Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game Sunday is the NBA version of the Rorschach test. Everybody sees something different in it.
But the reactions can be dropped broadly into a few groups: If you like Kobe Bryant, you see a magnificent individual performance, a night when opportunity met ability, when everything came together for one of the game’s greatest players.
If you don’t like Kobe Bryant, you see the ultimate act of selfishness and megalomania, a guy, as Ian O’Connor put it in USA Today, “reducing his teammates to transfixed moviegoers watching a science fiction film through 3-D glasses, waiting for Kobe to butter their popcorn.”
If you’re old school and think Bryant can’t touch Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in March 1962, or even the Los Angeles Lakers franchise record that Bryant broke, Elgin Baylor’s 71 in November 1960, you’ll hasten to point out that Chamberlain and Baylor didn’t have the 3-point shot to boost their point totals, even though Bryant still would have scored 74 without the 3-point line Sunday.
Or maybe you see it as a mockery of the game. Guard Mike James of the Toronto Raptors, Bryant’s victims Sunday, criticized his teammates and coaching staff in a Sirius Radio interview Monday, saying the coaches should have ordered double- and triple-teams on Bryant, and the interior defense should have stopped his drives to the basket.
“I think some of the guys found themselves watching also and I think even the coaching staff almost got mesmerized by it because after a while it just became a fiasco,” James said. “It became like a little sideshow.”
What do I see? The greatest scoring performance in NBA history. Playing a premodern game, Chamberlain enjoyed a dominant physical advantage over his ordinary-guy foes. Also, his Philadelphia Warriors teammates were in on the game, passing up open shots and fouling New York Knicks players to stop the clock despite the Warriors’ lead because the team had decided to help the Big Dipper get 100 points that night in Hershey, Pa.
Bryant plays against the greatest athletes in the world, and there was no such plan. I don’t know exactly how the conversion chart ought to read, but I think 81 points in 2006 is better than 100 in 1962.
I also see something I wonder why isn’t more common.
As I may have mentioned a few thousand times, individual NBA regular-season games aren’t terribly important for most teams. By this point in most seasons the playoff picture is already becoming clear, with a handful of clubs in each conference on the bubble, but most knowing they either will or won’t make the playoffs.
Ironically, this isn’t most years, and almost everybody’s on the playoff bubble. So maybe this isn’t the year for oddball strategy, at least at this point. On the other hand this has been a year of individual scoring feats around the league, with eight 50-point games already, matching all of last season.
But for most teams, for most of most years, losing one regular-season game doesn’t make a lot of difference. And even if it did, for a mediocre team with a great scorer, cutting him loose might not be a bad idea.
Bryant’s team won. So did Chamberlain’s the night he scored 100. In the 10 NBA games when a player has scored 70 points — Chamberlain did it six times, and the others were Baylor, David Robinson and David Thompson — that player’s team has gone 6-4, and one of those losses was in triple overtime.
So let your team’s big scorer try to go off, score 70, 80, 90 — dare we think about 100? — points in a night. It might not be the best team-basketball strategy, but it also might not be the worst, and it seems like a pretty good stunt. There are probably a dozen guys in the league who are capable of monster point totals if given the chance.
Even if you lose the game, what’s one game in a long regular season for most teams? Not much, usually, though again: This year is an exception.
A player scoring so many points is exciting. The NBA is still chattering over Bryant’s 81 two days later, and the buzz looks like it has legs for a few more days. It breaks up the monotony of the season. I, for one, usually don’t spend a lot of time writing about the NBA in January, and lookee here.
A high-scoring game also brings attention to the team and sells tickets and merchandise. You don’t think a few more No. 8 Lakers jerseys went home this Monday than last?
It also sends a message to other teams that your big scorer, whether it’s Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter or whoever, is capable of running wild if you don’t pay extra attention to him, which frees up your other scorers, if you have any.
Commentators are quick to point out that a player has to have a massive ego, like Bryant does, to take over a game the way he did Sunday and try to beat an opponent single-handedly. Is there any doubt that there are sufficient egos among the top scorers in the league?
The next guy who wants to shoot for 100 points, long thought to be one of the most untouchable records in sports, has my blessing. Kobe? Vince? I see you over there in the corner, Ray Allen. Let ‘em fly.
Previous column: NFL championship games
- – - – - – - – - – - -
Bookmark http://www.salon.com/sports to get the new Kaufman column every day. Discuss this column and the sports news of the day in Table Talk. To receive the Sports Daily Newsletter, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.