Even though his ascendance began right as the Knicks were starting their tumble towards perennial bottom dweller status, Kobe Bryant still always felt like a formidable foe in New York, and 11 years ago this week he made history with a dazzling 61-point performance at Madison Square Garden.
The heartbreaking death of Kobe and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, sent shockwaves across the world. The news wasn’t real until you had confirmed it for yourself, and even then it seemed impossible. It still seems impossible. The tragedy transcended basketball, and the weight of what happened is unlikely to stop reverberating anytime soon.
The debate about exactly where Kobe sits in the hierarchy of NBA legends seems silly now; he was great at basketball, and we got to watch him play for 20 years.
During those two decades of dominance, Kobe performed plenty of spectacular feats against the Knicks. He torched New York for 30 or more 15 times, and in five of those games scored at least 40 points, according to basketball-reference.com. In 34 total battles with the ‘Bockers, Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers were 23-11. He only had under 20 points nine times against the Knicks, and in four of those outings he was on the court for less than 10 minutes.
Over the course of his career, Bryant was a visitor against the Knicks at MSG 16 times, averaging almost 30 points per outing and leading the Lakers to a 10-6 record.
For goodness sake, the first points of Kobe’s career came in New York.
But his magnum opus was written on Feb. 2, 2009, when Bryant set the record for most points ever scored at The Garden. Bryant’s record may no longer stand — Carmelo Anthony eclipsed him in 2014 and James Harden matched him last season — but the night Kobe erupted for 61 will never be forgotten.
Unsurprisingly, Kobe was locked in from before the jump ball through the final buzzer. Here’s how the New York Times recap of the game began:
The agenda was telegraphed in Kobe Bryant’s eyes, which were fixed in a cold stare Monday night, and in a taut expression that varied between hyper-serious and hyper-focused. There were no mischievous grins, the sort that Bryant often flashes between basketball magic tricks, no outward sign that he was enjoying his own history-making night at Madison Square Garden.
Kobe wasted no time getting down to business, tallying 11 points within the first five minutes of the game and finishing the first quarter with 18. By halftime, he had 34 points, and considering he had scored 81 against the Toronto Raptors just three seasons prior, it wasn’t inconceivable that he might do something crazy.
The Knicks crawled back from a 15-point halftime deficit, meaning the Lakers couldn’t just cruise and Kobe couldn’t settle for a ho-hum 40-something point effort. All of Bryant’s familiar shotmaking was on display. His patented footwork led to up-and-under layups; he backed down defenders before abruptly draining fadeaways in their face; he soared into the lane and drew fouls; he hung in the air for Michael Jordan-like amounts of time.
Speaking of MJ, before Kobe, His Airness held the record for most points in MSG by an opposing player, having famously dropped 55 just 10 days into the return from his first retirement. Kobe usurped Jordan with a pair of free throws with just under four minutes to go. A few minutes later, he toppled Bernard King’s MSG record of 60 points with another pair of free throws.
Bryant’s final stat line was oh so very Kobe: 61 points (19-31 from the field, 3-6 from deep and 20-20 from the free throw line), 3 assists and 1 block in just under 37 minutes.
“Bryant is like Muhammed Ali,” Walt Clyde Frazier said at one point during the broadcast. “He gets guys all out of their rhythm.”
Here are Kobe’s highlights from that game in all their glory:
For the Knicks, the 126-117 loss snapped a five-game home winning streak and dropped them to 21-26 on the season. The crowd — which showered Bryant with MVP chants multiple times during the game — was far too interested in the historic showing from Kobe to care.
For those that either don’t remember or have purposely not thought about the 2008-09 Knicks for awhile it was the first year of the Mike D’Antoni era. The Knicks ended the season with a record of 32-50. Good thing we ultimately got rid of that coach, because it’s safe to assume he’s had no success whatsoever in the NBA since departing New York.
Moving on from that last sentence without even considering that it may be slightly inaccurate, D’Antoni trotted out the following starting lineup for Kobe’s 61-point showing: Chris Duhon, Al Harrington, Quentin Richardson, David Lee and Jared Jeffries. Harrington had 24 points, while Lee posted 22 points and 12 rebounds. Wilson Chandler contributed 20 points off the bench, and Nate Robinson added 13. Rookie Danilo Gallinari scored 10 points in just under 20 minutes of action.
For the Lakers, Pau Gasol helped Kobe out with 31 points and 14 boards. They were without Andrew Bynum, who had torn a ligament in his right knee just days before. Former Knick Trevor Ariza totaled 13 points off the bench and was the only other Laker to score double digits. Future Knicks head coach Derek Fisher had 3 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal in 25 minutes of playing time. Sasha Vujačić, who would join the Knicks about seven years later, played 10 minutes off the bench for the Lakers and contributed little except for four fouls.
In his postgame press conference, Kobe showed reverence for the arena, talking about how special it was to have such a big game at The Mecca. He also joked about how much trash he was going to talk to Spike Lee since the two were scheduled to review a documentary later in the evening.
It was a night for the ages, and one of those games that even Knicks fans couldn’t help but applaud. Now Kobe is gone, but his legacy will live on; perhaps as the new NBA logo, if this petition picks up enough support.
Bryant’s life and career had some warts, of course. And for the most part, being a Knicks fan meant despising the Black Mamba, mainly because the team was so bad for almost the entire time he was around so it was easy to spew venom in his direction.
But no NBA arena appreciates greatness like The Garden, and 11 years ago this week MSG was treated to a spectacular performance from one of the greatest to ever step on the hardwood.
Rest in peace Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and all the other victims of the horrific helicopter crash.