When it comes to scoring, Kobe Bryant is second to only Wilt Chamberlain.
As Bryant continues his path towards retirement, the gravity of his performance that night must not be lost on us. What he did was truly spectacular, and knowing that there is no footage of Chamberlain's performance, makes it all the more impressive.
Why? Because there is plenty footage of the Mamba.
Kobe took 46 shots against the Raptors that night, connecting on 28 of them. He was 7-13 from beyond the arc and 18-20 from the free-throw line, leading the Los Angeles Lakers back from a lopsided deficit to a blowout victory at the expense of Toronto.
After the game, Bryant himself (via ESPN.com) couldn't even explain what had happened:
"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."
Most couldn't "grasp" what the 27-year-old Bryant had just accomplished. Though he led the league in scoring at the time and was no stranger to championships, this solidified his spot amongst the NBA's all-time greats.
Remember, Michael Jordan's career-high was 69 points and that, coupled with the absence of footage from Chamberlain's performance, really heightened the importance of his accomplishment. That he was able to do it alongside Smush Parker is even more incredible.
This was a performance for the ages and nothing, not even "NFL championship Sunday," could overshadow what the Mamba did.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss wasn't immune to disbelief either.
"You're watching, and it's like a miracle unfolding in front of your eyes. And you can't accept that somehow, the brain doesn't work," he said.
Even then, head coach and ever composed Phil Jackson couldn't help but gush over the shooting guard's performance:
Jackson coached Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990s and the Lakers, with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, to three more titles, from 2000-02.
"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."
Two years later, Phil was still smitten (via NBA.com) by the performance:
"I've seen some remarkable games but I've never seen anything like that before," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who played against Chamberlain and coached Jordan.
Bias undoubtedly exists amongst coaches and their players, but Jackson is a guy who played against Wilt Chamberlain, who coached the Greatest of All Time in Jordan and remains mesmerized by Bryant's performance years later.
Do you know who never seemed acknowledge its importance? Kobe himself.
Remember, immediately after torching the Raptors, he didn't play up the magnitude of his performance. That held true (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com) five years later as well:
I just remember we were down 16 points to a bad Raptors team and we had just lost I think to Houston the game before and it was just kind of doom and gloom. We needed to win and I just got hot.
I really don't think about it too much. I still don't know how the hell it happened, to be honest with you. It's just one of those things, I guess.
That was the first game and only game [my grandmother has] ever been to in the NBA and it was my grandfather's birthday that had passed away. So, there were a lot of things at work.
To be so nonchalant about his 81 points is bordering on impossible. As the NBA sphere evolves and superstars continue to team up, the rarity of his performance has become even more valuable.
Bryant was simply unstoppable that night. He couldn't be defended and former Raptor Jalen Rose later admitted (via Reid Cherner of USA Today) that Kobe pushed Toronto beyond the point of reason:
Rose remembers the 1-2-2 zone defense and begging coach Sam Mitchell to change it up. He also remembers that Bryant "didn't say a word" and "we thought about doing things to him during the game."
Indeed it was an unconscious performance by Kobe. Again, he hit 28 shots that night and scored 55 points in the second half alone.
For those wondering, 55 points was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career-high. And he's currently the NBA's all-time leading scorer. Bryant put that up in one half.
How's that for a memorable performance? Better yet, how's that for a once-in-a-lifetime-like performance?
With teams stockpiling star-caliber talent and egos, we revel in the 50-point excursions of a Kevin Durant. Imagining him carving up a defense for 81 in this generation of hoops is seemingly implausible.
Which is why we appreciate what he did now more than ever. And we've celebrated it to no end.
Seven years later and (via Kurt Heilin of NBC Sports' ProBasketballTalk) we're entertaining the notion that his 81 points were far more impressive than Wilt Chamberlain's 100:
Kobe’s points came in the flow of the game—the Lakers were on a two-game losing streak and were down 14 at the half to the lowly Toronto Raptors. The Lakers needed Kobe to step up and carry them, they needed him to take over and he did.
Also, Kobe had to create his own shots—Chamberlain got fed the ball in the post, a luxury Kobe did not have.
Chamberlain is a player to be celebrated and his 1962 season may be the best single season a player has ever had. His 100-point game is an amazing performance that will never be matched.
But Kobe’s game was better.
That this is even a discussion speaks to the paramountcy that was this performance. Nearly a decade later, still, we all look back an awe on how Bryant was able to accomplish such a feat.
All of us, except for Bryant himself.
It's been seven years, yet he's just getting around to watching himself score his way into the history books.
Letting u know that tmr I'm gonna watch my 81 game for first time @nbatv 1pst.I will be tweeting during. Time to rest and focus now#win— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 21, 2013
Times have certainly changed, but Kobe hasn't.
Bryant has won two more championships and become the youngest score to eclipse the 30,000-point plateau (fifth all time), yet nothing—aside from his seasoned public demeanor—has changed.
"For me, it's about the 'W,'" Bryant had said after that performance.
Seven years, two championships and thousands of points later, nothing has changed.
Bryant's still all about getting that "W."
*All stats and facts in this article are accurate as of January 21, 2013.