Among the other legends in the canon of the True NBA Greats, Kobe Bryant is most frequently compared to Michael Jordan, for a series of obvious reasons, including their styles of play, their high basketball IQs and their near pathological levels of competitiveness. But in terms of public perception, nearly as apt a comparison for Kobe would be Wilt Chamberlain. a fellow generation-best scorer whose brilliance was obvious, but who battled perennial accusations of being (at various stages of his career, and often all simultaneously) a bad teammate, a coach killer and a ballhog, someone whose need for individual validation often superseded their desire for team success. And of course, in the half-century since Wilt set an NBA record by scoring 100 in a game, Kobe is still the only one to even wave at Wilt’s triple digits, scoring 81 in a much-commemorated 2006 game.
That 100 is probably the number most associated with Wilt’s statistically overwhelming career, closely followed by 50, his points per game average for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962. But perhaps the third-most-definitive (though much less immediately recognizable) number of Wilt’s career was 702, the number of assists the Stilt accumulated in ’68 for the 76ers — best in the league that year by total number, though Oscar Robertson actually averaged about an assist-and-a-half more in 15 fewer games. To date, Wilt remains the only center in NBA league history to lead the league in total assists for a season.
The inflated assist total from a player who had never averaged more than five a game through his first seven NBA seasons did not come by accident. After winning a title with the Sixers in ’67, with head coach Alex Hannum and a trio of Hall of Fame teammates in Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer and Chet Walker, Wilt purposefully set to shed the idea that he was just a scorer, not a team player, and figured he could shed that label indisputably by leading the league in a statistical category synonymous with selflessness. He would succeed in the short term, though he ultimately failed to change public perception of him, as his assists-at-all-costs quest eventually came to be seen as just another act of box score narcissism from the Big Dipper.
Though the two situations are far from identical, I still couldn’t help but think of this chapter in Wilt’s controversial history while watching the last four games played by Kobe Bryant, in which the Black Mamba has adopted the role of point guard and playmaker in the Lakers offense, averaging 12 assists a game over that stretch, easily the richest period of diming in Kobe’s 17-season career. Not since Wilt’s calculated stat shift had a scorer on Kobe’s level (still netting nearly 30 a game) consciously and pointedly made the decision, late in their career, that they were now gonna be all about playmaking and distributing, with putting up points a secondary concern.
This is interesting with Kobe as it was with Wilt, because Bryant has always self-identified as a “scorer.” Increasingly rare in an era where the ideal model of a franchise player is LeBron James, an impossibly gifted shot-maker who nonetheless makes a point to be just as devastating as a creator for teammates, Kobe has never had any problem letting it be known that putting the ball in the basket is priority No. 1 for him. (“I eat first,” he once memorably said of the Lakers’ scoring hierarchy.) As a guard, Kobe is naturally more of a distributor than Wilt, but Bryant has also struggled on occasion with finding the balance between scoring for the team and scoring for his own sake. During his second set of title runs in the late 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon to see Kobe spend the first half of a game passing to a fault, belaboring the point that he was “trusting his teammates,” before starting to gun again in the second half, secure he’d done his share of good teamwork for the game.
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