When Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962, the NBA world knew it would never see anything like it again. The fact that there were no television cameras to capture the event only added to the legend of the performance.
Since that game, the 70-point margin had been crossed six times and just twice since 1963, but that was as far as it went. It seemed David Robinson's 71-point game in 1994 against the Clippers was as high as anyone would ever reach again.
That was until Kobe Bryant burned the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006 in one of the greatest single-game performances in NBA history. As the Lakers scored a 122-104 comeback victory at home, Bryant finished with 81 points on 28-of-46 shooting, including 7-of-13 from 3-point range, and 18-of-20 from the foul line. The accomplishment stunned even Bryant himself.
"Not even in my dreams," Bryant said. "That was something that just happened. It's tough to explain. It's just one of those things.
"It really hasn't, like, set in for me. It's about the `W,' that's why I turned it on. It turned into something special. To sit here and say I grasp what happened, that would be lying."
In a season Bryant led the league in scoring with 35.4 ppg, his game against Toronto had even the most seasoned NBA observers starstruck.
Teammates and staff alike were asking Bryant to autograph copies of the box score after the game. Lakers public address announcer Lawrence Tanter was telling fans to save their ticket stubs. Then-Lakers owner Jerry Buss described the game as "like watching a miracle unfold."
But it was perhaps Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who'd spent nearly a decade coaching Michael Jordan, that put the performance in its proper perspective.
"That was something to behold," Jackson said. "It was another level. I've seen some remarkable games, but I've never seen one like that before."
This coming from the coach who nearly pulled Bryant from the game with the score out of reach after he'd scored 77 points -- one point shy of Chamberlain's 78-point mark set in 1961. Jackson reconsidered after discussing it with Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen who told him, "There would be a riot."
When Bryant scored his final two points on a pair of free throws with 43.4 seconds remaining, the chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" from the 18,997 fans at Staples Center couldn't have been more fitting. Bryant finished the second half scoring 55 of his 81 points -- the second highest point total in a half in NBA history behind Chamberlain's 59-point second half in his 100-point game.
With his team trailing by 18 points in the third quarter, Bryant simply exploded, scoring 27 points in the third and 28 in the fourth. He accounted for all but 18 of the Lakers points in the second half and single-handedly put the game away.
Bryant was hitting shots from all over the court, nailing contested jumper after contested jumper, leaving the Raptors without answers.
"We were just watching him shoot," said Toronto forward Chris Bosh.
The Raptors weren't the only one's watching. As Bryant would later note, his 81-point game was the first and only professional game his grandmother had ever seen him play live.
She picked the right one.