Finally, there came a point when Coach Phil Jackson felt comfortable enough the Lakers would secure a victory that Kobe Bryant no longer needed to be on the court.
"Maybe I should take him out because the game is in the bag," Jackson recalled saying to Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen, as detailed in the updated edition of his book, "Sacred Hoops." According to Jackson, Hamblen responded this way: "There would be a riot."
That's because at that point very little of the 18,887 at Staples Center cheered because the Lakers would prevail in a 112-104 victory over Toronto after overcoming a 14-point halftime deficit exactly five years ago. No, the fans chanted "M-V-P" throughout the game and stood up for the entire fourth quarter as they witnessed Bryant scoring 81 points, marking the second-highest scoring total in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point performance with Philadelphia against the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962. It's a good thing Jackson heeded Hamblen's advice because he initially considered yanking Bryant when he had 77 points, one point behind Chamberlain's then-No.-2-all-time mark when Philadelphia visited the Lakers in a 151-147 triple-overtime loss on Dec. 8, 1961.
"I wasn't keeping track on what he had," Jackson told The Times' Mike Bresnahan regarding Bryant's mark, which also eclipsed the Lakers' franchise record -- Elgin Baylor's 71-point performance in a 123-108 victory over the Knicks on Nov. 16, 1960.
Surely, it was a night to marvel at Bryant's seeming ability to will his team on his scoring prowess alone. The feat itself proved enough of a sight, with The Times' Mark Heisler writing that the performance epitomized Bryant's penchant for "dropping in seemingly impossible shots -- defenders all over him, not squared up, moving laterally, from way downtown, not even he can make that one, nice shot, Kobe -- one after another as if they were routine." And Bresnahan's game story certainly captured the emotions surrounding a record-breaking night. He noted public address announcer Lawrence Tanter telling fans to save their ticket stubs, quoted Lakers owner Jerry Buss describing Bryant's performance as "like watching a miracle unfold" and related the scene of teammates and staff members asking Bryant to sign the box score.
Five years later, Bryant won't wax too much sentimentality on it.
"I really don't think about it too much," The Times' Broderick Turner quoted Bryant, who also noted his grandmother attended in what was her "first and only game she's ever been to in the NBA." "I still don't know how the hell it happened. It's just one of those things, I guess."
But here's where it's not just one of those things. The performance partly contributed to an improved relationship with Jackson and perfectly juxtaposed what Bryant's facing, where he's playing both facilitator and scorer on a championship-contending roster.
"The funny thing is that this was one of the few scoring tears Kobe has gone on where I wasn't anxious about making sure he didn't make it a one-man show," Jackson wrote in the updated "Sacred Hoops." "As a coach, you always strive for success of the team over any individual. But, on this night, it was Kobe who was responsible for the team's success. Without his heroic performance, we would have lost. His outburst came in the context of the game. I trusted him, and he trusted me. This was a moment in a relationship that has certainly endured its share of turmoil."
That included the contentious and ego-clashing dynamic shared by Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant and Jackson during the Lakers' three-peat seasons (1999-2002) and the next two, which fell short by Lakers standards (an elimination in the 2003 Western Conference semifinals to San Antonio and a five-game series loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA FInals) and illustrated in Jackson's book "The Last Season," which captured the coach's feelings that swung between admiration for Bryant's competitiveness and disdain for Bryant's ego fueled higher distrust.
With Jackson returning to coach the Lakers only a season removed from his departure, however, it didn't take long for the two to foster a better relationship. Consider Bryant's revelation to ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin that Jackson asked him numerous times that season whether " I wanted to stay in," including a 62-point performance in the Lakers' 112-90 victory Dec. 20, 2005, against Dallas, four games he scored between 50-59 points and 21 contests he logged between 40-40 points.
"Phil's been really cool about stuff like that," Bryant told McMenamin. Bryant's 35.4 points per game that season was the NBA's highest single-season average since Michael Jordan's 37.1 during the Chicago Bulls in 1986-87.
Surely, there were other adversities ahead, including two first-round exits to Phoenix in 2006 and 2007, his trade demands in 2007 and another NBA Finals loss in 2008. But Bryant's performance, among other things, helped paved the way for what's resulted in five NBA titles. Bryant's no longer having to carry a team. The Lakers' 107-97 victory Friday over Denver featured five players scoring at least 17 points. It's astonishing to see Bryant make 28 of 46 shots (60.9%), hit 18 of 20 free throws and drain 13 three-point attempts in a record-setting night against Toronto. It's still intriguing, however, to witness Bryant still seemingly do everything on offense, but in various capacities. His 18-point performance with seven assists and six rebounds showcased his scoring mentality (14 third-quarter points, including two consecutive baseline jumpers) an uncanny court vision (an alley-oop lob to Pau Gasol and a jump-pass to Lamar Odom) and a good dose of pure grit (diving and tipping a loose ball to the Lakers' favor).
Trust issues occasionally remain, such as the his 27 shot attempts in a double-digit loss to San Antonio last month and his six of 24 clip in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against Boston. His changed game also points to his increased awareness on maintaining health and longevity on a taxing body. But it also speaks to how he's thrived and excelled in complementing and elevating the increased talent around him.
"We are going from the bottom to the top all together, so it's important for us to enjoy the journey, and that is what we are doing right now," Bryant said to reporters after his record-setting performance. "We are on a journey, and to put on a show like this for the fans here in L.A. is truly something special."
As Jackson remarked in his book and Bryant later found out, that was just the beginning to a storied second chapter.