Kobe Bryant is a paradox; he says so himself in a Nike campaign aired earlier this year. Bryant's voice plays over images of the sweat-soaked Lakers' superstar running through the drills that have transformed him, a former high school phenom, into the most lethal scoring force a generation of NBA fans has ever known.
"Love me or hate me, it's one or the other," Bryant narrates as shot after shot passes smoothly through a hoop in an otherwise vacant gym. "Always has been. Hate my game, my swagger. Hate my fadeaway, my hunger. Hate that I'm a veteran. A champion. Hate that. Hate it with all your heart. And hate that I'm loved, for the exact same reasons."
The spots were seen by millions as part of a national sneaker campaign unveiled in the shadow of Bryant's on-court brilliance during the 2005-06 season, a season that saw him rebound from a disappointing 2004-05 campaign and do things to scoreboards not seen since a young Michael Jordan poured in more than 3,000 points, averaging 37.1 a game, in 1986-87.
Under normal circumstances, it would seem impossible to highlight one instance when Bryant's star shone the brightest. He did, after all, finish the regular season with a ridiculous 27 games of 40 points or more, setting a Lakers single-season franchise record with 2,832 points. And his other-worldly scoring average of 35.4 a game bested Allen Iverson and LeBron James in the first scoring race since 1982 to feature three men at 30 or more per outing.
The circumstances of Los Angeles' Jan. 22 meeting with the Toronto Raptors, however, were anything but normal. Bryant's historic 81-point performance that night was the furthest thing from ordinary the NBA has experienced since Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point rampage against the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962.
Bryant took the STAPLES Center court that night just four and a half weeks removed from lighting up the Dallas Mavericks for 62 points ... in three quarters!
"It just got to a point where I wanted to assert myself and wanted to continue to attack and attack them," Bryant said after torching the Mavs. "If they were going to send two guys at me I was going to attack them and let them know tonight I was coming after them and just send a message."
Against the Raptors, Bryant sent so much more than a message.
With the Lakers trailing by 13 at halftime, he erupted for 27 points in the third quarter and a mind-boggling 28 more in the fourth, tossing his team on his back and leading them to a 122-104 victory. He made 28 of his 46 field-goal attempts, including 7-of-13 from 3-point range, and 18-of-20 from the free throw line.
"That was something to behold. It was another level," said Phil Jackson, who was rehired as L.A.'s Zen Master during the offseason after briefly turning over the Lakers' coaching reins at the end of the 2003-04 campaign. "I've seen some remarkable games, but I've never seen anything like that before."
And Jackson should know greatness. In fact, he's an expert witness, having coached Jordan for eight seasons and played against Chamberlain many times in his career as a bruising forward with the Knicks. "It's just a personal challenge for him to attack the whole team," Jackson continued. "It was not exactly the way you want to win a game, but when you have to win a game, it's great to have that weapon to be able to do it. We rode the hot hand."
Bryant's 81 came in the flow of the game, making the feat even more remarkable. He didn't force shots and he didn't attack the Raptors with the game out of reach. He shot when he needed to shoot, and he scored when he needed to score. He was simply on a roll for the ages.
"The tough thing about it was that he hit tough shots," marveled Toronto coach Sam Mitchell. "If you look at the third quarter, I thought our guys were there. We had two guys on him at times. We doubled him, and he would split them. We tried playing zone, and he just shot that ball from the hash mark. We played box-and-1. I haven't played that since my college days."
Bryant's legendary total highlighted a January in which he averaged 43.4 points in 13 games. He became only the third player in NBA history to score that many in a month, and only the second to do it more than once in a career; he also dropped 40-plus in February 2003. Wilt Chamberlain did it 11 times and Elgin Baylor -- whose franchise records Bryant eclipsed -- did it once.
"I was just determined," Bryant said. "(I was) just locked in, tuned in to what was going on out there and (blocked) everything out. I zeroed in on being more aggressive and setting the tempo. This was very similar to the Dallas game as far as my mentality."
It was Bryant's mentality all season long. He left the NBA's record books and the critics who said he couldn't win without Shaquille O'Neal -- couldn't effectively lead a team to the postseason -- in his wake.
The Lakers rode their superstar to the Western Conference's seventh playoff seed. Awaiting them in the first round are the Phoenix Suns, who Bryant lit up for 42.5 points in four games this season. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they were 1-3 in those games. Bryant will need to do more than put points on the board if L.A. is to advance to the conference semifinals.
But before he focuses his attention toward winning a fourth NBA title, we should all remember Bryant's remarkable run, the seventh best scoring season in NBA history. We should remember it for its greatness. We should remember it for its place in the annals of basketball legend. Ultimately, though, we should remember it as the reason we love Kobe Bryant.