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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Kobe Goes Where Only Wilt and Elgin Went Before

Kobe Bryant scored 45 points in the L.A. Lakers' 96-90 win over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, becoming the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor to have 45-plus points in four straight games; the feat has not been accomplished since Chamberlain did it in November 1964. The Lakers are 3-1 in those contests and have not lost since Bryant returned from his two game suspension for elbowing Memphis' Mike Miller (Utah defeated the Lakers twice when Kobe was out of the lineup). Bryant has scored 188 points during this four game stretch, the third best four game scoring run in the last 20 years (Michael Jordan had runs of 198 points in '87 and 194 points in '90)--and he is also contributing 8.8 rpg and 4.8 apg while playing 43 mpg. Bryant is averaging 42.4 ppg in his last eight games--starting with his 62 points in three quarters versus Dallas on December 20--and the Lakers won five of those games. Bryant has taken over the scoring lead from Allen Iverson and his 34.1 ppg is higher than any player has averaged in a season since Jordan put up 35.0 ppg in 1987-88.

Kobe's exploits made me think of Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain--and a great book by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. The first two are obvious choices. The Kobe-Shaq saga attracts media attention like moths are drawn to the flame. The story lines are predictable--Kobe's the bad guy, he drove off Shaq, the Lakers were foolish to get rid of Shaq, etc. Shaq is the modern player who is most frequently compared to Wilt Chamberlain in terms of physical dominance. It is ironic that Kobe is the player who just did something that no one has done since Wilt, while Shaq is suffering through his worst season and seems to be well into the declining phase of his career. His Miami Heat hardly look like a championship contender although, to be fair, there is more than enough time left to turn things around, as Shaq is fond of pointing out--but closing the season with a great final push is a lot easier when you are in your 20s and healthy than when you are in your 30s and constantly injured. All you Kobe bashers out there--are you still sure that it would have been better to keep Shaq at $20 million per year as opposed to rebuilding around Kobe Bryant, a younger superstar who is more committed to staying in shape? It doesn't look like the Lakers are going to hit rock bottom like the post-Jordan-Pippen Bulls did.

Goldman and Lupica wrote Wait Till Next Year, their account of one year (1987) in New York sports. Goldman is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter and passionate sports fan, while Lupica is one of America's most prominent sportswriters. The book alternates between "A fan's notes" (by Goldman) and "The reporter's notebook" (by Lupica). If you haven't read this book, do yourself a favor and track it down in your local library or on eBay. What does any of this have to do with Kobe? One of Goldman's "A fan's notes" was titled "To the Death" and discussed how tough the passage of time can be on even the greatest of athletes--he was not referring to what happens to their skills during their playing days, but their place in history as the decades pass. He cited the example of George Sisler, who put up some monster seasons at first base, but has been eclipsed in our memory banks by the tremendous achievements (and tragic early death) of Lou Gehrig. Goldman suggested one athlete who will not suffer Sisler's fate: Wilt Chamberlain.

Goldman started thinking about this after Larry Bird erupted for 42 points and 20 rebounds in a game during the '87-'88 season; he wryly noted, "That's a week for a Knick forward," before pointing out that in Chamberlain's first six seasons he averaged 40.6 ppg and 24.9 rpg. Goldman wrote of Chamberlain, who still had offers to play in the NBA when he was in his early 50s, "the news finds him. Either when some team wants him to come back and play for them...or whenever a record is talked of." (the ellipses are present in the original text). Goldman continued, "During Michael Jordan's amazing '86-'87, Wilt was always in the papers because Jordan was always scoring the most this's since Wilt Chamberlain or taking the most that's since Wilt Chamberlain. And that ain't gonna change, folks. Not in this century. Take big-scoring games, for example. Michael Jordan hit 60 points, twice last year. In the eighties, only two other men have done it, each once: Bernard King and Larry Bird. Four times this decade. Seven other guys did it once: Fulks (the first), Mikan, Gervin, West, Barry, Maravich and David 'oh-what-a-fall-was-there-' Thompson. Elgin Baylor did it thrice. And Wilt? Well, it's been done 46 times so you subtract. Wilt: 32. The rest of basketball: 14. At the present rate, we will be well into the twenty-first century before the NBA catches up." Goldman's prophecy was quite correct; since he wrote those words, David Robinson (71 points), Tracy McGrady (63), Kobe Bryant (62), Karl Malone (61), Shaquille O'Neal (61), Tom Chambers (60) and Allen Iverson (60) added their names to the list while Jordan racked up two more 60 point games (69, 64)--so the tally is now Wilt 32, rest of basketball 23.

Goldman declared that Wilt's status would only grow with time because his records are so astronomical and concluded "To the Death" with this thought: "The greatest struggle an athlete undergoes is the battle for our memories. It's gradual. It begins before you're aware it's begun and it ends with a terrible fall from grace. Stripped of medals, sent to Siberia...It really is a battle to the death."

That's why every time Kobe has the most "this's" or "that's" since Chamberlain that I think not only of Wilt, but also Shaq--and Wait Till Next Year by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. Kobe's feats repeatedly acquaint a new generation with Wilt's name and 50 years from now I believe that both players will survive Goldman's aptly named struggle "to the death."

posted by David Friedman @ 9:10 PM



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