Ball Don't Lie - NBA

It's Kobe Bryant Blog Day, and I'm quite chuffed at the prospect of a day-long tribute to one of the finer players of my generation. My offering comes in the form of a comparison between Kobe Bryant's famous 81-point game from January 22nd, 2006, and Wilt Chamberlain's legendary 100-point effort from March 2nd, 1962. 

(Here the hater goes again, trying to kiss a little rump and make it look like he can actually stand Kobe. What a plonker.)

Actually, I jotted most of these notes down during the same evening that saw me write the original Kobe vs. LeBron post that seemed upset so many people who have issues with proper spelling and punctuation. When things got out of hand, I shelved it. When the idea of a Kobe Bryant Blog Day was presented to me last night, I pulled it out again.


The truth.  

I've picked on Kobe's game in the past, but I've also picked on LeBron's as well, something that made me Public Enemy Numero Uno amongst Cavs fans during May of 2006.

It's a function of having a job that pays you to write about pro basketball: you're going to spend 85 out of every 100 words building up the stars that deserve the most attention, but the 15 negative words ("Kobe's defense, while still great overall, is a little overrated. He should head into the post more;" "LeBron needs to stop relying on his jumper for stretches. He should head into the post more.") you employ to describe aspects of a player's game always seem to be the ones that the readers remember.  

(That's not true. There are several other writers at a couple of prominent websites that never seem to throw those 15 words out.)

Yeah, and those guys are bo-ring. And wrong, a lot of the time.

(True. The "boring" part, I mean. I don't think they're wrong. I mean, a lot of the stuff they say seems so right.)

Well, good on ‘em. I'm going to stick with what makes sense in reality, and offer up another bit of what appears to be an attention-grabbing ploy that would actually make sense if you'd take the time go over the idea carefully: Kobe Bryant's 81 points were, at the very least, as impressive as Wilt's 100 points.

(Dude, 81 ain't 100.) 

It ain't, but context matters.  

Wilt's night was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He was dominant from the get-go, nailing 36 of 63 field goals overall, and knocking in a remarkable 28 of 32 freebies from the line. Chamberlain, a 51 percent free throw shooter on his career, made 61 percent of his free throws that season, alongside averages of 50.4 points per game and 25.7 rebounds per contest.


No doubt. The man was an absolute marvel. The complete package: massive mounts of skill, height, touch, smarts, and creativity. For all Wilt's accolades and achievements, both individual, team-orientated (and, um, personal); he might somehow still be underrated.  

But what Kobe did was as impressive. Just as impressive.

(81 ain't 100.) 

First, the context of the era: there were, way, way, way more possessions in an NBA game back then. This was a running league, much more than any NBA-style track meet you may have seen in any of the last 30 years. Not only did Wilt's Philadelphia Warriors score 125.4 points per game, they gave up 122.7. A team featuring Wilt Chamberlain (50.6 on field goals) shoots 43.9 percent from the floor, and scored 125.4 points per game. Think about that. 

(No. Too many numbers.) 


(OK. That's a pretty crummy shooting percentage for a team scoring 125 a game. Must have been a lot of shots to take, a lot of rebounds to grab, and a lot more chances to put shots up.)

Thank you. Now, when Kobe went for 81 points, there were 99 possessions in the game against the Raptors. That's a lot for this era: the league leader that year was the Phoenix Suns (95.1 a game), Denver leads the NBA with 97.5 a game this season, and the Lakers averaged 90.6 possessions per game in 2005-06. But it wasn't anywhere near the amount 4,126 spectators saw back on March 2nd, 1962.

We can't bash out how many possessions Wilt's 100-point game involved, there were no reliable stats available for turnovers and offensive rebounds, but I think it's a safe guess to put the possession count in the 150-range. That mark takes on greater significance when you realize that the last six minutes of the contest (one that was probably on its way to a typical, 1962-era 130-possession game), saw a foul-fest on both sides that saw both the Knicks try to foul the Warriors seconds into their possessions, and the Warriors try to get Wilt a shot with 20 seconds on the shot clock.  

(Stop it. You don't know that.)

I didn't, but earlier this winter I read Gary M. Pomerantz' Wilt, 1962. It's a compelling account of Wilt's life, that night, but it also details the ways in which a bemused Warrior squad tried to help Wilt pad his stats in blowout win: namely, they fouled the heck out of the Knicks in the game's final quarter in order to get the ball back in Wilt's hands.  

(So what? He had a chance to get a hundred points!)

I'm with you. I'm glad they fouled away. I'm glad he got to a hundred. I'm glad a few generations of basketball fans got to grow up with that iconic photograph of Wilt in the locker room after the game, and I'm glad there was enough fodder for me to read Pomerantz' book, some 46 years later.

(So what's your point?) 

Kobe's night was just as good.

(Man, 81 ain't 100. And I remember that Raptor team. Jalen Rose, Mike James guarding Kobe? Morris Peterson was pretty good defensively, but they didn't have a chance.) 

They didn't, but they had less of a chance than the Knicks team Wilt scored on. Starting center Phil Jordan missed the game suffering from equal parts cocktail and legitimate flu, and rookie Darrall Imhoff was forced into action against a player that was a good half-foot taller than and three times better than most centers in the NBA; Imhoff included.

(Kobe's game was a blowout win, though.)

Eventually, it was. Mainly because Kobe Bryant scored 81 points. The Lakers were down 14 at the half, and were down by as many as 18 in the third quarter. Kobe scored 55 points in that second half, which went a long way toward the 18-point win Los Angeles enjoyed. Chris Mihm didn't have to intentionally foul anyone to get the ball back in Kobe's hands, either.  

(Well, Kobe got to use the three-point line. Hit seven treys. That's seven extra points.) 

Stat nerd! 

(Shut up.) 

Yeah, Kobe used his skill to take advantage of the game that was presented to him. Not unlike the way a 7-2 Wilt Chamberlain used his skill and height to score a record-setting amount of points against a lottery team featuring a 6-10, 220-pound rookie center. Not unlike the way his team -- well ahead, at the time -- used intentional fouls to get the ball back in Wilt's hands, in order to let the Hall of Famer pile on the points.  

(Why the hate?) 

No hate, just facts. Wilt and his team set out to defeat the Knicks, happened upon a legendary scoring spree about halfway into the game (just was Wilt's Warriors pulled away), and made a point to allow their center to score a hundred points. An amazing accomplishment.

One, I believe, that was matched by Kobe Bryant a little over two years ago, in spite of the 19 fewer points. Wilt had more chances to score, by hook and by crook; and while we don't bemoan the Warriors for having a bit of fun, the facts remain: the Warriors spent about 30 minutes trying to win a game, and the final 18 trying to get Wilt to a hundred.

The Lakers spent nearly 30 minutes behind the Raptors, then spent the next 16 allowing their future Hall of Famer to spur a massive comeback, and then spent the last two minutes of the win with jaws agape, watching as Kobe threw in another three-pointer and few more free throws.

It doesn't mean one player was any better than the other. It just means that -- considering the context of the times, the circumstances behind the two particular games, and the production that followed -- Kobe Bryant's 81-point explosion was at least on par with Wilt's night, in spite of the actual difference in output.

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