In February 2016, Kobe Bryant. "If I don't ever see him again, it will be too soon," the then-Minnesota Timberwolves coach joked to reporters. Bryant had just scored 38 points at 37 years old against the Wolves, and the Los Angeles Lakers left Staples Center with a 119-115 win.
This was, of course, not the first time Mitchell had found himself on the wrong end of a Bryant scoring explosion in that arena. On Jan. 22, 2006, Bryant scored 81 points against Mitchell's Toronto Raptors, a masterpiece of a performance that might be even more impressive than Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.
Bryant's No. 8 and No. 24 jerseys will be retired on Monday during halftime of the Lakers' game against the Golden State Warriors ( ). Days before this, Mitchell, now an NBA TV analyst, talked to CBS Sports about that unforgettable night and what made Bryant so special.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
It's almost 12 years now since the 81-point game. When you think about that night, what comes to mind?
Sam Mitchell: It was Kobe Bryant. I mean we're talking about one of the greatest players to play that had an unbelievable night. And the fact that -- I say this all the time -- it's a thin line between when people's perception of you is greatness and selfishness. If he scored 81 and we win the game, what would you guys in the media have been saying? "He's selfish," right? OK. See, but we were winning the game going into the fourth quarter. So that's just how it is. That's just life. That's how people look at things.
It's always funny to me 'cause I look at the other side, if we win the game. Because it's not like we got beat by 30. We were winning the game. My thought process during that was one, how can we slow him down?, and two, we can still win the game. As great a game as he was having, I thought we had just as good a chance to win the game. We were winning. So, you know, you're trying to stop him because if you can stop him, it increases your chance to win. But also, you're saying even if we don't stop him, we can still win this game.
A lot of the people involved have since talked about that game -- ESPN ran an oral history for the 10th anniversary. Do you think there are any misconceptions about that night and what happened?
SM: First of all, I don't read the stuff that all these people talk about. I coached the game. I know everything I did. Now, I'm not going to argue or debate with any players that played in that game about what happened, but I think -- because I was coaching the game, and I was calling the defense and switching the defense, and I know we played box and 1, I know we played triangle and two, we played zone -- we tried everything and everybody got a chance to guard him. But again, with all that being said, my No. 1 thing was to win that basketball game. We had a chance to beat the Lakers in L.A. That don't happen too often. So the No. 1 thing in my mind was win the game.
Kobe said this to me years later. He said, "Coach, for us to win that game, I had to get 81. It was just one of those nights. There was nothing you could do to stop me that night." I said, "Kobe, I know that. 'Cause we tried." And the thing about it, the game doesn't bother me like people would think because we had a chance to win and I felt like my players played hard. But it was one of those unbelievable moments that great players have. And unfortunately, or fortunately, he had it against us. It was going to happen to someone. It just depends on how you look at it.
When did that conversation happen?
SM: It was just in passing. I think I was doing something for SiriusXM radio and he was doing the radio walk, stopping and doing interviews, and he stopped. It was just on the side, it may have been 45 seconds. But I've never made that big a deal out of it because it's Kobe Bryant. I mean, it's Kobe Bryant. If it was Sam Mitchell who scored 81 points against my team, OK. You know what I mean? That's Sam Mitchell. But, dude, it's Kobe Bryant. It would be no different if it was Michael Jordan, if it was Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. All those great players, that's why they're great. Because they can do that.
I know mentally, as a coach, I employed everything I knew how to do. I never had a doubt that the players competed and played hard. And so, how am I supposed to feel? What am I supposed to be angry at? A great player had a great game, an unbelievable game, and it just happened to be against a team that I coached. And personally, I like Kobe. I'm a Kobe fan.
What is your relationship like with Kobe?
SM: Oh, I love him. Dude, how could you not love a guy that competes that way? That plays both ends of the floor. That was a champion. And he wasn't an asshole about it. I like him. I mean, you know, we as coaches, we compete, but we like players. We respect what they do.
You've been around other Hall of Famers, you've coached against other Hall of Famers. What makes Kobe unique as a competitor?
SM: All of 'em got this one thing, man. Again, it's that line, that razor line between selfishness and greatness. Think about it. Allen Iverson is great, right? But how many times was he considered selfish? But he's in the Hall of Famer as a great player, right? Is anyone going to say he was selfish?
Not at his Hall of Fame induction, no.
SM: But when you think of Allen Iverson, that's not the first thing that comes to your mind. He was selfish? The first thing that comes to your mind is "oh my God, that dude competed, he was unbelievable for his size." Now if you broke his game down, then you may get to that. There were times, yeah. But your initial thought is going to be nothing like that. So that's what all those Hall of Famers have. Think about it. All of us who played in the NBA were talented, right? What separates Sam Mitchell? If I could run, jump as high as anyone, what separates me from being a Hall of Famer and just another player? Am I willing to take the criticism of what it takes to be great?
So you're saying in Kobe, you see someone who heard people calling him selfish all along.
SM: Let's go back to all great players. Michael Jordan, first four or five years of his career, what did people say about Michael Jordan? "Selfish," am I right? "Can't win with him," right? But now, do you ever hear people say that about Michael Jordan now? No! OK, so think about it. That's what people used to say.
You had another Kobe experience in his final season. What was it like to see him catch fire like that one more time?
SM: Man, those old lions, they go down hard. They go out with their boots on. That's why you have to respect them so. Even at the end, he found that night, like the last game of his career, look how he went out. Like an old gunslinger, dude. They die with their boots on.
No one will ever have a final game like that again.
SM: No one ever. He had what, 60? Now think about that. That's what I think about them guys. That's why they're so great. That's why you have to respect them.
Any memories of going up against him as a player?
SM: Absolutely. You knew you had to bring it. But this is the thing also that you respect about great players. They get your best every night. Kobe Bryant got his opponent's best every night because he's playing against Kobe Bryant. He couldn't take a night off. If he took a play off and a guy did an unbelievable move, it led "SportsCenter," right? OK, so think about that, now think about the commitment to being great that every night -- 82 nights a year, plus playoffs -- that, every guy he played against, he went to bed thinking about, "I gotta bring my best effort tomorrow against Kobe Bryant." Think about that, what it takes to get up, to answer that challenge every day. How could you not respect him?
SM: Let me ask you a question: Every day that you go to work, do you bring it 100 percent?
I try to.
SM: Yeah, but you don't. Most people don't. Those guys do. That's why they're special.
Kobe's going to get his jerseys retired on Monday against the Warriors. When you see that happen, what do you think will go through your mind?
SM: Just appreciation of a great player. You know, when he gets his jersey retired and when he goes into the Hall of Fame, I'm thankful to have played and coached in his era and had a chance to say to people, "I played against Kobe Bryant." I love saying to people, "I played against Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird." So he's one of those guys that you say, "I played against Kobe Bryant." It's special to be a part of that.
Do you sort of feel that way about the 81-point game now? Can you step back and say you were frustrated at the time but you were a part of it?
SM: Listen, I'm not jumping up and down with pom-poms about the 81, you know what I mean? But it is what it is. You know what I'm saying? There's nothing I can do about it, so I don't stay up at night. If I had my druthers, would I have rather he scored 81 against someone else? Yeah. But, you know, it is what it is. It was Kobe Bryant.