“He’s going to go out there and really establish himself and his team as winners, not play down to the Knicks but elevate above the Knicks. To score 61 points — I’ve been in the 50 range a couple times but to score 60 is a whole other level. That is a lot more shot attempts, a lot more effort. He can reach the 100 plateau.” — Jamal Mashburn
Scoring 100 points in a game has always been basketball’s Pluto-like dream. Wilt Chamberlain was the game’s anomaly, with an ambition as long as his limbs set in a time to eviscerate anything standing in his way. Reaching the century mark seemed like an inevitably successful mission.
Then Kobe Bryant came along, with confidence bright like the sun and a cold (blooded) instinct like the other side of the moon.
Then 81 happened, and every basketball fan had a morsel of belief that Bean could actually score 100.
On the 2009 edition of Groundhog Day, Kobe Bryant headed into the Los Angeles Lakers’ annual road clash versus the New York Knicks understanding he had a few things going against him:
- Spike Lee would be present court-side, heckling him while also working on the documentary “Kobe Doin’ Work”
- Mike D’Antoni, one of Kobe’s friends and role models, would be heckling him as the Knicks coach.
- Andrew Bynum, coming off a five-game stretch averaging 30.2 points and 13.8 rebounds*, would miss the game and be out for over two months with a torn MCL.
All of this ended up being a worthy setting for Kobe to give the people another thought that maybe, just maybe, someone might challenge Wilt atop the throne for 100 points in a game.
Bryant eviscerated the Knicks with a 61-point performance in just 37 minutes. Kobe’s efficient box score included making 19 of 31 shots from the field and 20-for-20 from the free throw line. Kobe’s “Roger Maris” (Spike Lee’s words) performance netted him the Madison Square Garden scoring record, passing Bernard King’s historic 1984 Christmas Day 60-point performance and Michael Jordan’s famous “Double-Nickel” 55-point performance in 1995. (Side note: Kobe’s 61 in MSG was eventually surpassed by Carmelo Anthony’s 62 in 2014.)
Kobe’s 2009 performance wound up being his last 50-plus scoring game of his career, totaling 23 over his nearly 20-year career.
Phil Jackson, the former NBA world champion for the Knicks, also owns a dubious honor of being the head coach of the two highest-scoring performances by an opponent with Kobe’s 61 and MJ’s 55.
The beauty of lighting up the Knicks in Madison Square Garden is the savviness of the basketball fans in attendance. The New York fans always find a way to turn the atmosphere up from good to great with a heap of boos paired with a smattering of “M-V-P” chants. Ultimately, the fans showed the proper respect with a standing ovation as Bryant was subbed and sat down for the rest of the night. The homage paid to the Black Mamba definitely didn’t go unnoticed by the Lakers’ star.
“This place is special because of the fans. They’ll boo you the whole game but they appreciate the game. It felt great to get that reaction from these fans because they love what you do, and it’s a great performance and being able to celebrate that moment … it felt great.” — Kobe
All hail Kobe’s 61, as we might’ve seen the last basketball player who could make us think that 100 was actually possible in our lifetime.
*There are kids on this Earth who would never believe me if I told them that at one point in time, Andrew Bynum was briefly considered the best center in the NBA.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”