kobe, I wouldn’t trade his 81-point game for it. Like, in a hypothetical scenario wherein a fairy or genie suddenly showed up and offered to bring another championship for Kobe, but in exchange for making it a reality, the 81-point game will be erased from history, I absolutely won’t consent on it. The 81-point game was a delightfully surreal, special moment. It’s a testament of the Black Mamba’s distinctive greatness, and as a fan, it’s an achievement and memory that I treasure about my basketball hero.