If the Mavericks had just held up their end and stayed in that game Dec. 20, Kobe Bryant, who had 62 after three quarters, would have played in the fourth, so Sunday might have been only his second 80-point night of the season.
This is the stuff of legends and not a second too soon for the NBA, which has been in relative eclipse since the one and only (at least until recently) Michael Jordan left the Bulls in 1998.
FOR THE RECORD:
NBA scorers —A chart of top single-season scoring averages in the Sports section on Tuesday should have included Elgin Baylor's average of 38.3 points in 1961-62, with the notations that Baylor played only 48 games that season and that his point total ranked eighth in the league.
Bryant led "SportsCenter" Monday morning, ahead of the NFL's conference championships, its second-biggest day of the year. "A gi-normous night for the NFL," said Stuart Scott, "but the night belonged to Kobe."
They may still be cleaning up the tickertape in the league office, but a lot of nights have belonged to Kobe lately. We're not completely off the map, but you could count the NBA players who were this dominant on one hand, while wearing a mitten.
Only Wilt Chamberlain scored more points in a game, not that there's any comparison between them.
Chamberlain was a 7-foot-1 center who played in a higher-scoring era, although he was so far ahead of it, he was like a different species. When Wilt arrived in 1959, there were three players over 6-10 — Ray Felix of New York, Walter Dukes of Detroit and Charlie Share of St. Louis. Bill Russell, who was listed at 6-10, was really 6-9, weighed 225 pounds and would be small for a power forward in today's game.
Jordan arrived in 1984 with his mind-blowing game and proved himself to be without peer, at least until the last few weeks. There have been fanciful comparisons of Jordan and Bryant for years, but, assuming Kobe doesn't do one of his 180s, it's finally legitimate.
Jordan scored more points (30.1 a game for his career to 23.2), shot better (49.7% to 45.2%), averaged more assists (5.3 to 4.4), defended better and, in the big one, won more titles (6-3).
However, if Jordan had been more efficient, sheer unadulterated greatness might be in question. No one who ever played may have been able to match Kobe's top end.
"You know those steel cage matches in wrestling?" said TNT's Doug Collins, who coached Jordan for two seasons in Chicago and two more in Washington, as Michael's personal choice.
"I would love to see Michael at 27, Kobe at 27, lock them in a gym and see who comes out. And you know one thing, the other one will be dead on the court.
"Kobe is the best player in the game right now. People don't want to recognize that because of the things that happened that caused people not to like him.
"Kobe at 27 has the worst talent around him he has ever had. When Michael was 27, he had the best talent around him he ever had. It's as if their careers flip-flopped."
At 27, Jordan hadn't won a title and had learned his limits the hard way, but with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant emerging, was surrounded by the best talent he'd play with.
Bryant won three titles with Shaquille O'Neal by 24, but now, at 27, is learning the hard way how far he can carry the Lakers by himself.
Bryant is every bit as ferocious as Jordan and works even harder at his craft (Jordan got more serious as he got older; Bryant was born serious).
Of course, Kobe is doing it his way, with his impossible, long-range, covered, falling-backward, leaning-in, off-balance, no-no-no-nice shot repertoire.
"I've always said Michael is the most fundamentally sound player I'd ever seen," Collins said. "Now when you throw in that spectacular physical talent, you've really got something . If this was like gymnastics with degree of difficulty, Kobe's shots wouldn't just count two points."
Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan to his six titles, may have preferred coaching a clinic, as opposed to a human highlight reel. Nevertheless, the excitement works for the NBA in Year 8 of its post-Bulls transition, with each season seemingly quieter than the one before.
The 2004 breakup of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers was just the latest calamity. With small towns such as San Antonio and low-key stars such as Tim Duncan taking over, there were few of the old magnetic personalities who once galvanized interest.
After Shaq, Kobe and Allen Iverson (wasted on a team going nowhere), there was no one to compare to Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dennis Rodman, the brash stars of the '80s and '90s, who lived as big as they played.
This season opened to yawns. Talk show hosts who can now tell you how many days are left "before pitchers and catchers" — a new shorthand phrase for the early opening of baseball's spring training, which no one even covered 20 years ago — greeted the NBA with indifference, noting there was no reason to pay attention before the playoffs.
And then along came Kobe.
It's especially good news for the Lakers, who are still managing to give their fans value, even factoring in the king's ransom they charge them.
The Lakers needed a re-imaged Bryant, whom some other great player wants to join. Like it or not, it wasn't his arrest that hurt him with his peers, but the leak of his police interview in which he alluded to O'Neal. But basketball players care, first and foremost, about basketball.
Bryant's image isn't just warming up now, it's as if they put it in the microwave. There's no more confusing him with the merely great such as Iverson, or the merely promising such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, or the giants of yesteryear such as O'Neal.
He's the one-and-only Kobe. Everything to now might have been a warmup. His time could just be starting.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Better than 60
Kobe Bryant is one of four in NBA history to at least twice score 60 or more points in a game. A list of all players to score at least 60 points:
Wilt Chamberlain (32 times
|100||New York||March 2, 1962|
|78||Lakers (3 OT)||Dec. 8, 1961|
|73||Chicago||Jan. 13, 1962|
|73||New York||Nov. 16, 1962|
|72||Lakers||Nov. 3, 1962|
|70||Syracuse||March 10, 1963|
|68||Chicago||Dec. 16, 1967|
|67||New York||March 9, 1961|
|67||St. Louis||Feb. 17, 1962|
|67||New York||Feb. 25, 1962|
|67||Lakers||Jan. 11, 1963|
|66||Phoenix||Feb. 9, 1969|
|65||Cincinnati||Feb. 13, 1962|
|65||St. Louis||Feb. 27, 1962|
|65||Lakers||Feb. 7, 1966|
|63||Philadelphia||Nov. 26, 1964|
|63||Lakers||Dec. 14, 1962|
|62||Philadelphia||March 3, 1966|
|62||Cincinnati||Nov. 15, 1964|
|62||New York||Jan. 29, 1963|
|62||Syracuse (OT)||Jan. 21, 1962|
|62||St. Louis (OT)||Jan. 17, 1962|
|62||Boston||Jan. 14, 1962|
|61||St. Louis||Dec. 18, 1962|
|61||Syracuse||Dec. 11, 1962|
|61||St. Louis||Nov. 21, 1962|
|61||Chicago||Feb. 28, 1962|
|61||St. Louis||Feb. 22, 1962|
|61||Chicago||Dec. 9, 1961|
|60||Cincinnati||Jan. 26, 1969|
|60||Lakers||Dec. 29, 1961|
|60||Lakers||Dec. 1, 1961|
|Michael Jordan (four times)|
|69||Cleveland (OT)||March 28, 1990|
|64||Orlando (OT)||Jan. 16, 1993|
|61||Atlanta||April 16, 1987|
|61||Detroit (OT)||March 4, 1987|
|Elgin Baylor (three times)|
|71||New York||Nov. 15, 1960|
|64||Boston||Nov. 8, 1959|
|63||Philadelphia (3 OT)||Dec. 8, 1961|
|Kobe Bryant (two times)|
|81||Toronto||Jan. 22, 2006|
|62||Dallas||Dec. 20, 2005|
|73||Detroit||April 9, 1978|
|71||Clippers||April 24, 1994|
|68||New York||Feb. 25, 1977|
|64||Portland||March 26, 1974|
|63||Indianapolis||Feb. 10, 1949|
|63||New Orleans||April 9, 1978|
|63||New York||Jan. 17, 1962|
|62||Washington||March 10, 2004|
|61||Milwaukee||Jan. 27, 1990|
|61||Rochester (2 OT)||Jan. 20, 1952|
|61||Clippers||March 6, 2000|
|60||Atlanta||March 12, 1985|
|60||Seattle||March 24, 1990|
|60||Orlando||Dec. 12, 2005|
|60||New Jersey||Dec. 25, 1984|