Kobe Bryant scores big by not scoring

After 16 years, I thought it was impossible to be startled by anything Kobe Bryant did with a basketball.

Until Thursday, when he gave it up.

He could have soared, yet decided to sit. He could have made individual history, yet decided to focus on a team championship. He could have played the star, yet decided to be the leader.

Needing to score 38 points in a meaningless season finale against the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night to win his third individual scoring title, Bryant instead decided to rest for the upcoming postseason.

He has scored as many as 38 points seven times this season, and could have done it in three quarters against the woeful Kings, but would not. He could have punked Oklahoma City rival and scoring leader Kevin Durant, but did not. He could have even become the second-oldest player to win a scoring title behind Michael Jordan, but will not.

On a night when much of Los Angeles thought he might take 100 shots, he decided to take zero.

“Contrary to what everybody possibly thinks about him, that’s not what he’s all about,” Lakers Coach Mike Brown said in announcing the decision.

OK, everybody doesn’t think he cares only about scoring, but darn near everybody. Bryant has always said he puts the team ahead of himself, but earlier this season, even five championships later, it just seemed like talk. He threw up 28 shots per game in an early nine-game stretch, which would have been a career high. He seem to alienate an emerging Andrew Bynum by continually ignoring his inside presence. There was concern — still is — that Bynum was becoming a younger version of an angry Shaquille O’Neal, upset that Bryant wouldn’t share the glory.

But slowly, Bryant, 33, seemed to change. As the compressed season ground on and the consecutive games piled up, Bryant’s legs wore down, his arms grew weary, and his vision increased. Through his age and aches, he finally discovered a clear view of his new role.

He finally realized he couldn’t do it alone anymore. If he wanted a sixth championship, he finally understood that it would have be a title shared by many.

On a Sunday in March, for what might have been the first time in his career, he actually suggested a play for another player that secured the Lakers victory over the Boston Celtics. Standing in front of the bench during a timeout in the final seconds, Bryant asked Brown to use him as a decoy and diagram an interior play to Bynum, who scored on a hook shot to secure a 97-94 victory.

“It was crazy,” Bynum said at the time, and who could argue?

Then Bryant suffered a left shin injury and, also for maybe the first time in his career, he did not fight to get back on the court. He knew the team would need him to be healthy in the postseason. He was willing to sacrifice April stardom for a chance to win games in May. He not only willingly sat for seven games, but he sat on the bench in a suit and helped coach his teammates, who showered him with a different kind of praise.

For the first time, Kobe Bryant was being celebrated for helping others.

“He’s been very supportive and very positive to all the guys,” Pau Gasol said at that time.

Bryant saw that his influence could stretch beyond a turnaround jumper, and he became empowered by it. When he returned against San Antonio last week, he took only 12 shots in 30 minutes of a blowout Spurs win. When the Lakers needed more from him against Oklahoma City on Sunday, he unselfishly guarded Russell Westbrook and scored six consecutive Lakers points in the deciding second overtime.

Even with all this, with the coveted scoring title on the line, I thought Bryant would start shooting from the opening tip and not stop until Durant had been ground into Sooner dust. I would not have criticized Bryant if he did. Who would? After all these years, he has earned the right to take a bucketful of shots in a game that means nothing.

That he chose not to do so will earn him respect from a locker room that needs to trust him and admiration from a city that wants to believe in him. His numbers weakened, but his legacy grew stronger. On a day Kobe Bryant willingly gave up a scoring title — who thought we would ever write those words? — he gained much, much more.