Call him "KO" Kobe Bryant, though his punches never landed and he didn't make it to the final rounds.
Bryant has always been a scorer, not a fighter, a kid happy to zip around his more violent peers without dropping into the blood-and-guts world.
But on Sunday, face-to-face and fist-to-chin with Chris Childs in the middle of the Lakers' commanding 106-82 thumping of the New York Knicks, Bryant showed that he doesn't have a glass jaw, and that when he goes for the knockout . . . look out!
In an explosive fight-within-the-fight scenario, and in the most visceral, vicious moments of Bryant's career, Bryant got tangled with Childs near the end of the third quarter, exchanged elbows, then absorbed a head-butt and two clean punches before returning fire with several missed punches.
Bryant left Staples Center before reporters could speak to him about the incident.
Said Shaquille O'Neal, who stepped in seconds after the altercation started and shoved Patrick Ewing a couple times to keep the scrum moving: "Everyone knows Kobe's a clean-cut guy. But he had somebody punching in his face, he had to do something about it. I was just trying to protect my little brother. If something crazy would happen, I would defend him . . . But Kobe's a tough kid, he protected himself."
It took a referee, several teammates, assistant coach Jim Cleamons and some security men to pull Bryant away from his suddenly deep desire to separate Childs' head from his shoulders.
When it was over, both men were thrown out of the game--Bryant still visibly furious as he was escorted off the court with Laker security man Jerome Crawford--and the Lakers (62-12) set out to finish their thrashing of the Knicks, their ninth victory in a row and 28th in 29 games.
It also completed a record-setting 27-3 mark against Eastern Conference teams this season, the best all-time winning percentage by a West team against the East.
But this game will be remembered for the flash and the fury from a player who had never been ejected in his four-year NBA career.
"You know, it's the guys that are very quiet you've got to be careful of," said forward Glen Rice, who seemed particularly inspired by the blowup and made three baskets immediately following to move the Laker lead from 11 to 18 points. "Kobe's a quiet guy and Kobe goes out there and he plays 110% each night, 48 minutes. There's just some things guys aren't going to take. He didn't take the cheap shot he got."
Said Rick Fox: "That's our little brother right there. As big brothers, you don't let somebody pick on your little brother. But he stood up for himself. He was a little frustrated there that he couldn't get a piece of Chris Childs. And Kobe being such a nice guy, a nice kid, I suspect it had to be something pretty serious that happened that he responded that way."
The brawl began with less than a minute left in the third quarter, with the Lakers ahead, 71-60, and Bryant cutting through the lane and Childs trailing him on defense.
The two appeared to exchange elbows--with Bryant's appearing to strike Childs' face--then Childs shoved Bryant in retaliation and Bryant shoved him back, all while the play was continuing.
Then Childs, several inches shorter than Bryant, leaned in and his forehead slammed into Bryant's face. Bryant looked stunned, then sent an elbow at Childs that missed.
"He hit me with an elbow in the mouth, and I just reacted," Childs said. "He does it a lot and never gets called for it . . . I just had to defend myself. I wish it didn't happen, but there's nothing I can do about it now."
Childs' answering right-left combination landed cleanly, and Bryant's volley of punches hit only air as referee Ted Bernhardt stepped in between; even as Bryant was dragged 40 feet away from Childs, he was frantically trying to find his way back to Childs.
Coach Phil Jackson agreed that part of the shock of the confrontation was that it involved Bryant, who had never before fought.
"No, he hasn't," Jackson said. "Childs has, though . . . It was one of those situations where the game just kept escalating physically, because nothing was being called so it just escalated."
What was Bryant's mood after the game? "He's feeling like he's probably going to miss out on a ballgame," Jackson said, referring to the probable one-game suspension facing Bryant (and Childs) today.
"You can't let a guy punch you in the face on national TV and just walk away," said O'Neal, who led the Lakers with 34 points, five blocked shots and 12 rebounds, his second consecutive domination of Ewing and the Knicks. "I know I couldn't do it. . . . What they did over there was just sheer dirtiness. But they've been doing that for a long time.."
If the Knicks were looking to derail the Lakers, the effort failed, the Lakers were happy to point out. With Rice clicking from the outside, the Lakers scored on their next six possessions, upping the lead to 83-67 and icing the game.
"Teams are going to do whatever they can to try to provoke us to try to get us off-balance in some kind of way," Rice said. "It just didn't work today. That's some of the things that we're prepared for."
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