A crowd of 18,997 onlookers watched with tantalizing agony. With only 43 seconds left and their beloved Los Angeles Lakers up by 18 points against the Toronto Raptors, the Staples Center crowd was on its feet.

Swish. The first of two free throws fell in as perfectly as a sunset over Newport Beach – 80. Whoosh, the second rattled in with a tantalizing clank – 81. When the ball cleared, the old coach called his last time-out to let his hero have a proper exit off the court and the crowd applauded as if they were in the presence of a legend.

Kobe Dean Bryant had just made history.

Jack Nicholson went to bed early and Denzel Washington had other things to do – sorry guys, but I guess there just wasn’t enough drama.

On Jan. 22, 2006, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers shot 28-46 from the field, scoring 81 points, the second most points scored in a game since Wilt Chamberlain scored 100, 44 years ago.

Coming off a disappointing season in which his team finished fourth in the Pacific Conference with a 34-48 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, Bryant knew what he had to do – the same thing he has been doing the last nine years of his National Basketball Association career – win.

Bryant didn’t have what most would see as a normal NBA back-story. Most players can’t boast that they speak three languages – he speaks Italian, French and, of course, English fluently. Most can’t say they’ve lived in Europe for 10 years of their life. Most can’t say they were the youngest All-Star ever at the age of 19. Most can’t say they’re Kobe Bryant.

By 20 he was the youngest to be both on the All-NBA first team and All-NBA first defensive team. By 21 he was an NBA Champion and by 23 he had three titles. At 24 he became a father, and three months later he became infamous despite all his accomplishments.

His image was tarnished forever when he was accused of raping a woman who worked at the hotel he was staying at in Colorado. With this controversy came a year-long trial that had the whole country talking.

Gone was the image of Bryant holding hands with little kids in McDonald’s commercials or the friendly face of Nutella. He no longer appears in Sprite commercials to quench his thirst. It was replaced by a mug shot when he turned himself in and the threat of him being put in jail for rape.

I met Bryant in the fall of 2004 at a pre-season game against the Seattle SuperSonics at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim. He had a gentle ease about him during the shoot around, posing for pictures with a kid in a wheelchair and signing autographs for good measure.

But, on the court, he became a whole other animal that I had not witnessed earlier. Every time the Lakers went out on the court he has a cocky arrogance that can be seen. A killer instinct in his eyes of the likes of Jordan or Bird.

When we talked after the game, I was amazed that now he was back to his old self again. He was a gentle, easy-going and charming guy with his wife, Vanessa, by his side.

He was thinner than I pictured, a bit lanky and loose. He smiled a lot, but then again what does he have to frown about? His low-maintenance attitude made me wonder where all that talk about him being a prima donna came from.

Four days after his record setting 81 point game, Kobe scored only 30 points playing against the Golden State Warriors.

For any other player in the NBA, it would have been considered a great night, but for fans of the Lakers it’s disappointing, even though the Lakers won. If anything, he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter and nine of the Lakers 12 points in overtime, showing he can turn it on or off anytime he wants.

But then again, that’s just Kobe. He’s unlike anything that we’ve ever seen.

Wang can be reached at bwang@campustimes.org.

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