It took until the 8:50 mark of the second quarter for Kobe Bryant to score his first points on Saturday, as he missed his first five shots and first free throw attempt before hitting a pair of freebies against the hapless Sacramento Kings. As is usually the case with scorers, though, seeing those shots go through the net worked wonders for Bryant. A possession later Kobe (working the entire first half through a painful bone spur in his left foot) called off a Pau Gasol screen to take John Salmons off of the dribble for the score. On the touch after that, Bryant crossed Salmons over to nail the pull-up jumper at the free throw line, a perfect encapsulation of a far more efficient 2012-13 season (free throws, drives, short jumpers) that has turned Kobe Bryant into an offensive marvel even at the age of 34.
Also, on the last shot he passed the legendary Wilt Chamberlain to become the NBA’s fourth all-time leading scorer. With that jumper, he scored points number 31,420 and 31,421 in a brilliant career. Watch:
(It also didn’t hurt that the points came in the midst of an 11-2 run that pushed the Lakers back into the game, as the desperately try to keep pace with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks for the eighth and final playoff speed in the West. The Lakers entered the second quarter down 12 points after giving up an embarrassing 37 first quarter points to the Kings, but came back to take the lead in that second 12-minute frame.)
Seven years ago, Kobe Bryant fell short by 19 points when he scored the second-most amount of points in an NBA game, tossing in 81 against the Toronto Raptors in a win. Wilt famously went for one hundred points in 1962, dominating a tiny New York Knick front line in a dubious contest that saw his Philadelphia Warriors fouling New York down the stretch in order to get the ball back inside Wilt’s record-setting mitts. Nothing against Wilt, but Bryant’s difficulty and the iffy road that Chamberlain took toward his 100 points are why I rank Bryant’s 81 on the same level as The Big Dipper’s 100.
Bryant, on record at least, doesn’t appear to be bothered with moving up lists like these. He would prefer another run toward the Larry O’Brien trophy, one that would surpass Laker legend Magic Johnson in terms of championship rings. From ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:
"I just want No. 6, man," Bryant said, referring to his championship count, when asked where he wanted to finish on the all-time scoring list when he retires. "I'm not asking for too much, man. Just give me a sixth ring, damn it."
It’s true that Kobe Bryant has played in 1233 NBA contests to Wilt’s 1045 on their way toward their respective marks. Kobe was given the benefit of the three-point line, easier travel, better medical care, and plenty of help from teammates along the way. This shouldn’t take away from his accomplishments in the slightest, though. Bryant is a guard working in a league that can still send the best of the backcourt leviathans to the ground in an instant with a hard foul. Chamberlain, for all his brilliance, dominated over a league that saw him tower over all defenders in terms of both skill and size.
Chamberlain, you’ll recall, didn’t exactly retire from the NBA in a blaze of glory. There was no farewell tour, with tributes in every arena, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan received. Wilt was still a major force in his final season, making nearly three-quarters of his shots from the field and playing almost 44 minutes a contest (over 82 games) for a Lakers team that lost in the Finals that season to the New York Knicks. Still the league’s best rebounder and (obviously) most efficient scorer, Chamberlain jumped to the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association in a move to take his talents to a different beach.
A court ruled, as it often did in the days before the NBA’s reserve clause was shot down, that Chamberlain had to sit out a season as some sort of ham-fisted sporting penance. The Q’s (as very few people called them) responded by making Wilt the team’s head coach, a role he greeted with a shrug and sometimes even showed up for. Stan Albeck ended up coaching most of that 37-win season, and Wilt quietly walked away from the game following that season.
This is a long way of pointing out that, yeah, Wilt could have tossed a few more points onto what was then his all-time scoring record. But also that Kobe Bryant, having his best offensive season in years this deep into his career, is far from done.
He’ll pass Michael Jordan, given Kobe’s current rate of play, probably around the time the holidays hit in late 2013. The next obstacle is former teammate Karl Malone – a player that Kobe would still be nearly a thousand career points shy of even if he averages over 24 points per game over the next two seasons. Bryant is as competitive as they come, to be sure, but he’s been noncommittal as to his NBA plans as the 2014 expiration of his massive contract expires in the summer of 2014.
Still, even at age 36, with by then 18 (long, considering his massive playoff jaunts) NBA seasons behind him, it would be hard to see Kobe walking away from the game for good. Maybe he’ll pull the anti-Jordan, though, after the summer of 2014. Maybe he’ll work for the league minimum to allow the Lakers to sign LeBron James as a free agent, and make up for the mess that is the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2012-13 season.
For now, let’s doff the cap to the man that somehow, as a guard, is playing some of the best offensive basketball of his career at age 34. It’s been a rough year for the Lakers, and Kobe shouldn’t be immune to criticism for his role in as much, but Los Angeles’ disappointing season shouldn’t take away from Kobe’s spectacular accomplishment.
(And while you’re doffing, tip your hat towards the late and much-missed Wilt Chamberlain, as he moves one spot down the list.)