Kobe Bryant never played for the Knicks, but he felt like a Knick. His annual visits were always a spectacle and none more than Feb. 2, 2009, when he scored 61 points to set at the time the new Madison Square Garden scoring record.
I was a beat writer for Newsday at the time and had the fortune of being front row, right next to the Lakers bench, for that performance. After Kobe’s tragic death on Sunday, in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of 8 others, including his daughter, Gianna, I found myself watching countless highlights of Kobe’s career, if anything just to deny myself the belief that he could be gone.
That’s when I came across the story I wrote about that night he lit up the Garden.
“It’s a blessing to do what you love,” he said, “and have moments like this.”
It was especially significant to Kobe because it happened at the Garden.
“This building is special because it’s the last one left,” he said. “This is the last one that holds all the memories.”
Kobe’s connection to the Garden goes back to his first of his 33,643 career points. It came in his second NBA game, Nov. 5, 1996, at the Garden. Kobe, at 18 years old, came off the bench for the Lakers. He played just 3:16, all at the start of the second quarter.
He was fouled by Buck Williams on the first possession of the quarter and went to the free throw line. He hit one of two to put himself officially in the record book.
He was then called for a travel and missed a 16-footer — his only field goal attempt of the game — and then was subbed out for Eddie Jones.
“I sucked,” Kobe later joked to us in New York about his debut. “I remember coming in and being nervous as heck. Eighty pounds soaking wet having to guard John Wallace.” Wallace, who was also a rookie that season, had 12 points in that game. The Lakers won, 98-92.
One season later, Kobe would find himself back at the Garden again, but this time as an all-star, voted a starter by the fans It is there he went head to head against his idol, Michael Jordan, in the biggest marquee matchup at the world’s greatest basketball stage.
“I can’t believe it,” Kobe said in the days leading up to the game. “Nineteen and I’m going up against Michael Jordan in the All-Star Game . . . Going to New York is a dream come true.”
Jordan, with 23 points, won MVP that night — he also made a pair of free throws late in the game with his eyes closed — but you could sense the torch was about to be passed from generation to generation. Kobe had 18 points but was left on the bench in the fourth quarter, as West All-Star coach George Karl decided to go with veterans to finish the game.
It didn’t stop Kobe from having a few moments from the game that are still found on YouTube. Jordan wasn’t ready to defer yet to the protege, but he acknowledged Kobe’s arrival.
“It was like looking in the mirror,” Jordan told NBC’s Ahmad Rashad after the game. “This is how I was in my first All-Star.”
And 20 years later, after his final game here before his retirement, he reflected on what it meant for him to take this great basketball stage.
“To be able to have some of my best performances here, in this building,” he said, “I don’t think that you understand how much I watched this building growing up.”
New York has always looked at Kobe and thought: What Might Have Been? There were opportunities from the very beginning for his Hall of Fame career to begin on the stage he loved as much as his idol, Michael Jordan.
Bryant, who entered the draft out of high school at the age of 17, was part of a draft class that was led by Allen Iverson (No. 1 overall) and Ray Allen (No. 5). But at the time, he wasn’t considered a top 10 pick and there was a lot of controversy about him possibly holding out if he wasn’t drafted by a preferable team.
One team that considered him in the top 10, the Nets, were reportedly warned to not draft him. The man running the Nets back then was John Calipari. Imagine Coach Cal losing out on that kind of a recruit!
The Nets opted for Kerry Kittles, instead.
One-by-one, teams passed on Kobe. Dallas took Samaki Walker, Indiana picked Erick Dampier, Golden State went with Todd Fuller and Cleveland selected Vitaly Potapenko.
Up next, the Charlotte Hornets, who had the 13th overall pick. They were going to take him, despite the warnings. Lakers GM Jerry West wanted him and worked out a deal with Charlotte GM Bob Bass to send the Hornets big man Vlade Divac in exchange for the pick.
Are you kidding?
Divac threatened to retire but relented and the trade was made. My friend Rick Bonnell, longtime Hornets beat writer for the Charlotte Observer, once asked Kobe what would have happened if Divac did, in fact, retire?
“I’d be a Hornet,” he replied, confirming the pre-draft warnings were all a bluff.
Now here’s another question worth asking, what if the Hornets opted to draft someone else or had a better offer? The Knicks that season had three first-round picks — No. 18, 19 and 20 — and could have offered Charlotte one or even two of those picks if they saw what Jerry West saw in Kobe.
Could you imagine?
Despite Kobe’s legendary success in 20 years with the Lakers, the Knicks and the potential to call the Garden home seemed to call to him.
After the first Lakers dynasty era ended, it felt like the team might be broken up in 2004. Bryant was set to become a free agent and at the time the Knicks were capped-out. Their only option was to offer a mid-level exception with the potential to then sign him to a max extension off of that deal.
It wasn’t much, but it was all they had. The Knicks made a pitch, but Kobe didn’t give it much of a thought and re-signed with the Lakers.
Three years later, however, Kobe seemed to have some regrets. The Lakers weren’t able to rebuild around him after they traded Shaq to the Heat, where he won a fourth ring with his new sidekick, Dwyane Wade. So he demanded a trade.
“I would like to be traded, yeah,” he told Stephen A. Smith on ESPN Radio in New York. “Tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there’s no other alternative.”
There was excitement in the Mecca of Basketball for a moment with the dream of acquiring the best player in the game. That was another brief flirtation, as the Lakers made it clear they had zero intentions of trading Kobe Bryant.
But the Knicks were ready to make a deal. Once again, I went back into my archives as a beat writer to find the story and had to laugh at this quote from then-GM Isiah Thomas.
“I would say for the hour he was available,” Thomas said, “we all had a scenario.”
It wasn’t yet over, however. Even in the latter stages of his career, Kobe kept New York as an option.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi recently revealed a conversation he had with Kobe when the star expressed concern that then-Lakers president Jim Buss wanted to use the amnesty clause to get out of Kobe’s contract.
Woj, like the rest of us, couldn’t believe the Lakers would do such a thing, but he says Kobe seemed convinced.
When asked what he’d do if that happened, Kobe replied:
“I’d go to New York and play for Phil [Jackson].”
It was never meant to be, but that didn’t stop a love affair to develop between a great basketball city and a great basketball player.
One last story: in the summer of 2002, after winning his third straight championship, Kobe arrived at Rucker Park and put on a show that became an instant legend.
He wasn’t Kobe that day, he was dubbed the “Lord of the Rings”.
So he was ours, for one day.