The late Kobe Bryant’s birthday on Sunday inspired many heartfelt comments and posts from basketball fans and media, many of whom are still shaken by his sudden death back in January.
Now in an NBA playoff that is unlike any other in history, Bryant’s absence is felt. His impact, however, is extremely visible in players like Damian Lillard who exhibit his “Mamba Mentality” or up-and-coming stars like Luka Doncic whose game-winning shots remind us of the legendary clutchness of the former Laker great.
To celebrate what would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday, here are the top-10 moments of his stupendous basketball career.
10. Making Two Free-throws After Tearing Achilles Tendon
When the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the summer of 2012, many deemed the team title-contenders. Los Angeles instead teetered in mediocrity, leaving an aging — yet still elite — Bryant furiously trying to will his team into the playoffs.
Following a late-season loss to Milwaukee that left the Lakers just 37-36, Bryant decided he needed to go all-out in a last-ditch effort to elevate his squad. He made good on his promise and averaged 45.5 minutes, 28.9 points and 8.4 assists over the next seven games despite being 34 years old and in his 17th season, according to basketball-reference.
L.A. went 6-1 in that stretch and nearly secured the eighth seed, but with just two games left in the season, Bryant’s body couldn’t handle the strain of having to play at such an intensity. On a routine move to the basket, Bryant’s foot buckled and he crashed to the floor.
The injury immediately appeared serious, but with his team down two points with about three minutes remaining, Bryant somehow walked to the line and sank two clutch free-throws. It was later reported that he tore his Achilles tendon, which left everyone wondering how in the world he had the toughness to walk to the line, let alone make the shots.
This event marked the end of Bryant’s time as a superstar as he’d never return to being a productive NBA player before retiring in 2016. It also exemplified his supreme toughness and competitive fervor, as well as his commitment to helping his team win.
9. 62 Points In Three Quarters, Outsourcing Entire Mavericks Team
Bryant was on an absolute scoring barrage in the 2005-2006 season. Although this feat was dwarfed a month later by another event on this list, Bryant’s 62 points in three quarters is one of the most impressive games in NBA history.
Firstly, he achieved this against a 60-win Mavericks team that eventually made it to the NBA Finals. Secondly, his scoring outburst gave the Lakers a 34-point lead without another player reaching double-digit points. Lastly, his 62 points by the third quarter were more than the entire Dallas team had (61).
It was simply a magnificent performance by Bryant against a superior team. He went 18-for-31 from the field and played nearly 33 minutes before sitting out the fourth quarter with the game already won. It’s a shame fans didn’t get to see how many points he could have totaled had he played until the final buzzer.
8. 2008 Olympics Gold Medal Game
USA Basketball needed major revamping after a stunningly-mediocre performance in the 2004 games, in which the country earned just a Bronze medal. After many of the NBA’s best players declined to play four years prior, the 2008 “Redeem” team sported several of the game’s top superstars, including reigning MVP Bryant.
The Gold Medal game predictably featured the USA against Spain. Spain sported NBA players like Pau and Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez, and kept the game close throughout, even drawing within two points early in the fourth quarter.
Although superstars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony did their damage in the contest, it was Bryant who carried the team to victory. He repeatedly made clutch plays down the stretch — both passing and scoring — to keep the USA afloat. You could see from his expression that he wasn’t going to let his team lose.
With his team up five points and just over three minutes remaining, Bryant jab-stepped on the left wing and let go a deep triple in his defender’s grill. It swished as the referee’s whistle signaled an and-1 opportunity, and Bryant shushed the crowd knowing he’d likely secured the victory.
He’d then make one more floating layup to complete his 20-point outing and take home the Gold. Bryant, as he almost always did, came up big when his team needed him most.
7. 2008 MVP Award
Bryant endured sub-par team performances in the three seasons following O’Neal’s departure from the Lakers in 2004. Bryant tallied superb individual numbers in that stretch but couldn’t couple it with team success, mostly because he was playing with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker-type talent.
The 2007-2008 season marked a new chapter for Bryant. He led L.A. to 57 wins — 15 more than the previous season — and the top seed in the Western Conference despite Gasol and Andrew Bynum only playing a combined 62 games. Bryant played all 82 games and averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists.
Bryant was a three-time champion and perennial All-Star by this point but had yet to win an MVP. He was previously seen as O’Neal’s sidekick and then a selfish player putting up crazy numbers on bad teams. Now, he was at the top of the league and evolving into a more philosophical and committed leader.
The Lakers, unfortunately, lost in the Finals to the big-three Celtics. Bryant, however, established a new version of the Lakers that would contend for titles in the coming seasons.
6. 2009 Finals MVP
Following the Lakers’ disappointing Finals loss in 2008, Bryant made it his mission to toughen-up his teammates and regroup for another championship run. He berated his teammates in practice to better prepare them for the playoffs and once again played like an MVP. Bryant now had Gasol for a full season. There was no denying him.
L.A. won 65 games en route to its second consecutive Finals appearance. Hoping to have a rematch with Boston or a duel with James’ 66-win Cavaliers, the Lakers instead met the Howard-led Magic. Orlando, though, was a young and balanced team with absolutely no one capable of guarding the 6-foot-6 shooting guard.
Bryant averaged 32.4 points and 7.4 assists as the Lakers won the series in five games. Considered the greatest “Robin” in NBA history, Bryant finally won Finals MVP and proved to the world that he was an all-time great in his own right. He didn’t need O’Neal. Bryant was enough to get it done.
5. 2010 Finals Revenge
Bryant and the Lakers finally got their revenge against the Celtics in the 2010 Finals. Neither team was as good in the regular season as they had been in previous years, but they both dominated their conference when it mattered most.
This Finals was one of the best. Each team took turns snatching momentum and winning tough road games. Both rosters struggled shooting the ball, with Bryant, in particular, having trouble navigating the Celtics’ immense attention to his every offensive move.
It all came down to a Game 7 in L.A. Bryant couldn’t buy a bucket all night and went just 6-for-24 from the field, but did grab 15 rebounds. He eventually realized it wasn’t his night and decided to feed his teammates, and because he had hardened them in practice over the previous two years, they rose to the challenge.
Metta World Peace hit the game-clinching shot, Gasol had 19 points and 18 rebounds and the Lakers won 83-79. Bryant won his second straight Finals MVP with averages of 28.6 points, eight rebounds and 2.1 steals. What was even sweeter, though, was that he now had one more ring than O’Neal.
4. 15-Point Fourth-Quarter Comeback In 2000 Western Conference Finals Game 7
The 1999-2000 Lakers were one of the best teams in franchise history. They won 67 games, O’Neal was named MVP and Bryant blossomed into a true All-Star.
The team hadn’t lost three straight games all season, but after leading the Trail Blazers 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals, L.A. suddenly found itself in a Game 7. Portland seemingly found the answer to O’Neal’s dominance and held the big man to just nine points entering the fourth quarter, which allowed the Trail Blazers to build a 13-point lead.
Then it was Bryant’s time to shine. He, O’Neal and Brian Shaw battled to eventually take a lead with two minutes remaining as the Trail Blazers fell apart, largely due to Bryant’s hounding perimeter defense. But when Portland regrouped and tied the game, Bryant made three of the biggest plays of his career to that point.
Bryant first drew a foul and hit two free throws to regain the lead. He then isolated Scottie Pippen and implemented a filthy in-and-out dribble to hit a pull-up jumper in his face. Now up four with under a minute remaining, Bryant once again sized-up Pippen, bolted to the basket with an Allen Iverson-esque crossover and threw arguably the most iconic alley-oop in NBA history to O’Neal, who somehow soared to the rafters and slammed it.
It’s jarring how comfortable Bryant was in leading his team to a Game 7 victory. He was covered by one of the best defenders in history and played a rugged team with all the momentum, yet he rose to the occasion.
3. 60-Point Farewell Game
Bryant’s final season was more noteworthy for his massive farewell tour than his play. He was losing his battle with Father Time and the Lakers were a horrible team. It wasn’t the exit everyone envisioned he would have.
His last game was in the Staples Center against a Jazz team that was eliminated from the playoffs just hours before. The game was meaningless in all ways except it being Bryant’s final time lacing up his sneakers and hitting the hardwood.
Bryant achieved far greater milestones in his illustrious career than scoring 60 points on 50 shots in a non-impactful regular-season game. But this performance felt special. Everyone knew he would take a million shots in his final outing, yet he surpassed even the most optimistic of expectations.
He was simply magical that night. Every media member and celebrity basketball fan you can think of was in attendance, and he still delivered. He gave everyone one last show to remember him by and capped it off with a game-clinching jumper. There was no better way for him to end his career after the brutal seasons leading up to that point.
His iconic finale was then elevated by the closing speech he offered the crowd. It was heartfelt, appreciative and memorable. His closing words, “Mamba out,” erupted the crowd and left no doubt he was happy closing that chapter of his life.
2. 2000 Finals Game 4 Heroics
Before Bryant became a basketball legend, he was just a 21-year-old talent trying to make a name for himself beside O’Neal’s stardom. Bryant averaged over 20 points per game for the first time in the 1999-2000 season but had some poor playoff performances on his short resume, so he had his work cut out for him as the Lakers met a tough Pacers bunch in the Finals.
Indiana couldn’t handle O’Neal’s dominance as the big man averaged 38 points per game before winning his first Finals MVP. The series win was in jeopardy for the Lakers, however, after Bryant sprained his ankle just nine minutes into Game 2 and missed all of Game 3.
The Pacers won Game 3 to make the series 2-1 in L.A.’s favor, but no one knew what to expect from an injured Bryant with Game 4 in Indiana. He struggled to loosen up in the first half, scoring just six points, but came alive as the competitive contest drew to a close.
The game went into overtime and O’Neal was once again carried the Lakers, this time earning 36 points and 21 rebounds. But the center fouled-out midway through overtime with the game in the balance, leaving the hobbled Bryant to keep the series from being evened.
The legend of Bryant was born that day. He hit three massive shots in the game’s closing seconds, and blocked a go-ahead shot on defense, to take the win and give the Lakers a 3-1 lead. He finished with 28 points and five assists on a bum ankle in a performance that O’Neal describes as the moment he knew Bryant was a different type of guy than he’d ever been around.
1. 81-Point Game
You can’t think of Bryant without thinking of his 81-point game. It’s his most iconic performance, albeit not his most important one. It represents the peak of his abilities and the type of scorer and player he was.
About a month after his 62-point performance in three quarters, Bryant somehow topped himself, this time against a horrid Raptors team. He was able to do so because Toronto surprisingly stayed in the game despite Bryant’s extreme efforts, which allowed him time to reach a point total no one thought possible.
Only one player after 1978 — David Robinson — even eclipsed 70 points in a game before Bryant’s hot streak. It was inconceivable that any professional team would let a guard score that many points. Still, Bryant’s elite skills and acumen for creating shots from all angles made him unstoppable this night. It looked like he was playing against a high school team.
If you watch this game’s highlights, it’s hard to think of any other player in NBA history doing what Bryant did. He only had 26 points in the first half. He only took 46 shots. He only played 42 minutes. It’s not like the game went into overtime and he was taking 60-plus shots as Wilt Chamberlain did.
Bryant was just in the zone. No player could lock-in like him and it’s unlikely anyone will exceed 81 points in a game any time soon.