For all the hardware he’d accumulated in his life — championship rings, MVP trophies, All-Star awards — one peculiar item heralded the imminent appearance of the NBA’s third-leading scorer at a postgame news conference.
A green plastic bucket filled with ice.
It was carried into a warm, tightly packed room and placed below the table where Kobe Bryant would sit, as important as any other symbol that this wasn’t the type of milestone that came easily.
After weeks of speculation, analysis and, of course, argument, Bryant passed Michael Jordan with a pair of free throws in the second quarter of the Lakers’ 100-94 victory Sunday over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
It wasn’t as climactic as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook to make him the league’s all-time scoring leader. It wasn’t as uncontroversial as Karl Malone’s steady stroll to second on the list, one pick-and-roll at a time.
It wasn’t even guaranteed to be the biggest Bryant news event of the past week, his “soft like Charmin” rant at practice taking plenty of spins in the national sports cycle a few days earlier.
But it finally happened, 1,269 regular-season games into a career that began with a trade, Charlotte to Los Angeles, and filled with individual visions of topping Jordan in championships and accolades.
“He knows how much I’ve learned from him, from the other legends, and him in particular,” Bryant said after dunking his feet into his postgame ice bath. “That’s the most important thing to me, I think, is playing for the respect of the greats and feeling like I’m a part of that culture, part of that brotherhood.”
Bryant had 26 points to give him 32,310 overall, a hefty total despite plenty of people who would side with Jordan over one simple question: “Who’s better?”
Bryant has won only two scoring titles, unlike the 10 earned by Jordan. He needed 197 more games than Jordan to hit Sunday’s mark.
The counter-argument, of course, is that Jordan had to carry the Chicago Bulls on his own for several years until Scottie Pippen came of age. Bryant, on the other hand, was surrounded by talent from the start, be it the brute force of Shaquille O’Neal, the timely shooting of Robert Horry or the veteran punch of Brian Shaw and Rick Fox.
Not that Jordan seemed to care either way, complimenting Bryant soon after being passed by him.
“He’s obviously a great player, with a strong work ethic, and has an equally strong passion for the game of basketball,” Jordan said in a statement released through the team he owns, the Charlotte Hornets. “I’ve enjoyed watching his game evolve over the years, and I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next.”
Bryant almost topped Jordan after finding a familiar spot on the court and launching a turnaround from the right baseline. It rimmed out.
On the Lakers’ next possession, he was fouled by Zach LaVine on a drive down the right baseline. He made both free throws after a timeout with 5:24 left until halftime.
There were hugs from teammates near center court and a standing ovation from fans at Target Center. Then the Timberwolves did something classy, stopping the game and allowing team owner Glen Taylor to present Bryant with the basketball.
He briefly headed to the sideline and hugged Coach Byron Scott. He also shared a long embrace with Lakers trainer Gary Vitti.
The event was almost as strange as it was satisfying for Bryant.
“I’m so used to being the villain all the time on the road,” he said. “It took a minute to kind of adjust. When you’re not expecting a hug and you get a hug, you’re like, ‘Man, this actually feels pretty damn good.’”
In an ever-insightful mood, Bryant spoke of his career-long villainous nature.
“When it comes to basketball, man, that’s just what I am naturally,” he said. “I think competitive nature is something that frightens a lot of people when you peel back truly what’s inside of a person to compete and be at that high level. It scares a lot of people that are comfortable just being average.
“If you look at Michael’s retirement speech, people really got a chance to see how he ticks and it scared a lot of people. But that’s just the reality of it. You can’t get to a supreme level without channeling the dark side a little.”
Obscured by Bryant’s milestone was a three-game winning streak by the Lakers (8-16) and another solid effort by Carlos Boozer off the bench (22 points, 13 rebounds).
Shabazz Muhammad had 28 points for Minnesota (5-18), but the home team’s best highlight was the young Timberwolves fan holding up a 12-pack of Charmin under the basket while Bryant shot free throws in the third quarter.
Bryant, 36, has a lot of work to do to catch Malone (36,928 career points), let alone Abdul-Jabbar (38,387).
“When moments like this come around, you’re really overjoyed by it,” he said. “At the same time, the end is pretty near.”