Kobe Bryant, the NBA figure, was as polarizing as it gets: a cocky, ball-dominant, ultra-famous victor who excelled at winning hearts and ruffling feathers. Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, will be remembered differently, especially by his opponents and teammates, and by the next generation of players he inspired. To them, Bryant’s will and his well-honed technique were cause for universal respect.
Critics might question his leadership style or accuse him of selfishness, but players relished his footwork, admired his intensity and appreciated his desire to take the shot with the game on the line. Most of all, they viewed the Los Angeles Lakers legend as a complete player — a craftsman with a bottomless toolbox.
“He had zero flaws offensively. Zero,” LeBron James said Saturday, just a day before Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash. “He could shoot the three. He could go around you. He could shoot the midrange. He could post. He could make free throws. That’s something I admired as well. Just being at a point where the defense would always be at bay, where they couldn’t guard you, where you just felt you were immortal offensively because of your skill-set and work ethic."
Bryant won five NBA titles, earned two Finals MVP awards and claimed two Olympic gold medals, but the most memorable night of his career came on Jan. 22, 2006, when he scored a career-high 81 points against the Toronto Raptors.
In the years since, 81 has become one of the sport’s most hallowed numbers: It’s the second-highest point total in NBA history, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 in 1962, and it’s easily the highest during the modern era. For Bryant, it was a defining achievement. It distilled and reflected all of Bryant’s scoring virtues.
Bryant got to the basket early on against the Raptors, using a hesitation dribble move to set up a smooth up-and-under reverse layup that was textbook Michael Jordan.
Even into his 30s, Bryant glided through the air as few players, then or now, can, contorting his body around defenders as a bird might tilt its wings to adjust to the wind.
During his 20-year career, Bryant never needed an excuse to shoot. His early foray to the paint against the Raptors provided all the encouragement he needed, and he quickly went to work from the perimeter. His second basket came on a fadeaway turnaround jumper: another Jordan staple that Bryant had perfected.
These shots were much more difficult than Bryant made them look. They required his legs to function as a counterbalance while he drifted backward to get a cleaner look at the rim above or around his defender. If a lesser player missed a couple of these in a row, his coach wouldn’t hesitate to yank him from the game. Bryant worked with a permanent green light.
Against the Raptors, Bryant swiped through and around his man to get to the basket, utilizing a quick, powerful first step to create good shots. At 6-foot-6, 212 pounds, Bryant wasn’t as physically imposing as James, but he got to his preferred spots all the same.
The threat of Bryant’s jumper made him a handful in the mid-post, an area that has largely been phased out of modern basketball as the NBA has fallen in love with the three-point shot. Bryant could turn and face up from 15 feet, eyeing his defender, who surely must have felt like the loneliest man in the world.
Then there were the free throws. Bryant attempted 10,011 free throws during his career, the most by a perimeter player in NBA history. Against Toronto, he hit 18 of his 20 attempts, using a series of pumps and jabs to get defenders off balance or leaning into him to get the foul call.
Before James Harden drove opponents crazy with his tricks of the trade, Bryant was parading to the stripe after faking opponents out of their shoes.
Against Toronto, Bryant hit seven of his 13 three-point attempts with an effortless delivery.
If there was one facet of scoring in which Bryant was clearly superior to Jordan, it was from beyond the arc. A product of his time, Jordan attempted fewer than two three-point attempts per game across his career. Bryant averaged more than four, and during his peak scoring years he was getting up more than six per game.
Bryant was always a threat to detonate with a ferocious finish, as he did against the Raptors late in the second quarter. He often played with anger: scowling, yelling, biting his jersey and attempting to rip off the rim.
Like a Cy Young Award winner changing speeds, Bryant alternated between perimeter flurries and paint attacks at a moment’s notice. If defenders crowded him in hopes of challenging his jumper, he would scurry toward the hoop.
No matter how much help Toronto threw at him, Bryant kept slithering through crevices and pulling himself free into open pockets.
Bryant credited his childhood in Italy, where his development was focused on the fundamentals, with giving him the necessary balance and pacing to go on these jaunts.
The final damage against Toronto: Bryant’s 81 points came on 28-for-46 shooting in 41 minutes. In the last 40 years, there have only been five instances in which an NBA player attempted at least 46 shots. Bryant accounted for three of them, including a 50-shot outburst en route to scoring 60 points in the final game of his career on April 13, 2016.
Therein lay the gift that scared opponents the most: A game against Bryant was guaranteed to be a full night’s work. He would work and shoot, and work and shoot some more. He had conditioned his body and mind to handle any offensive burden, and he believed deeply that his opponents would break before he did.
If he got hot, as he did against the Raptors, the whole game could turn into an extended heat check. Shots would go up almost as soon as he passed half-court, and his defenders might as well have been decorative furniture. Whenever blood appeared in the water, Bryant dived in head first.
After finishing off the Raptors, 122-104, Bryant casually raised his hand to acknowledge the Staples Center crowd. He appeared satisfied and tired, but also like a man who might be plotting how to score 82 points the next time he took the court.
A decade later, Bryant told the Los Angeles Times that his career night was evidence that younger players shouldn’t “ever want to place a ceiling on a performance in what you can and can’t do.”
That’s why, in basketball circles, Bryant will occupy a special seat long after his death. He sold hope to anyone who would listen, even in trying circumstances, and he brought seemingly impossible achievements to life.
Photo editing by Mark Gail. Design by Virginia Singarayar.