You’ve probably heard, or maybe experienced yourself, stories of people remembering where they were when celebrities like John Lennon or Princess Diana died. Michael Jackson’s stunning death in 2009 was another “where were you when it happened?” moment.
I remember exactly where I was when news of Kobe Bryant’s fatal helicopter crash first broke. I was waiting in an unusually long line at the Stop & Shop deli in Milford, Connecticut. I pulled out my phone, both out of habit and as a means to pass the time, hoping I could mindlessly scroll Twitter until my number was called. TMZ reported Kobe, who had just been passed by LeBron James on the NBA’s all-time scoring list (fittingly, James accomplished his feat in Bryant’s native Philadelphia), was among several killed in a helicopter accident in Calabasas.
Nothing else mattered in that moment, not my place in line, not the meaningless lunch meats I had planned to order. I needed to get to the bottom of this. I frantically scanned my timeline, waiting for a qualified source, perhaps ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, to dismiss TMZ’s report as an unsubstantiated rumor. Surely the legendary Black Mamba, a Lakers icon and one of the most ferocious competitors of all-time, was still alive, safe and sound somewhere in Los Angeles, a city he gifted with five NBA titles. Death hoaxes are a daily occurrence in the Twitter age, I told myself, even as verified accounts confirmed the horrifying news.
I raced home, driving like Vin Diesel in a Fast and Furious movie, not even bothering to take the groceries out of my trunk. My heart sank as I flipped on ESPN, then CNN, then another station and another. All of them were saying the same thing. Kobe Bean Bryant, an 18-time NBA All-Star and maybe the closest we’ll ever see to another Michael Jordan, was gone. Not only that, but Bryant’s teenage daughter Gianna, a budding hoops star with dreams of one day playing for Geno Auriemma at the University of Connecticut, was killed along with the helicopter’s pilot and six other passengers. Tragedy had struck. Basketball had lost, not only a generational talent, but one of the sport’s chief ambassadors, a defining figure in the game’s storied history.
Games were postponed. Tributes were made. Countless tears were shed. A star-studded memorial was held at Staples Center, the site of so many Kobe triumphs, from Bryant’s 81-point magnum opus against Toronto in 2006 to his spellbinding finale a decade later. Michael Jordan called Bryant his little brother. Shaquille O’Neal, who had famously feuded with Bryant when the two were Lakers teammates, gave a moving eulogy, recalling the greatness they had once shared together as one of the most iconic duos in NBA history.
Today would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday. Tomorrow, August 24th, also holds significance as “Kobe Bryant Day,” commemorating each of his Lakers uniform numbers (eight and 24), which both hang proudly from the Staples Center rafters in downtown Los Angeles. Boiling Bryant’s breathtaking career, a tenure that spanned 1,346 regular-season games over 20 memorable seasons, down to five singular moments is not an easy assignment. The breadth of Bryant’s greatness is near impossible to quantify. But that’s precisely what I’ve done and I hope you’ll join me as we look back at the five greatest games—at least by my count—of the Black Mamba’s illustrious NBA career.
5. February 2, 2009: Kobe Delivers 61 at MSG
Much like his idol Michael Jordan, Bryant always dominated in the Big Apple, averaging a robust 29.9 points per game in 16 lifetime appearances at the Garden. Even by Mamba standards Bryant outdid himself, hammering the Knicks for 61 points—an MSG record at the time—on masterful 19-of-31 shooting including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. He was also money from the charity stripe, sinking all 20 of his free-throw tries in L.A.’s 126-117 victory. Carmelo Anthony would eventually better Kobe’s mark by a single point in 2014, but Bryant’s 61 still stands as the most by a visitor at MSG. Four months after his outburst at the Garden, Bryant led the Lakers to championship glory, securing his fourth title in a 4-1 series win over the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic.
4. March 16, 2007: Bryant Drops 65 On Portland
No stranger to scoring binges, Kobe’s electric stretch of four straight 50-point performances in March of 2007, which began with a vintage 65-point effort against Portland, saw Bryant at his most unstoppable. Receiving little help from his teammates, who accounted for just 51 points on 20-of-45 shooting, Bryant took matters into his own hands, bludgeoning the Blazers for 24 fourth-quarter points, followed by another nine in overtime as the Lakers escaped with a narrow 116-111 victory at Staples Center. Though Kobe was merely an average three-point shooter over the course of his career (32.9-percent success rate), the future Hall-of-Famer went ballistic on Portland, connecting on eight of his 12 attempts from long range. If you recall, Bryant’s long-awaited playoff breakthrough came against the Blazers years earlier when the 6’6” guard lobbed a series-clinching alley-oop to Shaq in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Bryant’s 27.3 career points per game versus Portland were his most against any opponent.
3. December 20, 2005: Bryant Hangs 62 on Dallas in Only 3 Quarters
“We had no answer for him,” coach Avery Johnson said after the game in what may go down as the understatement of the century. The Mavs, who would go on to face Miami (led by Bryant’s former teammate and occasional nemesis Shaquille O’Neal) in the NBA Finals later that season, had no hope of defending Kobe. The pride of Lower Merion was only on the court for 33 minutes, but that was still enough time to ransack Dallas for 62 points including a franchise-record 30 in the third quarter. Bryant’s 62 points through three periods (Phil Jackson gave his star a well-deserved breather in the fourth) were more than the Mavericks’ entire team in that span (61). Kobe was the only Laker to finish with double-digits points, par for the course in a year where Bryant averaged an astounding 27.2 field-goal attempts per game. Bryant’s 35.4 points per game in 2005-06 stands as the second-highest scoring average of the 21st century, trailing only James Harden in that respect (36.1 last season).
2. April 13, 2016: Kobe Massacres Jazz for 60 in Heroic Finale
Bryant celebrated my birthday in style, leaving the sport in a blaze of glory with 60 points in the 1,346th and final game of his remarkable NBA journey. It wasn’t his most efficient effort—Bryant found the bottom of the net on just 22 of his career-high 50 field goals against Utah. But as far as farewell performances go, Bryant’s 60-point explosion was one of the most exhilarating sendoffs you’ll ever see. As he often did, Kobe saved his best for last, helping Los Angeles erase a 15-point, second-half deficit by draining his final five shots in a 101-96 Lakers win. Bryant’s epic finale marked his sixth career 60-point game and his first since 2009. Still the fourth-leading scorer in league history, Bryant remains the oldest player to reach the elusive 60-point plateau at age 37.
1. January 22, 2006: Bryant Torches Toronto for Career-Best 81 Points
And you thought Steph Curry’s heat checks were nuts. Bryant had an all-timer versus Toronto, blowing the lid off with 81 points, the most ever by a player not named Wilt Chamberlain (his 100-point eruption in 1962 remains the league’s gold standard). The former 13th-overall pick (imagine the course of NBA history had Charlotte held on to Bryant instead of trading him for Vlade Divac on draft night) really dialed up the insanity in the second half, tormenting the visitors for 55 points after the break. Bryant became King Midas in gym shorts as everything he touched against the Raptors turned to gold. Eight and 24 will always be synonymous with Kobe, but I don’t think I’ll ever see the number 81 without thinking of Bryant putting up video game numbers against Toronto. In a groundbreaking career that routinely pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible on a basketball court, Kobe’s 81-point masterpiece remains his crowning NBA achievement.