His dunk over the Rockets' 7-foot-5 center Yao Ming put the crowd at Staples Center crowd in a frenzy. His season-high 52 points left them awed. But what Kobe Bryant did early in the Los Angeles Lakers' dramatic 106-99 double-overtime win over Houston on Feb. 18 left the fans stunned.
After Bryant had buried his first five shots, all improbable jumpers, with 5 minutes 16 seconds left in the first quarter, he missed.
The crowd let out a gasp -- not of disappointment, but of genuine surprise, as if the basic laws that governed the universe had been suddenly reversed. It was as if those in the arena had just witnessed Bryant's first miss. Ever.
These days Bryant is playing so well that missed shots do seem like impossible anomalies. In each of his past 13 games, Bryant has scored 35 points or more, and has had nine consecutive 40-point games, tying Michael Jordan for the NBA's longest streak since the 1986-87 season. Before Jordan's streak, Wilt Chamberlain scored 40 or more in 14 straight games in 1961-62.
On Sunday, it wasn't easy, but Bryant managed to finish with 41. After making two free throws with 4:32 remaining to give him 39 points and the Lakers a 101-90 lead, Bryant missed six shots -- several of which were forced -- before making two more free throws with 23.6 seconds left.
"Well, I wasn't sure if Kobe was going to chase that 40 points so bad that he was going to cut our chances out there at the end of the game," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "It got a little tenuous."
But Bryant's streak lives -- and the Lakers remain hot as well. During Bryant's scoring spree the team (30-25) is 11-2. His 30.8 points per game rank him just behind league leader Tracy McGrady (31.4) in scoring, while his averages of seven rebounds and 6.3 assists per game are the best of his career.
Last week, while Shaquille O'Neal sat out to recover from nagging knee and toe injuries, Bryant -- nursing a bad knee himself -- led the Lakers to wins over Houston and Utah. Both were crucial, keeping the Lakers tied with the Rockets for the eighth playoff spot in the brutally competitive Western Conference.
In Utah, Bryant was booed by fans throughout the game until the end, when the sellout crowd of 19,911 realized he was about to continue his 40-point streak. With the crowd chanting "KO-BE! KO-BE!" Bryant got his 40th point on a free throw with 8.2 seconds left.
"There's nothing more to say," said Jackson when asked to talk about Bryant's play of late. "It's almost too much. . . . He's willing to take on a mountain."
It is easy to write off Bryant as the jackpot winner of the genetic lottery, possessor of physical gifts that other players simply never received. But to do that is an injustice to Bryant and an outright contradiction of the last seven years.
"People, especially young kids, see the end result and what a great player he is," said Stu Lantz, the Lakers' play-by-play announcer. "They don't realize all the work that goes into it. He works for everything that he's gotten."
At times in his professional career, the prodigy from Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa., has seemed aloof, a marginal teammate, Amati to O'Neal's Stradivarius. These are not the sorts of qualities that change overnight. So how does one reconcile the Kobe of years past with the Kobe of 2003?
"I've worked really, really hard on my game," said Bryant, who also became a father this season. "Spending eight-hour days in the summertime, working on my jump shot in particular. Ballhandling. Studying the game. Weight training. Since I came into the league, I put in six- to eight-hour days."
Despite these times of LeBron James mania, Bryant has shown that superstars are not born, but made. No one knows that better than Kurt Rambis, a former Lakers forward who has been assistant with the team since 1994. Rambis has watched first-hand Bryant's transformation from a tall, rangy teenager into a 24-year-old, 220-pound force.
"He's gotten more explosive over the years," Rambis said. "His ability to elevate, to get by people quickly with a first step. He's much better at attacking the basket now than he had been in the early days of his career, and he's doing it more within the confines of the offense. I think early on in his career, it didn't matter what was going on. He was just going to create a shot. And now he's wanting to involve his teammates, too."
Rambis also credits a rigorous weight-lifting regimen as a critical element in Bryant's growth. "It's a huge jump from high school to the pros in terms of the physicality of the game and the athletic prowess of the players he's playing against," Rambis said. "I think his overall weight training has helped him a lot along those lines. He can get his shot off. He can go through hands, a hand on his elbow, and still get his shot to fall."
But the key to Bryant's overall improvement, said Rambis, is that he is "a workaholic."
"Just to give you an example," he said, "we play in New York. [Kobe] spends the night there. He flies the next day down to Atlanta. Goes to the All-Star Game. Plays in that. Comes back on a late-night flight. We have practice Monday. He gets in really early in the morning. He winds up going through a workout with the rest of the guys. He's right there, going through the entire practice. He loves to play, and he does work on his weaknesses."
Bryant does not shy from holes in his game. If anything, he does whatever he can to fill them. Earlier in the season, when asked to compare Bryant with Jordan, Jackson said, "Michael had the incredible hands that really separates the two. His ability to use his ball fake with the extension of the ball in his hand, the ability to palm the ball so easily was really an asset that Kobe doesn't have."
Regularly, in recent games, Bryant has used that very ball-palming move to magnificent effect.
"I don't have extremely huge hands," said Bryant, who does, however, have three NBA championship rings. "So I strengthened them so they're really, really strong. They're like catchers' mitts. That move gives me the ability to see the court. Not having to hold the ball with two hands when the defender's pushing up on me, I can hold it. Read and see the way the defense is. It helps me out a lot."
Bryant's attitude, his determination to do what is necessary to get better, are qualities rare among today's players, according to basketball analyst and former Lakers star James Worthy. "Kobe has an old-school mentality," he said. "His work ethic is second to none, and I think he's totally aware of what he's had to do to get better each year. And I don't think you'll find that across the board. A lot of guys depend on their athleticism and what they've done in the past. He does a lot to make himself better."
Worthy does not hesitate to compare Bryant with Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who like Bryant, worked at his game scientifically. "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a great physics player," he said. "Kobe's that kind of player. He studies space, and steps, and whatever it takes to give him an edge. And I think that's what he does that puts him up and beyond most players."
Does Worthy feel that anyone is capable of corralling Bryant?
"I don't think so," he said.
Many of Bryant's latest victims feel the same way. After the Rockets' loss to the Lakers, Yao was asked what it was like to be dunked on by Bryant. "Please do not ask me about something so humiliating to my face," said the dejected giant, speaking through an interpreter.
"He's just grown as a player," said Latrell Sprewell, whose New York Knicks Bryant has torched for 46 and 40 points during this blistering stretch. "When you're young, you don't know everything, and you just go out there, and you're playing with ability. But I think he understands the game now. He definitely understands . . . what he has to do, what his role is on the team.
"With him playing with the confidence level he's at right now, it's making him unstoppable."