NEW ORLEANS — Kobe Bryant grinned and uttered the word “irony” as he considered the fact that the team that drafted him nearly 17 years ago was his opponent on the night he eclipsed a scoring milestone to join an exclusive club of NBA greats.
It’s easy to forget that it was the Hornets who drafted and then traded Bryant away back in 1996.
In the years since, the Hornets have changed cities, from Charlotte to New Orleans, and Bryant has become one of five players in NBA history to score 30,000 points, surpassing the mark with a 29-point performance that helped the Lakers to a 103-87 triumph Wednesday night.
“It’s funny how sports always seems to kind of have that connectivity, in some shape, form or fashion,” Bryant said. “It just always seems to come full circle.”
Bryant entered the game needing 13 points to make history and no one doubted he would get it. NBA Commissioner David Stern, who happened to be making a scheduled visit with new Hornets owner Tom Benson, offered Bryant a congratulatory hand shake before tip-off.
Bryant had 17 points by halftime, eclipsing the 30,000-mark with a short jumper in the paint over Robin Lopez late in the first half. That might have been the least spectacular of his baskets, which included the usual array of soaring dunks, demoralizing transition 3-pointers and twisting, off-balance jumpers.
The only other players to score more than 30,000 are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Bryant said. “These are players I respect tremendously and obviously grew up idolizing and watching and learned a great deal from.”
When Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni was asked before tipoff about Bryant’s impending milestone, the coach joked, “That just means he is old.”
In fact, at 34, Bryant is younger than the other four were when they hit the mark, but Bryant also turned pro at 18, and is in his 17th season.
“Honestly, I don’t know why I’m still working as hard as I am after 17 years,” Bryant said. “That’s the thing that I’m most proud of — every year, every day working hard at it. It’s a lot of years, a lot of work.”
The Hornets led from early in the first quarter until halftime, but Bryant helped the Lakers trim their deficit after that, hitting five free throws and his milestone on 3-foot jumper in the last 2:15 of the second quarter.
Jamison opened the third-quarter onslaught with 3, Howard followed with a fast-break layup and Bryant had two straight fast-break dunks, one of which he created with a steal. Howard finished the surge with a layup.
“I just didn’t think our defense was there, especially that first five or six minutes of the third quarter,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. “Our defense was really poor, and we can’t afford those lapses.”
After the game, Bryant sat in his locker, reflecting on the elite company he now keeps in NBA history, and the things he sees in younger, prolific scoring stars like Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, whom the Lakers will face on Friday night, and who could very well join the 30,000-point club at the rate he’s going.
One common characteristic, Bryant said, is an apparent immunity to both pressure and criticism.
“Scorers kind of have a fighter-pilot mentality. We’re a different breed,” he said. “But there are different positions. We scored in a myriad of ways. We all went about it differently in different situations. It’s fun to see.”