NEW YORK – As the clock was bleeding to 0:00, the final Knicks' shot bounced off the rim, into the air and sped swiftly toward the row of photographers on the baseline. The ball hung for a moment, just waiting on the hands of history. Out of nowhere, LeBron James – dehydrated and cramped, legs losing hops – made one final leap at Madison Square Garden and snatched his triple-double out of the sky. He crashed into the photographers, banged his head on a lense and clutched the ball, laughing and laughing and laughing.
"I never thought you could look at the box score and see somebody with 50 points and a triple-double," James marveled. "But it's happened."
It hadn't happened since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it 34 years ago, but in those final, frantic seconds, James had 52 points, 11 assists and needed that 10th rebound to push past the boundaries, even within a beautiful basketball mind that sees the limitlessness of possibility. James would've chased that rebound into the Hudson River to make sure he upstaged Kobe Bryant at the Garden and delivered a genius performance that was a little Michael and Magic, a little Big O and Kareem.
"You saw every phase of my game tonight, the scoring, the rebounding, the assists," James said.
Mostly, LeBron reached up to the Garden marquee on 7th Avenue, and ripped down Kobe's name. James and Bryant are locked in a ferocious back-and-forth to be the best player on the planet. They're chasing everything now – MVPs and championships, endorsements and popularity. As much as ever, they're chasing the sport's standing as the game's truest heir to Michael Jordan.
So, James watched on television as Bryant obliterated the Garden scoring record with 61 points and everyone knew – just knew – James was hellbent on raising the ante. And he did. James beat Bryant. LeBron's night was bigger, better and bolder. James lives for the dramatic. He's the showman of his generation. "The sad thing is that I'm sure LeBron said that it's no big deal to get 61 points," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "I'll just get a triple-double. [Kobe] didn't do that."
As much as the Garden is still the Mecca of basketball, the Knicks still play the part of crash-test dummies for the NBA's royalty. Not even Isiah Thomas has the indignity of surrendering back-to-back 50-point games on his tombstone, but these defenseless Knicks do now. The Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce is on deck Friday.
Only Michael Jordan and James have ever come into the Garden twice and dropped 50 points.
"It's an honor that you're in the same breath as Kareem and Mike," James said. "Two of the baddest guys that ever did this game, that ever played this game, that ever walked on the face of the Earth and carried a basketball."
Someday, James could surpass Jordan in every way, but he's still six titles behind him, still three behind Bryant. For James, he's closed the gap on Kobe – maybe erased it – and this was a night when it was so easy to see the differences in disposition of these two stars. When Bryant scored his 61 on Monday, he was stone-faced sober. No joking, no laughs. That's how he lives, too.
All night, LeBron was gabbing and laughing and smiling. He fist-pumped with Spike Lee. He walked out of the final timeout playing air guitar to the music on the public-address system.
"I think Kobe is much more focused than LeBron, much quieter," said an NBA executive who knows both well. "He doesn't party. He doesn't hang out. It isn't that LeBron doesn't approach the game in a high-end, professional way, but he's much more carefree and fun, much more of a showman. Off the court, he's joking and laughing. I think that, in part, each one wants to be a little like the other.
"LeBron has the ability to be a guy's guy, the life of the party. Kobe just doesn't have that."
When they were together at the Olympics in Beijing over the summer, the two politely tugging to make Team USA his own, those differences played out to teammates and coaches. When LeBron was planning team breakfasts, Kobe would be lifting alone in the weight room. With his 61 points, Kobe had just three assists and no rebounds on Monday night. He almost looked like he was all alone out there. Nevertheless, there are lessons of seriousness of task that James has taken from Bryant, lessons over two consecutive summers at his side. Nevertheless, LeBron never needed Kobe to teach him the importance of New York and Madison Square Garden.
Kobe has never flirted about coming to play here, as LeBron has about 2010, but both understand: Respect must be paid.
"I can't say that this is the same as any other road game," James said. "It's not, because it's the Mecca of basketball. Like Kobe said, this is the last building that's still alive. And it's just a different feeling when you come in this building."
Maybe it had never been as different as this week, when James touched down in Manhattan on Tuesday with the city still buzzing over Bryant's 61 points. The Super Bowl had ended, and Bryant had turned America's consciousness toward him within the first 24 hours of most of America awakening to the NBA season. LeBron refused to let it last on Wednesday, and David Stern's wildest dreams had played out within 48 magnificent hours at the Garden. If the Knicks can't make New York matter again, Kobe and LeBron had come to town to validate the greatness of the Garden all over again.
Yes, James and Bryant chase everything together now – maybe mostly immortality – and it turns out these past two days have been a prelude to LeBron and Kobe meeting over the weekend in Cleveland. "It'll be a good show on Sunday in Cleveland," James said late Wednesday.
LeBron James had reached high in Madison Square Garden, and snatched that final rebound, snatched Kobe Bryant's name off the marquee lights, and finally, legs aching, disappeared into a New York night.