SPORT

Kobe Bryant’s 81-Point Game: An Oral History

A decade later, people who saw it still can't believe it

(Photos: Getty Images, Photo Illustration: Diana Quach/Vocativ)
Jan 21, 2016 at 12:43 PM ET

Ten years ago, a middling Los Angeles Lakers squad hosted the last place Toronto Raptors at the Staples Center. The game’s attendance was listed as 18,997 (an exaggeration). On this night, sports fans around the country were glued to their televisions—except they were watching the NFL Conference Championship games, not the Lakers.

But those lucky basketball fans who were at the game—and even those who flipped on the Lakers after the Seattle Seahawks beat the Carolina Panthers—would bear witness to a basketball feat so remarkable that, even a decade later, it’s hard to wrap one’s head around what happened. On that day, January 22, 2006, Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a single game, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s never-to-be-touched 100-point record.

In honor of the ten-year anniversary of this momentous occasion, Vocativ has gathered recollections of the night the “Black Mamba” went off. Herewith, the story as told by a Raptor, a broadcaster, a coach, a podcaster, and a fan who befriended an unexpected first-timer in attendance.

Kobe Strivin’

Bryant’s monomaniacal drive-to-win has taken him to a Bill Brasky-esque mythological level, but there is truth to it. The legend of 81 starts long before the game itself.

Melvin Hunt, 46 (assistant coach, Dallas Mavericks; assistant coach 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers): Kobe striving to be better is doggone special to see. One thing that’s always amazed me came in my first month with the Lakers. We were putting in a new offense…

First day we put it in, and I’m not exaggerating, Kobe worked on one of the shots for 25 minutes after practice. He wanted to get quality reps and was getting frustrated if the ball went in the hoop the wrong way. I’ve been around some great players, but I’ve never seen anything like that.

Darrick Martin, 44 (Raptors point guard 2005-08, 13-season NBA veteran, UCLA basketball radio analyst): So it’s two weeks after the 2001 championship over the 76ers, and I’m at a workout with a group of [agent Arn] Tellem’s clients. Kobe shows up. The guy running the workout asked me what Kobe was doing there. “I don’t know, coming in to get some shots I guess.” So we’re doing real drills, full-speed, full-contact and Kobe joins in.

On one play, he comes down, splits the pick-and-roll, and goes up to dunk it. I believe it was Marcus Haislip who went up to block it and knocked Kobe to the ground. Guy running the thing says to me, “If Kobe gets hurt, they’re going to kill me.” I said, “He’ll be alright, watch.”

Next time down, Kobe does the same thing, but this time when Haislip went up, Kobe cocked back and dunked on him as hard as he could. Sent Marcus crashing into the wall. I turned and said, “I told you he’d be fine.”

Hunt: Kobe’s expectations are so much higher than everyone around him. Why isn’t everyone else at the gym at 6 in the morning or 11 at night?

Everything is a competition for Kobe, every drill, every shoot-around, even in practice he would frustrate defensive-minded players to no end because he would always figure out a way to beat them.

We would put arbitrary points on the board during practice for teaching purposes, and he would treat it like a real game situation. You might go a week with him and not even see a smirk. Always guarded. Over time, Kobe acquired some balance, embraced teammates, encouraged guys and found peace in his own skin. He grew into that, it wasn’t always that way.

Kobe Goin’ To Work

Prior to the 6:30 tip-off time in L.A., the Sunday evening Lakers-Raptors matchup was nondescript, just one of the many ho-hum, mid-season winter contests that make the League Pass time go by and little else.

Cathy Johnson, 60 (Lakers superfan, entrepreneur, founder of Eileen’s Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to domestic violence education): I moved to Los Angeles in 1981 and have been going to Lakers games ever since. I had season tickets at one point, but I still go to about 25 games a year. I just love it. I’m a diehard. I have a room in my house painted purple and gold, with a Kobe Fathead on the wall.

I love sports, the competition, but also the family side of it. My niece Eileen was a great softball player, had been on the team at El Camino College, and was hoping to be a walk-on at UCLA where she was transferring. It was her dream, but she never got the chance to play for the Bruins. In 2011, she was brutally murdered by her husband, leaving behind a five-week-old daughter who will never know her mother. Or father.

We didn’t know the signs of domestic violence, maybe if we did, things could have turned out differently. I started the foundation to educate young people and to provide scholarships. Our big fundraiser is a summer softball tournament, so sports are central to our lives. And that includes the Lakers. Eileen and I used to watch a ton of games together. Kobe wasn’t her favorite player though, Jordan Farmar was. She thought he was comely.

Paul Jones, 57 (Toronto Raptors radio announcer): I’m not a big pop culture guy—to the point where I’m only on season three of “The Wire,” which I finally had to check out because my NBA brethren won’t stop talking about it—but my radio partner Eric Smith is.

For whatever reason, I distinctly remember him asking the Lakers PR guy John Black who was in Staples that night. The response was “Nobody.” Not Jack, not Leo… Only Dyan Cannon was there. This isn’t an exact quote from Black, but he said something like “It’s Toronto. In January. They’re all skiing in Vail.”

Johnson: So, the Lakers release friends and family tickets that aren’t being used by the players, at face value, before games. I snatched up two tickets in row two, which is actually about four rows back from the bench, on a riser maybe 10 feet from the court. I’d never sat that close before. The tickets were around $150. I couldn’t find any takers, all I got was, “It’s Toronto, I don’t want to go to that game.”

I took my daughter who was eight at the time. We sit down and in walks Kobe’s family. I recognized his wife Vanessa, who was pregnant with their second daughter. Well, my daughter starts playing with Kobe’s three-year-old [daughter] Natalia and the elderly woman with them, who sits next to me. We start talking. Turns out, it’s Kobe’s grandmother in from Philadelphia for Natalia’s birthday. It was the first time she saw him play in the pros live.

Kobe Gunnin’ For 50

The first half was all Raptors, who led 63-49 at halftime. Kobe had 26 points–14 in the first quarter, 12 in the second—and had a good chance for 50, a total he would match, or better, four other times that season.

Jabari Davis, 36 (host of the Lakers Nation podcast, case manager for the underprivileged in L.A.): In the first quarter, Kobe at least gave the appearance he was getting his teammates involved, but by the second, it was clear he was no longer going to do that and started pouring it on.

Martin: The thing about trying to defend Kobe, even as a team, is that you knew he was always going to keep coming, that he would be aggressive from beginning to end. It’s been the one Kobe constant, even this year when he was having those rough early season nights.

Hunt: I was working as an assistant in Cleveland, and I must have had scout prep coming up because I specifically watched that game. By the end of the first half, you could see it coming.

When Kobe gets in that true killer mindset, into that zone, he’s playing by himself. The double team doesn’t matter. The referees and even his own teammates don’t matter.

Johnson: It struck me as a little odd that Kobe’s grandmother had never seen him play, at least at a Sixers game back home, but she didn’t give a reason why. What was funny is after Kobe got off to a slow start, she kept saying, “I shouldn’t have come. I’m jinxing him.”

I told her to relax, Kobe would be fine.

Kobe Sweatin’ The Admiral

Kobe added 27 points in the third quarter, bringing him to 53 altogether, only 18 from tying David Robinson’s 71-point game. “The Admiral” had been the last player—and one of only four up to that point—to reach the 70-point mark when he went for 71 on the last day of the 1994 season to win the scoring title.

Jones: At the start of the second half, you’re thinking Kobe’s going to get 50, maybe 60, but also that he will cool off, or the game will slow down, get out of hand for the Raptors and he’ll come out, or the Lakers won’t go to him as much…

Basically, I ran through all of the various scenarios in my head, except for the one that actually unfolded.

Martin: Everybody in the league wants to beat the Lakers because of what the franchise has meant to the NBA. Doubly for me because it’s my hometown and I grew up a Lakers fan. We were up 18 in the third quarter, game in hand, and feeling like we’re going to leave the Staples Center with a win.

That’s when the onslaught came.

Davis: I remember exactly where I was when it happened. I was in a sportsbook in Vegas. I’m pretty sure it was the MGM, that part’s actually a little foggy, because, you know, Vegas. It was packed because it was NFL Championship Sunday, my buddies went to bet on football.

Jones: Staples is one of the few arenas that still does it right by having the announcers sit on the floor. So, we’re kitty-corner from the Lakers bench, and at one point, four of the Lakers were near us, walking down in a straight line a few feet apart, like you would see with kids marching through a schoolyard.

Kobe takes the ball up the far side by himself. “I got this.” Went into the lane for an and-one. Couldn’t miss.

Davis: At the beginning, nobody in the casino was paying attention. Then when he had 26 at the half, a few people started wandering over, taking a look, “Oh I guess Kobe’s having one of those nights, huh?”

Midway through the third, the crowd starts doing the back-and-forth, like a tennis match. Watching football, watching Kobe; watching football, watching Kobe. By the time he cracked 70, more than half the guys in the sportsbook had shifted to basketball. Everyone was like, “When is this guy going to stop?”

Hunt: It was unbelievable, so unique because Kobe hit a myriad of shots. People give Raptors coach Sam Mitchell a hard time because of who he had guarding Kobe, but it wasn’t like they had one plan and stubbornly stuck with that coverage.

They tried everything: tall guys, smaller guys, three bodies at him… Unreal.

Martin: It always sounds good in theory to say, “Let the superstar get his and shut down the rest of the team,” but it’s not an effective strategy if you don’t make the star player work for his shots.

At one point, I suggested to coach Sam Mitchell we should try doubling Kobe on the perimeter just to get it out of his hands. We did. Then Kobe hit a few from 28 feet. Nothing but net. Coach looked at me. I shrugged and said, “I don’t know, we may just have to ride this one out.”

Jones: I’ve covered the Raptors since day one, and been watching basketball since a young Lew Alcindor battled an aging Wilt Chamberlain, so whatever it is, I’ve seen it. It takes something really extraordinary to move me out of my seat.

That night, Kobe was something to behold. He was bouncing off people, making circus shots, fall-aways with contact… I’ve got a montage somewhere that one of the radio guys cut of all of Kobe’s buckets. My excitement was going through the roof. I screamed “He’s got 72,” because I knew he’d passed David Robinson and set a new benchmark. It was spectacular.

Kobe Hangin’ An Ocho-Uno

At the start of the fourth, the Lakers were up 91-85, too close to give Kobe rest. He wasn’t tired anyway. Kobe’s final stat line: 28-of-46 (7-of-13 from beyond the arc) and 18-of-20 from the line, which seems possible only through a deal with the Devil. Make of it what you will, but it was the Black Mamba’s 666th regular season game.

Martin: I didn’t get to play that night—which I still hate because there’s no bigger competitor than me—but I still bantered with Kobe. I said, “I’m coming in to hard foul you.” He smiled, “Come on in and try.”

It was an unbelievable performance, but it chapped my butt a little bit to look up in the stands and see my own brother screaming for Kobe. I gave him the death stare. He waves me off and joins in with the Laker fans, “Ko-be! Ko-be!” I get it, Kobe was on another planet and the crowd responded, but your loyalty is supposed to be with me.

Jones: The Lakers won, but even if they hadn’t, the score was secondary. You could sense it, “Keep giving it to Kobe, let him go!”

Johnson: Nobody sat for the entire fourth quarter. Kobe waved to his grandmother at one point, I pretended like he was waving to me. She laughed. We had such a good time.

Jones: At game’s end, Kobe still looked fresh. Like if it had gone to overtime, he could have gotten a dozen more. As he was walking off the court, Eric pulled out his flip phone with the camera and asked me, “Should I take a picture?”

I mean, that’s taboo, we’re professionals, we don’t do that right? I said, “Hell yes, take the picture!” If I could have gotten my phone off my hip, I would’ve snapped one too. Eric got his own shot of Kobe walking off, number 8 with his index finger raised to the sky.

Davis: As Kobe kept going, guys were screaming, high-fiving, hanging all over one another… There was a clear collective vibe that “We’ll always remember this moment.”

When Kobe hit 81 and came out of the game—and I’m not dramatizing the situation—everyone in the MGM was going nuts. Like our team just won the title even though it was a regular season NBA game. Folks didn’t know each other and didn’t have money on it. The entire casino was applauding like we all just won big, which, as hoop fans, we did.

Hunt: On that night, the Lakers needed all of Kobe’s points. I can’t imagine any player having that mental focus in a blowout… But it is Kobe we’re talking about.

Johnson: Kobe’s grandmother and I were hugging and jumping up and down… I didn’t invade their space, no pictures or autographs, but I did share the moment with her. It was absolutely electric.

Jones: We flew to Denver that night—it’s a tough back-to-back because the airport might as well be in Cheyenne, Wyoming—but we were wired all the way to the hotel.

Everything wasn’t instantaneous, so people back east were only finding out about Kobe’s night when they woke up. Eric did a live interview at 6:15 Eastern, which is 4:15 in the morning in Denver. We couldn’t sleep anyway. It was crazy.

Martin: To be honest, I thought Kobe missed a few makeable shots. He could’ve had a smooth 90.

Kobe Sayin’ Arrivederci

Kobe’s wondrous exploits led the late edition of SportsCenter even though the Seahawks and Steelers punched their tickets to the Super Bowl that day. A decade later, as Kobe’s final season winds down, his 81-point eruption grows in stature, a singular moment of greatness in a storied career. Those that saw it won’t soon forget it, including Kobe himself.

Kobe rewatched the game for the first time in 2013. In true Mamba fashion, he live-Tweeted it, came up with his own hashtag, #countonkobe, let fans know that night was also his deceased grandfather’s birthday, zeroed in on all the shots he missed, and threw out lines like, “at this point I wouldn’t pass a kidney stone.”

Martin: As time goes on, I can’t help but appreciate being a part of that game. I didn’t feel that way at the time because we lost. Kobe gets 81 and the Raptors win? Amazing because then the story is how he scored all those points and still couldn’t beat us. We had to play in Denver the next night, which is where my mom’s family is from, where my grandmother lives. I was still upset when we got there.

Before the game, my grandmother took control and led the conversation. Big Mama rules the roost, so she asked all the questions. She was very supportive, loving and caring. She told me, matter-of-factly, to stay focused, to tell the team that it was only one loss and to get over it. It was good because I know all my other relatives just wanted to ask me about Kobe.

Davis: People might not want to admit it, but the majority of Lakers fans were relieved when Kobe announced his retirement. He was horrible in the early season, but once there was a finish line, he started playing a lot better.

It’s all relative on a Lakers team that’s going to lose the majority of its games, but the season now has a focus, Kobe’s final hurrah.

Jones: I saw our expansion Raptors beat Michael Jordan’s 72-win Bulls team, watched LeBron’s then career-high of 56 in Toronto, even watching the Raptors blow a 27-point second half lead to the Warriors, all these unexpected nights you could never predict…

So I can’t say Kobe’s 81-point night is in a class by itself, but it doesn’t take long to call the attendance.

Hunt: I loved waking up to, “You catch Kobe last night?” or getting a text, “You see what Kobe’s doing right now?” Even in the twilight, the element of never knowing what he’s capable of will be sorely missed.

Martin: I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. It’s still fresh in my memory, I can still replay parts of the game, the moves Kobe made. Not too many people can say they witnessed basketball history. I did.

Johnson: I’ve had so much fun at Lakers games, so many fond memories…

Jones: I saved everything from that night: box score, media pass, game notes, program… I have a basement full of stuff, going back to handwritten prep from the Raptors’ first season. My wife wants it gone. “It’s been twenty years, what are we going to do with this crap?” But before anything goes, I will dig out my folder of stuff from Kobe’s 81-point night. I am going to get him to autograph it.

I talked to Kobe about that game recently, when the Lakers were in Toronto back in December. He just laughed and shook his head.

“Nothin’ anybody could do that night.”