When was Kobe Bryant at his best?
Was it when he shook loose, faded into the smallest amount of space and hit a game-winner?
Was it when he set records or when he outscored opponents?
Was it when he fought through tendon tears and muscle spasms?
Was it when he surprised even the most jaded people in the arena?
It depends on who you ask.
We asked around, talking to the people who played with him, the men who coached him and competed against him, the rookies awed by his skill, the next generation of players stirred by him. We asked the writers who chronicled his every step, the columnists he inspired, the voices who called his games.
When was Kobe at his best?
Turns out, it happened in a variety of ways, but we’ll start with him at his worst.
May 10, 1997: Utah 110, Lakers 95
Bryant: 9 pts, 3-9 FG, 3-6 3FG, 5 TO
Flea, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist: It was the last game of the season here … He didn’t really play that whole season because Del Harris didn’t play kids. He played a few minutes here and there. This game, it’s lost. Del brings him in and he just starts launching up threes like a mad man at the end of the game, one after another. Shooting like he was the greatest scorer that ever lived. And no one really knows who he is other than he’s this kid they drafted, a guy with potential. And I was sitl ting there watching, thinking this kid is outlandish. And he’s going to be incredible. And even though he bricked a bunch, it was the courage. The fearlessness. The attitude. It was so inspiring.
May 12, 1997: Utah 98, Lakers 93
Bryant: 11 pts, 4-14 FG, 0-6 3FG
Kevin Harlan, TNT broadcaster: I go back to the series in Utah in 1997 that I did for Turner, and in that Game 5, he threw up four air balls, some at the end of regulation. Some in overtime. … I remember him walking off the floor, someone had his arm around him. Some of the players did. The only thing I could think of then — something that’s been resurrected with all the stuff that’s happened the past few weeks — was the most important lesson for NBA players is that you can’t be afraid of the biggest moments. That’s the No. 1 thing all winners have — you’re never afraid of the big moment. And his whole career was defined by that. ... It set the tone for the next 19 years, that failure, those air balls.
The writers who covered Bryant for the L.A. Times saw something special early, Bryant’s athleticism and attraction to big moments, which has stayed with them decades later.
April 19, 1999: Lakers 106, Golden State 102
Bryant: 27 pts, 10-17 FG, 3-4 3FG, 5 reb., 5 ast, 3 blk
Tim Kawakami, Times Lakers beat writer 1998-2000: I think of this as the first time I saw Kobe Bryant levitate. Not by magic, just by force of will. Because that’s the only way the Lakers could win. … Shaq [O’Neal] had been tossed out in the first half. The Lakers had trailed by 28 at one point, by 20 to start the fourth and then rallied to get close. Glen Rice had to miss a free throw and somebody had to figure out how to tip it in to get this to overtime.
Press row was courtside behind the opposite basket and I saw Kobe race from the three-point line when Rice’s shot rolled around the rim. Robert Horry flicked the rebound sideways and all I saw was Kobe rising, staying in the air, lunging to the ball and knocking it from four feet away into the basket. For some reason, I really remember the look on his face — twisted, focused and so sure he could do this. Of course, the Lakers won it in OT. My instant conclusion: This 21-year-old made himself fly a little bit and this probably wouldn’t be the last time.
May 18, 2001: Lakers 104, San Antonio 90
Bryant: 45 pts, 19-35 FG, 10 reb.
Tim Brown, Times Lakers beat writer 2000-05: Lakers and the Spurs those years was often gorgeous and taut basketball, but not on this trip down the floor, not as I remember it. Instead, this was a tangle of players and a stunted play, men in sweat and blood and pieces on the far side of the court, when suddenly the ball was spit in a high arc across the floor.
Every pair of eyes in the Alamodome followed the ball, calculated where it would descend, and followed it to the logical end. That was where Kobe stood. All but alone on the left wing. Near the arc.
In the commotion, the game had freed Kobe with the ball on his hip, one man to beat. When the crowd howled at the absurdity of the matchup, the man across from Kobe, Spurs guard Steve Kerr, grinned. This was going to be ugly and he knew it.
April 13, 2004: Lakers 105, Portland 104 (2OT)
Bryant: 37 pts, 14-31 FG, 4-10 3FG, 8 reb., 5 ast
John Ireland, Lakers radio broadcaster: If you’ve never seen the highlights of this game, you’ve got to go on YouTube. ... It’s a back-and-forth game. … The Lakers get the ball back with seconds left and they throw the ball into Kobe. And Ruben Patterson plays perfect defense. Kobe catches it, somehow contorts his body, twists and somehow sends the game into overtime. The game ends up in double overtime and it plays itself out again — the Lakers with the ball and a second left and the Blazers up two. The Lakers give it to Kobe again and it’s just another ridiculously impossible three. Both of these shots, the percentage of making either is probably like 1%. … If I was going to put a Kobe game in a time capsule to try to explain to you Kobe Bryant, this is the one.
April 29, 2006: Lakers 99, Phoenix 98
Bryant: 24 pts, 9-14 FG, 8 ast
Luke Walton, former Laker: I tied [Steve] Nash up at half court. They say I stepped out of bounds. I don’t think I did. Jump ball, tap it to Kobe. Kobe comes down at the buzzer, hits it and we go up 3-1 [in the playoff series].
Paul George, Clippers guard: That was probably one of the biggest, maybe the most influential, games to me. It was just his will to win. I thought it was super special and unique. That’s the fist-pump celebration, the iconic roar and jersey pull. Everything about it, you’ll see it in highlights after highlights. ... What made it special is I think that everyone in that arena knew Kobe wasn’t going to lose that game. He just had a different look. I mean, you could even see it on TV watching. He just had a different aura about him.
Feb. 12, 2012: Lakers 94, Toronto 92
Bryant: 27 pts, 9-23 FG, 3-7 3FG
DeMar DeRozan, former Raptors guard: A favorite was in Toronto where he hit a game-winning shot. We had gotten a bucket or something to go up one. He walked past our bench and said, ‘You left me too much time.’ After the timeout, he hit the game-winner.
THE 2005-06 RIDICULOUSNESS
In between NBA title runs, Bryant put together a historic run of scoring. He had at least 40 points in 26 games during the 2005-06 season.
Dec. 20, 2005: Lakers 112, Dallas 90
Bryant: 62 pts, 18-31 FG, 4-10 3FG, 22-25 FT
Arash Markazi, Times columnist: Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks by himself through three quarters 62-61. He played 33 minutes and sat out the entire fourth quarter.
Brian Shaw told me he asked Kobe if he wanted to keep playing in the fourth to try to score 70, and Kobe told him, ‘I’ll do it when we really need it. I’ll get it when it really matters.’ Kobe later told me he thought he’d be able to do it again.
Jan. 22, 2006: Lakers 122, Toronto 104
Bryant: 81 pts, 28-46 FG, 7-13 3FG, 18-20 FT
Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings guard: In Serbia, in order to watch Kobe, you had to wake up early in the morning, 3, 4 in the morning. You’d have to sleep early, wake up early. Eighty-one points. I saw it live.
John Black, Lakers vice president of public relations: [Former PR staffer Josh Rupprecht] sat next to me during our games and Kobe was in one of those runs where he was scoring big every night. Forty-point games were pretty common for him that year. We’re sitting there sometime in the second half and he gets 40 or close — no big deal. I remember I said to Josh, ‘He’s going to get 50 tonight.’ So quickly, he got it. ‘He’s going to get 60 tonight,’ and 60 was a big deal. And then it’s, ‘He’s going to get 70.’ And then we start looking through the record books. ... And then, it’s almost laughable, ‘He’s going to get 80.’ He just went from 40 to 50 and 50 to 80 so quickly, it was laughably mind boggling. We were just laughing.
Tamika Catchings, WNBA MVP, 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame finalist: Eighty-one is so many points. That’s crazy — from the layups, to the threes, to the twos, the dribble cross-overs.
Curt SandovalChannel 7 sports reporter: My favorite quote wasn’t from Kobe. Phil Jackson was going to pull him out of the game and Tex Winter said, ‘I don’t think you can do that, he’s got 72 points.’ Just the energy. I’ve never seen anything like that. Absurdity is the right word.
THE CELTICS RIVALRY
If Bryant’s legacy with the Lakers needed cementing, the basketball gods provided opportunity by pitting him against the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals twice in three years. In 2008, the Celtics beat the Lakers, but even in victory, Bryant’s opponents remembered how losing would shape their next meeting.
June 10, 2008: Lakers 87, Boston 81
Bryant: 36 pts, 12-20 FG, 11-18 FT, 7 reb.
Danny Ainge, Celtics president of basketball operations: There are a lot of fun memories and moments. … I didn’t think [he] played all that well — especially defensively — in Games 1 and 2 in 2008. We go back to play Game 3, and now, Kobe is guarding [Rajon] Rondo instead of Ray Allen. And Kobe was just roaming around, freelancing. Now, he didn’t have to be so focused on Ray. … And Kobe, in that Game 3 back in L.A., was unreal. I remember how hard it was to score in that game. ... It was just really impressive, back to the wall, the best player comes out and dominates the game.
June 8, 2010: Lakers 91, Boston 84
Bryant: 29 pts, 10-29 FG, 8-8 FT, 7 reb., 4 ast, 3 blk
Doc Rivers, Celtics coach 2004-13: It wasn’t just his points. It was his will. You could feel like he felt like his team was about to let go of the rope a little bit, and he just wasn’t having it, you know? It was his intensity. He was pushing them. He was driving them. He was giving them verbal energy and mental energy — and it was his play. It was everything. He was so big on toughness. I know in 2008 he was really pissed because he felt like we were the tougher team, mentally. And that pissed him off. And you could see it.
June 17, 2010: Lakers 83, Boston 79
Bryant: 23 pts, 6-24 FG, 11-15 FT, 15 reb.
Black: Statistically, I know it was not a good game for him. I think he shot six of 24 from the field. It wasn’t a good game, but it wasn’t a good game for anybody. Nobody. It was just the importance of the game, Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Lakers-Celtics, what that meant. ... He sort of took over, especially the second half of that game. He just willed us to win. He took over on both ends of the court, amazing defensively. Even though he didn’t shoot well, the shots he did make were gigantically huge, important shots.
Mike Bresnahan, Times Lakers beat writer 2004-16: Never saw Kobe happier than he was that night. I’ll never forget when Lamar Odom hit him with a long pass to kill the clock at the very end. The look on Kobe’s face was absolute ecstasy. Then came the iconic shot — standing on the scorer’s table, ball cradled in left arm as confetti fell around him.
HOW’D HE DO THAT?
Bryant’s ability to compartmentalize pain comes up whenever you talk to the people who went to work with him. Former teammate and friend Trevor Ariza said Bryant “was from a different planet” with his ability to block out pain.
Dec. 13, 2012: New York 116, Lakers 107
Bryant: 31 pts, 10-24 FG, 5-11 3FG, 10 reb., 6 ast, 44 min.
Mike D’Antoni, Lakers coach 2012-14: Before the game, he’s laying on the table with back spasms. If you have ever had back spasms, it’s debilitating. It’s bad. I’m thinking, there’s no way he’s playing. And then he goes out and just gives an unbelievable performance. I thought that was incredible. I could say 10 other games because that’s how great he is. Everyone sees that. But what he can go through, the pain, and put it deep inside his brain somehow and just block it off. I thought that performance was incredible.
April 12, 2013: Lakers 118, Golden State 116
Bryant: 34 pts, 9-21 FG, 4-8 3FG, 12-16 FT, 5 reb., 5 ast
Bill Plaschke, Times columnist: After playing too many minutes for too many weeks while dragging the Lakers toward an eighth-seed playoff spot, Kobe Bryant finally broke down. Driving against Harrison Barnes, Bryant dropped to the floor with a torn Achilles tendon. The injury ended his season, and ended the productive portion of his career, yet amazingly it did not end his night. Before leaving the game, he hobbled to the free-throw line with the torn Achilles and made two free throws in a game that the Lakers wound up winning to help ensure their playoff spot.
The Lakers’ then-trainer, Gary Vitti, called it Kobe Bryant’s “gutsiest moment,” and I agree, and it’s not even close.
On Nov. 29, 2015, Bryant penned a goodbye letter and announced he’d be retiring at the end of the season, kicking off a retirement tour around the NBA. Fittingly, it ended in Los Angeles, with everyone waiting to see what he had in store for his final act. And it ended up being a celebration.
April 4, 2006: Lakers 101, Utah 96
Bryant: 60 pts, 22-50 FG, 6-21 3FG, 10-12 FT, 4 reb., 4 ast
Bogdanovic: The last season, the final season. I watched many, many games. It was like [I scheduled around it]. I lost some sleep. But I got a basketball education. That last one, it was a playoff game for me in Europe. We had a really important one — to qualify to play in the European final four. But most of the guys on my team woke up at 3 a.m. to watch Kobe play in his last game.
J.A. Adande, Times columnist 1995-2007: It might not have been his best or his most significant performance, but it was the most fun. For once, it really was all about him — complete freedom and encouragement to indulge himself. So, he did. At first, I wanted to see if he would put up more shots than he jacked in his 81-point game (46). Then it was about going for 50 shots. And once they started going in, it was about scoring 60. We were all going crazy, even in the media section. Never seen anything like it.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers guard: To go out, with all the injuries, all the stars showing up to see him, it was almost like a NBA Finals stage but just for him. The attention, everyone and everything surrounding him. And this dude came out after the Achilles injury, after the knee injury, all his injuries, and he went for 60 and won. … That’s just legendary. We played that night and I watched that game when I got home. But I was sitting on the scorers table after our game. And we were doing like a jersey giveaway to the fans, and they were like, ‘Kobe has 52.’ Then it was ‘Kobe has 55.’ They were counting up for us as we were waiting. And finally, they were like ‘Kobe just got 60!’”
Swin Cash, former WNBA All-Star: To end your career on that level, almost like you’re squeezing a lemon and you want to get that last little bit out. That’s how I felt like that game was. He was squeezing out every little inch to give you everything to that last drop. It’s just storybook. ... To end your career how you want to end it, on your terms, the way you want it to end, like, that’s something an athlete dreams about.
Sign up for Full-Court Text with NBA reporter Dan Woike