|'I just want No. 6,' Bryant said, which would equal none other than Michael Jordan. (US Presswire)|
PHILADELPHIA -- The first basket spun around the rim at least four times and dropped in, and the one that pushed him past his former teammate and nemesis was just a smooth Kobe Bryant jumper, the kind that he launches with so much grace and control even as he uncoils like a vicious cobra.
It was 24 points for No. 24 Monday night with 5:08 left in the second quarter of a game in his hometown, the place where his basketball instincts were taught. It was good for fifth in the history of the NBA, 28,597 points over 980 games spanning 16 years.
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One more championship than Shaquille O'Neal, and at that moment, one more point, too.
"To say it's a huge honor would be an understatement," Bryant said in the visiting locker room after a bittersweet, record-breaking night that saw the Lakers crumble in the final minutes and lose 95-90 to the 76ers. "That's a lot of basketball. I've been very, very fortunate."
And very, very good.
With all the significance that goes with passing O'Neal, with whom he won championships and feuded so famously, the next name on the list actually is the big one. That would be Wilton Norman Chamberlain, a fellow Philadelphian whose stature and career Bryant had marveled at as a Philadelphia kid way back when.
Chamberlain and then the great Michael Jordan, both of them within reach for Bryant now, in what he has become willing to acknowledge is the twilight of a great career.
"I don't have many more of these games left," Bryant said.
If his body keeps responding to the relentless demands of his mind, there will be enough left to put a forever stamp on his greatness. Remarkably, the cocky kid with the Afro who introduced himself to the basketball world at All-Star weekend in 1997 -- when Chamberlain, Jordan and the rest of the 50 greatest players in NBA history were honored -- is within striking distance of passing both of them.
If Bryant maintains the pace he's been on for his past 500 games -- 29 points a game -- he'd pass Chamberlain in game 56 next season. He'd pass Jordan in the fourth game of the following season, at age 35. Even if his production dropped, which you'd expect, it's still doable. But neither accomplishment is what Bryant wants.
"I just want No. 6 man," Bryant said, and you knew he was talking about rings now, not milestones. "I'm not asking too much. Just get me that sixth one, damn it."
And that's where Bryant's journey, which began as a sixth-grader in Philadelphia's famous Sonny Hill League, gets complicated. The Lakers are 14-11. Pau Gasol is struggling and admitted Monday night he's preoccupied with the possibility of being traded. Metta World Peace may be experiencing that personally, but not on the court. With a new coach, new systems at both ends of the floor and no young legs to complement Bryant's scoring, the Lakers fell to 3-9 on the road Monday night.
"The dust hasn't quite settled with this group yet," Bryant said.
Bryant had 24 in the first half, but only four in the second -- and two in the fourth on 1-for-10 shooting, while the Sixers' Lou Williams ran the Lakers ragged with 14 points in the quarter. The Sixers (18-7), asserting themselves as elite by beating the elite and the formerly elite, finished the game on a 14-2 run while the Lakers ran out of gas -- and ball movement, patience and everything else that had helped them build a seven-point lead early in the fourth.
"They made shot after shot after shot," said Gasol (5-for-14), who did not.
And when things go poorly for the Lakers, when their flaws are laid bare, Gasol alluded to the specter of big changes coming if things don't turn around. Gasol had almost been shipped to Houston in the ill-fated Chris Paul trade, and could find no reason to attest that he won't be traded again.
"That might occur regardless," Gasol said. "That's out of my control. But there's always a sense that if something was going to happen before, it might still happen. We won't know until the [trade] deadline."
Bryant, seeking that sixth title to equal Jordan, needs to know, too. He needs to know if he can get there with this team or not. He's been patient, has embraced coach Mike Brown and his philosophy and knows the merciless schedule has made it too early for broad pronouncements.
But clearly, that time will come.
"Obviously, losing doesn't have a positive effect on a team like this, with players who've had so much success," Gasol said.
For one night, in the city where he learned all his best basketball tricks, Bryant was left to enjoy a personal accomplishment and walk off the floor in defeat. The crowd that always boos him -- they boo everyone in Philadelphia, but especially Bryant -- acknowledged his accomplishment. Doug Collins, the Sixers' coach, promptly called a timeout to give Bryant his moment.
"I thought it was pretty cool," Bryant said.
I asked him if he'd seen Shaq's tweet after the game, and Bryant the Luddite said, "I don't even know how that stuff works." So I said Shaq had congratulated Bryant for passing him, and for being "the greatest Laker ever."
"I appreciate it," Bryant said. "I'm sure Shaq and I will connect at some point and revisit history."
Whether they will connect with the left or the right, we'll have to wait and see.
"We had some good times, man," Bryant said. "We had some good times. So thank you."