MINNEAPOLIS -- Andrew Wiggins knew his defensive assignment Sunday, knew the history at stake, and so he created a goal, something rather specific. “I didn’t want to let him get nine points,” said the Minnesota Timberwolves rookie.
The “him” was Kobe Bryant, and the nine points was all that stood between the Los Angeles Lakers star and his surpassing Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list at the Target Center here in the city where the Lakers were born.
Those two faced off at the start, a matchup of the NBA’s flickering past against its hopeful future. What Bryant lacked in speed, he made up in experience, as he has been in the league almost as long as the 19-year-old Wiggins has been alive.
Wiggins scored the game’s first points and the Timberwolves’ first six, even torching the 36-year-old Bryant on a spin move to the bucket. On the other end, Bryant struggled, missing his first three shots, shooting just 1-of-5 in the first quarter, making only a 7-foot fallaway jumper off a feed from Carlos Boozer.
Bryant rested for half the second quarter, returning with 6:28 left, five points shy of Jordan’s mark: 32,292 points. He sank a quick 3-pointer, putting him one bucket away. And on the next possession, on the cusp of a milestone in an eventual 100-94 win, Kobe Bryant shot another short fallaway jumper.
That’s how most expected Bryant to pass Jordan -- on that patented fallaway. Lakers coach Byron Scott even predicted as much before the game, as it’s the shot Bryant is most known for, and it’s the shot that Jordan was most known for, too.
Nearly two decades ago, Bryant asked Jordan how to shoot that shot just right, and Jordan obliged, saying the trick was to feel a defender with your legs; that would tell you just how much space you have and if it’s enough to get a shot off.
In time, and with countless hours in the gym, Bryant came to master that move. It became his weapon, a go-to in the same way the skyhook was for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bryant has made so many since, but each is a shadow of Jordan, a lingering reminder of the player Bryant patterned his game after, the player to whom Bryant has long been compared, his career always in Jordan’s shadow.
So that’s why most expected Bryant to pass Jordan on a fallaway shot. It felt fitting -- poetic, even. And when that shot came off Bryant’s fingertips, the crowd was at its feet, holding its collective breath, the moment unfolding almost in slow motion.
It clanked off the iron. The arena groaned.
After a Lakers steal, Bryant got the ball back on the right wing against another fleet-footed Timberwolves rookie, high-flying guard Zach LaVine, who, like Wiggins, was also 1 year old when Bryant made his NBA debut.
LaVine fashions himself a huge Bryant fan, saying during a previous matchup that he grew up watching film of Bryant, taking bits and pieces of his game. “He’s always been my favorite player growing up, the most exciting, dynamic scorer from the two-guard spot -- the most skilled,” LaVine said. “He’s a beast.”
That side of the floor had cleared out. It was just these two. Bryant gave a jab-step, a subtle ball-fake, then drove hard along the baseline, bulled through LaVine, went up to shoot and drew a foul with 5:24 left in the second quarter.
“I’m glad I fouled him, glad he didn’t make it on me,” LaVine said.
For as much as Bryant had downplayed passing Jordan at every chance leading up to Sunday, for as often as he said he gave the achievement “zero” thought, he knew exactly where he stood just then, after LaVine’s foul: only two points away.
“Yeah, I can count,” he said later with a laugh.
Cell phone cameras zeroed in on Bryant as he walked to the line. He knew the stakes. “You get up there and you’re like, the crowd is really waiting to see you score nine points so don’t F this up and completely kill the moment,” he said.
The referee tossed him the ball, and Bryant dribbled twice with his head down, then looked up and focused on the rim.
In the locker room before the game, Lakers players had joked about which one of them would earn the assist on the basket that sent Bryant past Jordan. Yet here, there was no chance at an assist, no clean highlight. It all felt .... anti-climatic.
But Bryant also scored his first NBA point on a free throw in Madison Square Garden in 1996, and now he was counting on them again to make more history.
Maybe it was fitting, too.
First attempt, swish. He had tied his idol.
Same routine on the next try, same result: swoosh. History.
Bryant had been warned before the game that, when it happened, the game would stop. But at some point along the way, he said he forgot. So after the ball sank through the hoop, he started backpedaling down the court, as if to get back on defense. “And then the game stopped and I was like, ‘Oh, this is all right,” he said.
Teammates swarmed with congratulatory hugs, first the four on the court and then everyone off the bench. Timberwolves players walked over to do the same. The crowd, thick with purple and gold, stood and roared, making it hard to hear the announcer, who began, “Ladies and gentlemen, with that last basket, Kobe Bryant ...”
Marc Davis, an official, grabbed Bryant, pointing toward Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who stood at center court, waiting. Bryant walked over, Taylor wrapped an arm around him and presented the game ball while a short video tribute played.
Then Bryant greeted Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, who coached against Bryant during the guard’s NBA debut: Nov. 3, 1996. Bryant went scoreless in that game, and Saunders joked that he wanted the same result again Sunday.
“We talked about drafting him,” Saunders added. “Everyone pretty much knew that his agency was trying to steer him in a different direction to keep him out in L.A.”
Bryant walked back toward the Lakers’ bench, raising the ball to acknowledge the fans, and he shared a long embrace with Scott, whose final NBA season was Bryant’s first.
“I’m happy that I was able to share with him in the beginning and to this point as well,” Scott said. “I just told him how proud I was of him, I loved him, just how much it’s an honor to be coaching him and coaching this team.”
Bryant hugged Lakers trainer Gary Vitti and handed the ball to equipment manager Carlos Maples, two staffers who have been with the Lakers during Bryant’s entire tenure with the team.
Tweets poured in, including from LeBron James (“Congrats Bean!”) and Magic Johnson, who sent a few: “Lakers fans we’ve been so blessed to watch Kobe Bryant, one of the top five or 6 best players ever, play in a Lakers uniform!”
Jordan himself released a statement to The Associated Press, congratulating Bryant, saying in part, “I've enjoyed watching his game evolve over the years, and I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next."
Nike unveiled limited edition “Mamba Moment” shoes to mark the occasion.
A game still had to be played and, almost as if a script were written, Bryant hit a big 3-pointer late to help the Lakers win their season-high third straight.
Cameras engulfed him for on-court television interviews at the buzzer, and Lakers fans crowded around the tunnel, roaring as he walked under the tunnel, high-fiving some and raising a hand to acknowledge them all.
After Scott spoke, an ice bucket was placed under the table sitting before a bank of cameras in a small media conference room. Bryant, still in his game jersey, walked in, lifted those legs with all that NBA mileage -- about 54,000 total minutes, both regular-season and playoffs -- and sunk his feet in the frigid water.
“I’m just honored to be here, man, to still be playing,” he said.
His teammates felt honored just being there too.
“That was a big moment in basketball,” Carlos Boozer said.
“You know they are special when they stop the game,” Robert Sacre said.
“I don't think words can express the feeling that kind of goes through you,” Ronnie Price said. “Kind of a goose-bump feeling. You just get chills. I'm used to watching these moments when I was a kid, watching NBA classics, seeing all of the great things that all of the guys did ahead of us. Now to actually be on the court and affiliated with one of those moments is something that I'll never forget, it's something me and my family, my kids, my kids' kids, can enjoy. To be part of history, to be a part of his history, to be a part of NBA history is kind of a goose-bump feeling."
Bryant called the moment different. He’s used to being booed on the road, to being “the villain,” he said. So the whole reaction caught him off guard a little.
“To have moments like that, when you’re not expecting a hug and you get a hug and you’re like, man, this feels pretty damn good,” he said.
He appreciated being called a top-five player by Magic Johnson.
“That’s the most important thing to me, I think, is playing for the respect of the greats and feeling like I’m a part of that culture, a part of that brotherhood,” he said.
But Bryant admitted that longevity is what resonated most Sunday.
“I appreciate the game even more because it has a certain finality to it,” he said. “When moments like this come around, you’re really overjoyed by it. You know, at the same time, that the end is pretty near, which is fine too.”
There was something else, too, about Wiggins.
“Yeah, it was a strange feeling, because I remember being Andrew Wiggins,” Bryant said. “I remember playing against Michael my first year. To be here tonight and to play against him, seeing the baby face and the little footwork or little technique things that he’s going to be much sharper at as time goes on -- it was like looking at a reflection of myself 19 years ago. It was pretty cool.”
As Wiggins walked out of the arena, Bryant’s message was relayed to him.
“That’s just motivation to my ears, to hear those kind words to come from someone of his caliber,” he said. “That’s just motivation to my ears.”
There were “Ko-be” shouts during the national anthem, chants during every bucket and especially so on the fateful free throws. Then dozens gathered near the Lakers team bus, chanting his name again, chanting “M-V-P!” Deafening.
The Lakers’ charter flight departed into the balmy Minneapolis night, bound for Indianapolis, where the second half of a back-to-back set awaited Monday.
Streamers and signs that spelled out congratulations comforted Bryant in his window seat in a row the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer had to himself.
As flight attendants delivered Bryant a cake, rookie Jordan Clarkson serenaded him over the intercom: “Congratulations to Kobe ... Bean ... Bryant.”
A Lakers video captured the scene, posted on their Twitter account, and as the cake rested in the seat beside him, Bryant offered a smile.
“With him, every goal that he’s set, since he was an 18-year-old rookie, he’s been able to achieve,” Scott said. “He still has a few more that he wants to achieve.”
As Bryant said, the end is near, which is fine, too.
“I love what I do,” Bryant said. “It doesn’t feel like I’ve worked a day in my life.”
The comparisons will continue in the timeless debate, but for now, Bryant can bask in this milestone, for there might not be any more of this magnitude in his dwindling Hall of Fame career. There might not be many more at all.
For those who witnessed it, especially the league’s hopeful future who grew up idolizing Bryant, the moment will last forever.
“That’s a legendary moment for me, to see a living legend,” Wiggins said, standing near the Lakers bus, where fans chanted “Ko-be!” like mad.
“I witnessed greatness. I witnessed the passing of Michael Jordan in scoring.”