Sports might be numbers under spells. Recently, Kobe Bryant watched the tape of a game he played in January, 2006 against a Toronto Raptors team that was 12 games under .500 at tipoff. Kobe tweeted his thoughts as he proceeded through this bizarre exercise in self-reflection, and at one point he mentioned having felt goose bumps. Goose bumps with two minutes to go in a meaningless game against a terrible team. He scored 81 points, and it could have been more. Kobe played just 42 minutes. Smush Parker took 11 shots, all of which probably could have been Kobe’s. In the tweets, Kobe mentions missing easy shots he could have made, and jokes that at one point he was so hot he wouldn’t have “passed a kidney stone.”
81 is big history, and invites critique. You can’t hand check anymore, and in the old days there was no 3-point line. On the other hand defenses are more sophisticated nowadays. Okay, okay, but 81 is 81, solid and bright. The other night, Kevin Durant put up an effortless 52, and he wasn’t even really shooting that well, and my thoughts just kept going 81, 81, 81. What could you do if, for a moment, everything went right, and you were wired like Kobe is wired? Some numbers have gravity. They are magical. I say 81, and you know what I’m talking about. When I see “33” someplace, I think about Bird, but maybe you think about Abdul-Jabbar. If you are a kid, 23 must mean LeBron now, not Michael. You shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3, and 90 percent from the line, and it matters, and if you miss those numbers even by a little, then it’s just different, even if it’s really not. Streaks gain importance as they travel, but when they started, they were nothing much. Some numbers you just sort of ignore. They are impossible. Russell’s 11 rings. Wilt’s 50.4 per game.
I was at game seven of Celtics/Cavs in 2008 when Pierce and LeBron each went for 40+. As they approached the 40 threshold, all this history started piling up. I thought about Bird/Dominique, of course: a duel was happening. It felt like it was about numbers: 40 and (game) seven. Then this happened. Posey and Z go up for the jump ball, Posey gets none of it, and — I’ll try to put this simply — Pierce beats LeBron to the ball. It’s a simple, simple effort play. Pierce reacted quicker and wanted it more. I hate when people say “wanted it more” in sports, because it’s total bullshit almost all the time, but in this instance, I will go to my grave believing it. This moment exists outside of numbers, but it also doesn’t: it was game seven, and if Pierce put up 39 instead of 41 the game would just feel different in retrospect. It’s the best play I’ve ever seen a player make, given the stakes and the time and the score and the opponent and the fact that possession was undecided. And the fact that I was there.
It was boring reading Kobe’s thoughts on 81 because there isn’t anything to say, but I like how the numbers built up and made a mundane Lakers/Raptors game in the middle of the season weirder. There’s no accounting for the goose bumps, save 81.
One more thing about this. When I was a little kid, I got to go to this game, and Reggie Lewis was amazing, and I loved him, and even though I can’t actually remember a single thing about the game itself, I remember the final score, and I remember that Reggie had 28 in the first half. And that number felt gigantic and important, like seeing a comet, and now he’s gone. There probably aren’t five other people in the whole world who hear “28” and immediately think of Reggie’s first half in a closeout game in Market Square Arena in 1992, but I do, and I don’t know what that means. Not even a little.