"MVP" chants at Staples Center meant more on Jan. 22, 2006 than they do on Jan. 22, 2016.
Ten years ago, Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a game to set the Los Angeles Lakers' franchise record and recorded the second-highest tally in NBA history. The final seven of Bryant's historic 81 points came at the free throw line, as the crowd at Staples Crowd emphatically chanted "MVP" in unison.
"I don't ever remember having the arena feel so electric, sensing that they're seeing something historic," Bryant told ESPN columnist Arash Markazi. "It's bizarre. As a player, you hear and feel the energy, and you just have to ride that wave without really stepping outside of yourself and appreciating the moment, because you don't want to lose your rhythm."
The Toronto Raptors had led by 14 points at the half despite Bryant dropping 26 points before the intermission.
"I sat out the first six minutes in the second quarter," Bryant pointed out. "I could have had 14-15 points in those six minutes. I could have easily had 40 points in the first half with the way I was playing."
Before Bryant hit his first jump shot of the second half, the crowd had launched more jeers than cheers at the home team. The Lakers trailed by 18 points before Bryant hit that running jumper to launch the lightening quick comeback. A 21-foot jump shot followed by back to back three-pointers brought the Raptors back within reach and launched Bryant on his quest to make history.
"I was completely focused on what I was doing and being in my own bubble," Bryant recalled. "I was just attacking."
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Dressed in his Sunday white uniform, which now hangs in his home gym, Bryant scored 27 points in that explosive third quarter, including hitting 11-15 shots and making all four of his three-point attempts. In the swish of a basket, the Lakers led by six points entering the fourth quarter.
Over the final 12 minutes, the 27-year-old added 28 points as he attacked his way to the foul line and made 12 of 13 free throws. The Lakers would win by 18 points with Bryant scoring 81 points and walking off to a standing ovation.
"I should have had 90 points or more," Bryant said. "I missed two free throws after making 62 straight. I had some open looks. I had some really open looks that I missed. I could have had more. There's a lot of easy opportunities I missed. I think 100 is possible. I absolutely do. If I hadn't sat out those six minutes in the first half, maybe I would have had it."
Ten years later, a generation of the NBA's top scorers have not come within a half-court shot of repeating or surpassing the memorable feat, so Bryant's lamentations may be more telling of his perfectionist and obsessive nature than any shortcomings on the court.
After all, only a man utterly obsessed about the game of basketball could even fathom scoring 81 points in a modern NBA game. Ten years later, 81 points still don't seem possible. Only, Bryant did it.
One final poignant reflection from Bryant on his 81-point game:
"That was the first game and only game my grandmother has ever been to in the NBA, and it was on my grandfather's birthday who had passed away. Going to games makes her nervous, so she just doesn't like going. It's always hard for her to come and watch, but she came to this one after Natalia's birthday party. I don't know if it was my grandfather up above making sure the ball goes through the basket every time or whatever the case may be, but it's just interesting. In sports, things like that always seem to happen, and you just have to wonder. My grandfather was the one who used to send me all of these basketball tapes overseas. He used to tape the games for me and send me the NBA Entertainment videos when I was a kid. It was pretty cool to have that happen on his birthday."