by Russ Bengtson

Kid Rock got a banner hung in his honor the other day. It happened in Detroit—Bob Ritchie’s stomping grounds since conception. The number on the banner was 18, representing each of his Palace sellout shows. Bruce Springsteen has a similar banner hanging in New Jersey. Presumably other artists have other banners in other arenas. What I’m saying is this is not unique.

You may wonder why, the night after Kobe Bryant scored a building-record 61 in Madison Square Garden, I’m blathering on about Kid Rock and banners. The reason is this: Last night was Kobe Bryant’s 12th Madison Garden sellout.

A dozen games.

That’s all.

The finest player of his generation (presuming that LeBron belongs to the next generation, neatly sidestepping THAT argument) putting on a virtuoso performance in the last building from previous generations. The only survivor of the old NBA, when men were men and those men had to get real jobs after they retired. Boston Garden is gone. Chicago Stadium is rubble. The Fabulous Forum, not so much. Yet Madison Square Garden endures, the World’s Most Famous Arena: a cramped, smelly, outdated, and absolutely glorious place. The best place to watch basketball on the face of the earth. And last night, the finest player of his generation making his annual appearance. His 12th ever. Not a great business model, but it does wonders for mythmaking. And Kobe played his part.

There has already been speculation whether this scoring outburst was good for the Lakers. Whether he will ever soar to such heights again (and, if so, whether it will decimate the Lakers and possibly tear a hole in the very reality of time and space). To all of this I say: who cares? Were you watching? Sometimes you have to live in the moment, cherish what’s happening, stop yourself from turning everything immediately into a “what if?” If Wilt Chamberlain had scored his 100 in this time of blogging and instant media, someone would have written a column asking a) Was this good for the Lakers?, and b) 100 was nice and all, but when will he score 120?

You get tired of it all after a while, don’t you? The constant quest for what’s next. Let me tell you something, there will ALWAYS be a what’s next. That doesn’t change. Sometimes you need to sit back and appreciate what is.

A dozen games.

That’s all.

Barring a severe shift in the Knicks postseason fortunes—or a re-location about as likely as the Pope shifting his base of operations to Bangkok—it’s likely that Kobe will only play at Madison Square Garden five or six more times. Ever. Which means he’ll have played at the Garden roughly as many times as Kid Rock sold out the Palace. The virtuoso on the world’s biggest stage.

That is why last night was unique. That is what made it special. Yes, Michael Jordan owned the Garden, did everything but paint its ceilings like Michelangelo. But he came twice a year, then again for the inevitable playoff stretch. He was something of a regular visitor. LeBron? Twice a year as well, and then there’s the summer of 2010, when they’ll change the name of Central Park and offer him the Empire State Building to have him play 41 home games there. And they’ll no doubt remodel the old dump to create the proper setting for their zillion-carat jewel. Changing everything. Destroying those last links to the past.

So, last night. Nineteen of thirty-one from the floor. A perfect twenty of twenty from the free-throw line. An utterly inexplicable zero rebounds (the flaw, perhaps, to make the other facets shine all the brighter). Sixty-one points. A gift. To the people of New York, to the creaky old arena, to the game of basketball, to me.

I’ll take it. No questions asked.

Pregame

The locker rooms are, not surprisingly, somewhat empty. Lamar Odom answers the usual questions about coming back to New York, Andrew Bynum answers the (unfortunately now) usual questions about his blowed-up knee. A pair of Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, as ubiquitous in NBA locker rooms as Gatorade and Secret antiperspirant, rest on his head. He holds a single Farmar-tall aluminum crutch. Over to one side, Masheen answers questions about, I don’t know, pierogis and snow.

Chris Jackson sings the national anthem. To some of you, the preceding sentence will be the funniest thing you read in this entire recap. You guys are old.

The Knicks pre-game historical highlight reel has been shelved—perhaps in order to find some Bernard King clips—in favor of a Successories-like string of quotes from, well, Mike D’Antoni, mostly. And this one, from David Lee: “Whatever it takes for this team to win is what I’m going to do.” Inspiring stuff right there.

There are smoke machines behind the basket that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before and the PA blares what seems to be an endless loop of The Scorpions’s “Rock You Like A Hurricane” and I’m looking over my shoulder for Satan who must be around here somewhere.

An aside—Khalid and I are in the upper press box, which is right at halfcourt, only 7,000 rows up. Which means we’re right in front of the drunkest, rowdiest fans. I half expect to have a beer poured down my back before introductions. There’s also a small, but very vocal contingent of Spanish fans. Five guys. I know this because they’re wrapped in the Spanish flag. At some point, a paragon of virtue and right will yell “SHUT UP! THIS AIN’T A SOCCER GAME!!!” America the beautiful. Her amber waves of barley and Cascade hops.

It strikes me that this game is almost exactly like the ’73 Finals—only the uniforms and the players inside them have changed.

First quarter

David Lee has two points and two rebounds while other starters are still looking for guys on the other team to hug.

Kobe Bryant, from 20. The cheers start almost immediately. Seriously? In New York? I thought fans at MSG were supposed to RESPECT the opponent, not cheer him on.

Kobe Bryant, for three. It’s going to be that kind of night. You can’t see his face from Section 78347563923, but it’s obvious he’s not looking to pass. People in space could see that.

Lee badly misses an 18-footer. The difference between last year and this year is that last year he wouldn’t have even THOUGHT of taking that shot.

Kobe, again. Seven points.

Jared Jeffries knocks down a 19-foot (or 20-foot, if you believe the official scorer) jumper, a miracle that might just fast-track him for sainthood.

Kobe heads to the line for the first time to the chants of “MVP!” Again, I wonder where the f*ck I am. And, if I’m in Los Angeles, where the closest In N’ Out Burger is.

David Lee runs the screen and roll to perfection, right up to the point where he gets swatted by Lamar Odom. Funny, Stockton-to-Malone never included that part.

Kobe has 13 points. Yes, already.

On the scoreboard, they announce David Lee as the Eastern Conference Player of the Week. He’s just averaged 19 points and 15.8 rebounds for the last three games, all wins. The response is…underwhelming.

Jared Jeffries knocks down a 20-foot (or 23-foot, if you believe the official scorer) jumper, a miracle that when combined with the first actually gives him a slight lead over Jesus for Eastern Conference Deity of the Week.

A Duhon drive pulls Odom away from Lee, who dunks with both hands and thrusts his chest out a wee bit dramatically. You can probably find the highlight on “Animal Planet.”

Parting of the seas.Pau Gasol comes back and scores over Lee, which prompts a long-suffering Knicks fan right behind us in Section 4325563672356 to yell “GO BACK TO YUGOSLAVIA!!!!” We in the press section all think this is the funniest thing we’ve heard in a long time and turn to ask who said it. The guy grumpily says that he knows Pau’s from Spain. We know too—it’s what made it so funny. Hopefully he yells for Kobe to go back to France next.

Gasol again, ahead of the pack—well, in the pack, actually, only the pack consists of Duhon and Nate Robinson and other relative Liliputians. And again, baseline, fouled by Lee.

Nate throws an entry pass, presumably intended for Lee, that misses everyone on the court by at least 20 feet. This may seem impossible, given the dimensions of an NBA basketball court, but it still happens.

Enter Danilo Gallinari and Tim Thomas. Kobe again steps to the free-throw line, MVP chants ringing in his ears.

Nate layup, Nate steal, Nate laid out. He’s a human Pop Rock.

Wilson Chandler hits a three to cut the Laker lead to two. No one chants “MVP” at him. Kobe comes right back with a three of his own over a decidedly overmatched David Lee. That’s 18.

And with the quarter winding down, Kobe holds the ball up top, isoed with Chandler. The clock ticks, Kobe drives, and he’s blocked cleanly by Chandler to end the quarter. Picture-perfect defense. The Lakers lead 31-26 after 1, and Kobe and Pau have 30.

Second quarter

I look up, and Nate Robinson is rolling down the lane with the ball clutched to his chest. Unless there have been some major rules changes, this is either a trip or a travel. It’s the pick and drop, stop and roll.

Al Harrington, quiet to this point, hits his first basket of the night and gets the inevitable snippet of “You Can Call Me Al.” And Danilo Gallinari complained about HIS music?

It’s a one-point game until Trevor Ariza throws down a predictably spectacular dunk and it isn’t.

Jordan Farmar buries a three and Pau gets an easy dunk off Masheen pass. They should both go back to Yugoslavia.

You could tell this was a Laker game simply by looking at the photographer’s celebrity cheat sheet. There are more celebrities at the game than there are players. (That is, if you count NHL players as celebrities—a point which is hotly contested.) Whoopi Goldberg is in the house, as are Cheech & Chong. And Spike Lee is in his customary seat, wearing an enormous white Dave Debusschere throwback jersey. Funny, I thought those went extinct five years ago.

Trevor Ariza uses a simple spin move to dunk the hell out of the ball.

You’ll notice a certain absence over the past couple of sentences and that’s because, yes, Kobe Bryant is on the bench. A Gallo triple cuts the Laker lead to three with 7:25 to go, though, and he’s right back in there. Almost immediately he’s fouled on the floor by Tim Thomas. He shoots it anyway and it goes in. It’s that kind of night. Chris Duhon checks in for Nate, and Kobe drills a three over Wilson Chandler. That’s 21.

Kobe catches in the corner, uses Josh Powell as a moving screen twice, shoots a 20-footer over Chandler. Whap. 23 points. That’s um, five in 11 seconds.

David Lee checks in for Jared Jeffries. As if that matters.

Kobe holds. Kobe shoots. Kobe has 25.

Kobe leaks out on the break. Kobe dunks. Kobe has 27.

Another spontaneous MVP chant breaks out.

Jared Jeffries gets fouled, converts the layup. If he hits the free throw, the world might end.

Still here.

Kobe finds Lamar Odom underneath with a bullet pass. Dunk. 51-44, Lakers.

Derek Fisher, who’s done bunches of nothing up to this point, falls down near Al Harrington. Foul, Al Harrington. Um, I guess?

Kobe, double-clutch, of course. That’s 29, and I really wish I could hear Marv Albert calling this game.

Pau follows that with a dunk, Lakers by 11 with 3:04 to go in the half.

Kobe misses a three out of a time out. We’re all surprised. Nate hits a runner, Luke Walton gets fouled, Wilson Chandler gets blocked, Kobe gets another runout dunk. That’s 31.

He misses an open shot, but gets an and-1 off a Nate foul, up to 34. Again, isoed with Chandler at the end of the quarter, is forced into a tough baseline fallaway, not blocked but misses. Lakers up 65-54 at the half, Kobe with 34.

Third quarter

Al Harrington for three over Lamar Odom. Just some tall tri-state boys made good. Again. Harrington with a steal, fouled by Odom. That’s a clear-path foul, which means two shots and the ball. Lee scores on the inevitable screen-roll, and the Laker lead is cut to four, 65-61.

Lamar gets a dunk from Pau, Jeffries catches an alley-oop from Quentin Richardson, Al Harrington comes back and bangs one in from the corner. Two point game, 10 minutes to go in the third.

Kobe’s first shot of the third quarter comes with 8:35 to go. He misses.

David Lee hits a pair of free throws, Kobe responds with a floater past Jeffries. That’s 36.

You know the term “bad pass turnover”? Jared Jeffries singlehandedly makes it necessary to insert “bad catch turnover” into the lexicon. Actually, he does it with two hands, too.

Kobe hits over Lee (38) who comes right back with a big ol’ dunk straight down the gut. Derek Fisher splashes in a corner three, and Al Harrington drives through four seemingly disinterested Lakers for a layup.

Kobe, fouled. Kobe, lauded with more MVP chants. Kobe, with 40 at the 5:32 mark in the third. Kobe, pretty good at basketball.

OK, it’s getting silly. Splits the double team, slashes across the lane, fires up a line-drive J while floating. Who? Right. That’s 42.

Rooster doesn't stand a chance.David Lee would like you to know he has 15 and nine.

Al Harrington goes glass, and Kobe goes up to swat it. Um, that’s a goaltend on any level there, Kob. Also, maybe get a rebound tonight.

Free throws get the total to 44. Time passes. Kobe goes glass, Gasol catches a putback dunk, Farmar buries a three. Kobe fouls Chandler on the drive—his first foul—and he’s pulled lest he commit five more in the next 40.3 seconds. At the end of three it’s Lakers 96, Knicks 86, Kobe Bryant 46.

Fourth quarter

Trevor Ariza makes it a 12-point Laker lead, and maybe this is one of those games where Kobe isn’t needed in the fourth quarter.

A Tim Thomas corner three gets it back to 10 with 8:19 to go. Pau Gasol dunks on Danilo Gallinari. That’s 31 and 13 for Pau. You get the feeling the Lakers would miss Andrew Bynum more if they didn’t already have an All-Star center.

Kobe’s back at 7:51 and waits for roughly three seconds before scoring his 48th point.

(It’s at this point where I run out of notebook and start writing on the back cover.)

Kobe misses a jumper over a double team, then misses again the next time down. Third time’s a charm as he’s fouled, hits both. That’s 50 with 6:04 to go. Next time down, same thing, and the Knicks are over the limit with 5:42 to go. With proper clock and possession management, he could catch Wilt.

The game gets sloppy. Turnovers, offensive fouls, travels, terrible passes. A Lamar Odom pass actually goes directly to Spike Lee, who theatrically runs out of the way. He should consider acting.

Kobe draws a foul on Chandler while hoisting a three, and breaks the speed limit with 3:56 to go. His 57 points is a new Garden record for an opponent.

Tim Thomas comes back with a meaningless corner triple, and Kobe spins around Chandler for points number 58 and 59. Chris Duhon hits a three, as does Trevor Ariza. Kobe is fouled attempting a 360 layup, and goes to the line with the chance to break the all-time Garden scoring record of 60.

But wait, first we need to have a time out so people can shoot cheap little balls into the crowd. You know, because there’s nothing going on to hold their interest otherwise.

OK, we’re back. And that’s 60 and 61. There’s still 2:30 to go.

Other things happen. Misses, mostly. And Kobe’s pulled with 1:48 to go. He gets a standing ovation and more MVP chants. Acknowledges the crowd. It’s a masterful performance, yet you can’t help but wonder why everyone’s so accommodating. This is New York, right?

Everyone leaves.

Holy hell, Sun Yue is in the game. He and Kobe combine for 61 points. Final score, Lakers 126, Knicks 117.

Postgame

This is where I make mistakes. I don’t get in either locker room, for starters. This is because I patiently sit in the interview room, listening to Phil Jackson and then waiting for Kobe. Not realizing that I could watch this stuff on MSG when I get home. In between the two, as I realize the scope of my error, I hear another reporter talk about how Nate said he just turned into a fan after a while, watching Kobe launch shots off the wrong foot while spinning the wrong way. I am Jack’s shame.

But since we’re here.

Phil Jackson: “Well, this is all about Kobe tonight, other than the fact that we won. He came out on fire and finished the same way.”

The tone is proper. Yet he still brings up Game Six against Boston almost immediately. The fact that Kobe started hot in that game as well. Before the roof caved in. This night was different. “His mood was very determined, very somber.” He mentions when he tried to take him out with 43 seconds to go in the third, to get him a few extra minutes of rest, he didn’t want to come out.

Someone inevitably asks about the Jordan double-nickel comeback game, the record eclipsed. Jackson says that Jordan wasn’t totally himself as a player yet, how he just stuck him in the post, how he’s not even sure whether Michael hit any 3s.

I looked it up. He went three of four.

Jackson says they were both remarkable performances. This, I can agree with.

He expresses surprise over the pro-Kobe crowd. The MVP chants. “His popularity has grown, no doubt about it.”

Jackson leaves, media in his wake. This is where the main mistake is made. I wait. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. When Kobe finally arrives, the rest of the media in tow, I realize I could have talked to any number of players. Too late now. You’d think I’d never done this before.

Preface: “It’s a blessing to do what you love and have moments like this.” Truth.

Many of his quotes are elsewhere. You’ve probably already read them. About how he was inspired in part by Bynum’s injury, in part by old chatter between himself and D’Antoni, in part because he’s editing a documentary with Spike Lee and wanted no part of any gloating. He expresses love for D’Antoni, love for the Garden, love for the crowd.

Someone asks him about his first-ever game at the Garden. “I sucked,” he says flatly. Laughter all around. “I remember coming in here 80 pounds soaking wet, having to guard John Wallace.”

I don’t remember this, so I look it up. Nov. 5, 1996. Kobe Bryant’s second-ever NBA game. He plays three minutes, takes one shot, scores 1 point. Wallace had 12 points. There have been 11 more such games since. This one, everyone will remember.