Editor's note: This article appears in the January 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
In the same month the kid from A Bronx Tale, Lillo Brancato Jr., was arrested in real life for his involvement in a shooting, Kobe Bryant willingly passed up a chance at history. Trust me, the two events are related.
To understand Kobe's misguided choice, let's first retrace the disappointing arc of his career. Once projected as MJ's successor, the wheels came spinning off after Kobe's ego intervened. A power struggle with Shaq, legal troubles, some memorably selfish play ... Kobe's downward spiral was the basketball version of Tony Montana's in Scarface. And using his contract leverage to orchestrate Shaq's departure was his "Tony shot Manny!" moment. There was no going back.
Now he's stuck in his prime trying to carry a crummy team, which makes it easy to see he isn't the next Jordan, if only because he lacks the galvanizing effect on teammates that MJ had. Kobe doesn't seem any different than T-Mac, Allen Iverson or even Gilbert Arenas -- just another talented scorer who gives his franchise credibility but can't make his teammates better. That's what he is. Nothing more.
Which brings us to the 62-point game. Kobe had the optimum opponent (none of the Mavs could guard him), optimum referees (he was getting every call), optimum conditions (he was feeling it) and the optimum venue (the Staples Center). He could have scored 80, and no one besides Wilt has ever topped 73. But when Phil Jackson asked if Kobe wanted to keep on playing in the blowout, he shook his head no. He was done. Apparently, he thought that passing up a chance at immortality would prove he was a good guy.
Um ... isn't this the same league in which everyone pounds his chest after a three-pointer? Suddenly, he's worried about showing up his opponents? Forget the sportsmanship nonsense. If you don't grab the chance for a killer moment, you're a wimp. Do you really think the Mavs would have been offended? You'd hope that they'd have taken Kobe's quest as a collective challenge and killed themselves trying to stop him.
More important, there's a larger issue at stake here. Larry Bird was one of the most unselfish players ever, but during his 60-point game, not only did he keep gunning after the game was decided, his teammates fouled Atlanta players to get the ball back for him. And the Hawks understood. Heck, some of them celebrated on the bench after Bird swished a remarkable 35-footer as he was falling out of bounds. Larry wanted to break the Celtics' scoring record and it was a relatively meaningless game, so he went for it. And guess what? ESPN Classic shows the game all the time.
Another example: on the final day of the 1978 season, David Thompson dropped 73 in an attempt to win the scoring title. (He didn't, but that's not the point.) Although I've never seen a tape of the game, I'm guessing he hogged the ball; the guy scored 53 points in the first half alone. Surely the game was compromised to some degree. Who cares? The dude scored 53 in one half! You think his opponents were offended at halftime? It's more likely they were saying, "Holy crap, the guy just dropped 53 on us. If we have any semblance of pride, we have to start guarding him."
Now, Thompson's game will endure long after everyone forgets about Kobe's blown chance. Fifty years from now, nobody will care that Kobe refused to reenter a blowout or that he did the "right thing." They would have cared about 80.
See, sports isn't only about winning and losing. It's also about the little challenges along the way. Kobe's chance to break the non-Wilt record transcended victory or even a little character rehab. After three quarters, he'd outscored the Mavs by himself, something nobody ever remembers happening before. To throw your hands up, high-five your teammates and say, "That's it, that's enough" doesn't just cheat the fans who are at the game, it cheats everyone who loves basketball and spends their evenings flicking channels, waiting to stumble across a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. The outcome was decided, but the story line wasn't. Kobe took the easy way out. And in doing so, it was just one more manifestation of what has gone wrong with his career. He should have been the next MJ, should have broken the non-Wilt record, should have been the defining player of his generation. Instead, he's another couldashouldawoulda guy.
Maybe it all happened too soon for him. Maybe he wasn't emotionally equipped to deal with success beyond a certain degree. The 62-point game will forever suggest as much. And as the dad warned his kid in A Bronx Tale, "The saddest thing in life is wasted talent."
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.