Kobe Bryant climbs off the bus on 33rd Street in New York and into that old, creaky freight elevator that lifts the players to the floor level. This still gets to him. Just Monday night, he was thinking about the history, about Jerry West and Willis Reed, about the way that Madison Square Garden still stands for a forever time in the National Basketball Association.
"This is the last one left," Bryant said. "This is the last one that holds all the memories."
Yes, he thinks about those Lakers-Knicks NBA Finals, and he thinks about Michael Jordan's 55, and he thinks about leaving his legacy there. He wants to be remembered as the greatest player of his time – maybe ever – and understands that an important part of that always goes through New York.
So, Bryant donated 61 points to the shrine Monday night, embarrassing the New York Knicks with the greatest offensive performance the Garden had ever seen. Perhaps it was inevitable that he had to go for everything. Jordan scored 55 points there. LeBron James had 50. Bryant had a couple 40-point games but never chased the ghosts at the Garden. Here was a perfect storm for that to happen. Bryant's sense of nostalgia met a simmering rage over the loss of Lakers center Andrew Bynum.
Bryant had crashed into his teammate Saturday night, torn his MCL, and the diagnosis of a two- to three-month recovery ripped through the Lakers on Monday. Bryant's bid for a fourth NBA title had been delivered a difficult, if not devastating, blow. Bynum will likely be gone for the start of the playoffs, and upon his return, could struggle to regain his rapidly rising dominance.
All that turned Kobe's disposition dark and brooding. If the Lakers knew anything about Bryant, they knew there would be hell to pay for the Knicks. Across this brilliant night – long jumpers and twisting turnarounds and breathless drives – there was still such a somberness to him. Maybe it was a message to his teammates, to the rest of the league, that the Lakers were still chasing a championship. Maybe he just wanted to change the story line overnight from Bynum's knee to his own greatness.
Without Bynum, Bryant's burden grows immensely, and so, there was no joy in him. No frivolity, no jabbering with Spike Lee. There was no acknowledgement of the Knicks fans chanting "MVP … MVP" until he left the 126-117 victory with 2½ minutes left in the game.
"He wouldn't speak to anyone on the court tonight," the Knicks' David Lee said. "He was very quiet."
It was the greatest scoring night in Garden history. Jordan had 55 points in 1995, and Bernard King had 60 in 1984 and now Bryant passes everyone with 61. Now, LeBron comes to the Garden on Wednesday night with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he doesn't have the stomach for such single-minded shooting nights. James always wanted to be more Magic than Michael. Only Jordan did it three games into his comeback from a year and a half in minor league baseball, and Phil Jackson remembered, "He wasn't really totally himself as a player. We just stuck him in the post that night."
Bryant has become a better teammate, a better team player, but his core is unchanged: Ultimately, he goes it alone. As well as anyone since Jordan, he creates high drama and elevates himself to reach it. He started scoring fast and never stopped. The Knicks were props. They looked as liable to ask him for his autograph as they did try to defend him.
"He kind of had this dazed look on his face," Lamar Odom said. "Some call it the zone. He was just in another world. I don't think it probably mattered what shot he took or how he took it. It probably would've went in."
For the Lakers, these scoring binges aren't always the best in the long run. Pau Gasol had 31 points, yes, but there was a lot of standing around, a lot of watching Bryant. As much as ever, Bryant will need to honor the lessons learned a year ago on the way to the Finals. He needs his teammates and they need him. Jackson, an old Knick, was respectful of Bryant's bid for Garden history, but seemed wary of its lingering impact on a team that has to learn to play differently again.
Mere moments into the game, Jackson could see where Bryant wanted to go Monday night. At halftime, he had 34 points and Jackson wanted to see the ball move a little better, see Odom and Derek Fisher a bigger part of the picture. "I just told him to get everybody involved, which didn't happen," Jackson said.
After all these years of coaching Michael and Kobe on these trips to New York, Jackson knows that resistance is futile. Wisely, he let Kobe go. Jackson will worry about coaching the rest of the team tomorrow.
Nevertheless, history was calling Monday night. Kobe Bryant stepped out of that old freight elevator and could see the center-court tunnel down the hallway, see the lights of Madison Square Garden. He stepped out of that dark place and into the forever lights of the last pro basketball gym that holds all the history, all the memories. All that nostalgia, all that rage – resistance was futile. These were 61 points to stand the test of time.