It was a little more than 14 years ago, in the in-between segment of Kobe Bryant’s career—after the dominant days alongside Shaquille O’Neal but before the Lakers resurgence as a contender in the late 2000s.
During that stretch, Bryant, whose death on Sunday left the NBA reeling, was free to dominate individually, and twice (in 2004-05 as well as 05-06) led the NBA in scoring.
And no game better summed up that stretch of Bryant’s career than the one in which he laid down 81 points on 28-for-46 shooting from the field.
Two people who were there—Raptors wing Jalen Rose and Toronto team broadcaster Chuck Swirsky—remembered that game for a book I wrote four years ago, Facing Kobe Bryant. Here are excerpts of what they said.
Lakers vs. Raptors: ‘It Was a Snoozefest’
There wasn’t much anticipation for Lakers-Raptors that night. Toronto was just 14-26, the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference. The Lakers were above .500 at 21-19, sixth in the West. Alongside Bryant, the Lakers’ starters were Smush Parker, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm.
SWIRSKY: It was a Sunday night, and it was a very pedestrian type of environment. It was a snoozefest, let’s be honest. No one was there. There were no A-listers there, there were not the beautiful people of Los Angeles there. It was after the holidays, before the All-Star game, and there was not a lot of buzz. Andy Dick, who was a comedian and I guess an actor, too: He was probably the only person of celebrity status attending the game, so there was not really a whole lot of excitement about the game. It was Sunday, so that hurt, as well. You had the NFL playoff games that day, the conference championships. Our game was not a big priority.
ROSE: There was the 81-point game in Los Angeles. And the greatest thing about Kobe’s 81-point game is that it actually wasn’t his best game—not to me. His best game was actually against a good team, the Dallas Mavs, when I think he had like 60 in three quarters (62, actually, outscoring Dallas by himself, 62-61, through three quarters in December 2005).
The Raptors Actually Held a Big Lead in the Game
The Raptors led for much of the game, leading by seven after the first period and by 14 at halftime. When Morris Peterson of Toronto made a pair of free throws with 9:23 to go in the third quarter, the Raptors took a 71-53 lead. That was the largest lead they’d have.
Bryant made 11 straight shots in the third quarter before missing a jumper with 1.9 seconds to go.
SWIRSKY: The Lakers were going through the motions to start the game. They were sleepwalking, and their talent and skill level was not very good that year. Other than Kobe, they had Lamar Odom and, I think, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, players of that caliber. They really did not look like a team that wanted to be there very much, when they were down by, I believe it was, 18 points.
The Lakers were playing almost no defense at all. Kobe was involved, he was engaged, but he was probably the only player on the Lakers who showed any spirit of competitiveness whatsoever. He missed a couple of shots to start the second half, but then he made something like five in a row. … You could tell that he almost sensed he could bring his team back into the game by himself.
ROSE: But he just was very steady, and just took over. That’s the true respect I have for Kobe Bryant, that he’s such a tireless worker as an all-time great player. In moments like that, when he’s just in the zone, his discipline and focus is unmatched in a lot of ways. That’s why he had the career he has had. I always laughed when people said he did not pass enough. If you could score 81 points in an NBA game, why would you ever want to pass?
Kobe Bryant Logged 28 Fourth-Quarter Points
Bryant didn’t start out hot in the fourth quarter, missing a layup and a 3-pointer to start. But he made two free-throws with 9:47 to go then rattled off seven field goals in eight attempts. He also made 12 of his 13 free-throw attempts in the fourth, including two with 43.4 seconds to go—the shots that put him over the 80-point mark.
All throughout, Bryant remained businesslike. That’s one of the aspects of his performance that stuck with Rose.
SWIRSKY: It really was not until early in the fourth quarter, or the middle of the quarter, that the fans and the rest of us in the building started to get that sense of, ‘Wait, what are we watching here?’ He had more than 50 points heading into the fourth quarter, and you would have expected him to get 60 or so. But he exploded (for 28 points) in the fourth. No one could stop him. That motor was running, the juices were going. It was marvelous to watch.
ROSE: We were not that good of a team at that point in Toronto. But when I talk to people about that game, the first thing that comes to mind, I always talk about the fact that when you watch that game, Kobe never bumped his chest. He never pointed in the crowd. He never trash-talked. He was in such a zone, it was like a man amongst boys, and he literally put the smackdown on us, but he did not show any emotion in doing it.
Because when you behave like that, like you want to show everyone up, like (wide receiver) Odell Beckham when he scores—really great player—but if Kobe had behaved like that, he wouldn’t have got to 51, let alone 81, because we would have wanted to physically harm him on the court.
READ NEXT: Kobe Bryant: Where He Ranks in NBA History