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Former WJR personality Chuck Swirsky remembers Kobe Bryant's 81

By Phil Rosenthal
Chicago Tribune

It was a nothing Sunday night in Los Angeles. The 21-19 Lakers were playing the 14-26 Raptors. The only vaguely recognizable entertainment figure in the Staples Center crowd was comedian Andy Dick.

Calling the action for TV viewers back in Canada was Chuck Swirsky, who on Sunday night pulled up the video on YouTube from Jan. 22, 2006, poured himself a glass of wine and watched Kobe Bryant score 81 points all over again.

The Raptors' Matt Bonner can't stop the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant from getting to the basket in the first half of a 2006 game in which the Lakers star poured in 81 points.

Swirsky did play-by-play for Michigan basketball in the mid-1990s. He was also a sports director at WJR.

“It wasn’t the Prime Time Lakers,” recalled Swirsky, now the Bulls radio voice and, like everyone else, reeling from Bryant’s death at age 41 in a helicopter crash that claimed nine lives, including one of his four daughters. “This was a changing and evolving club. You had Kwame Brown and Smush Parker. You had Chris Mihm. Lamar Odom was probably still in his prime.

“The Raptors had a huge lead in the third quarter, squandered it and Kobe got it going. I mean, he got it going.”

On the video, analyst Leo Rautins warns that the Raptors need to do a better job of covering Bryant even as they push out to an early lead.

“He’s got 26,” Swirsky says in the waning seconds of the first half with the Raptors up 63-49, in no small measure thanks to 62% shooting. “I don’t care if he scores 66 as long as the Raptors win.”

The half ends with Lakers fans booing, and with the Raptors up by 18 inside of nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, Swirsky notes former Lakers greats James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are in attendance and probably disdainful of what they see.

Swirsky: “I wonder if they’re thinking this is a far cry from Showtime in the ‘80s.”

Rautins: “You can bet they’re thinking that. Those were some great Lakers teams.”

Swirsky: “This is almost like ‘Sesame Street.’ “

Bryant, who has 30 points to that point, punctuates Swirsky’s sentence with another bucket to cut the Lakers deficit to 16.

There are no Muppet references after that.

A Bryant dunk late in the third puts him at 51 points and the Lakers on top 87-85.

“Employee No. 8 has arrived for work,” Swirsky tells viewers, referring to Bryant’s jersey number.

The Raptors – Jalen Rose and Chris Bosh among them – become mere extras in a bravura performance. Bryant outscores their entire team in the second half 55-41.

With the Lakers up 117-102, 1:58 left to play and Bryant at 76 points, Swirsky speculates why Kobe is still in the game.

“I remember I told Leo, my color guy, the only reason why he’s on the floor is to get 80,” Swirsky said. “The crowd wanted 80. There’s a difference between seeing a 7 and an 8.”

As it turned out, Lakers coach Phil Jackson considered pulling Bryant short of 80 with the late lead, but assistant Frank Hamblen warned that it might incite the frenzied fans to riot.

Bryant recorded his final seven points on foul shots, finishing 18 of 20 from the line and 28 of 46 from the field, including 7 of 13 from 3-point range.

The final: Lakers 122, Raptors 104.

“It was jaw-dropping,” Swirsky said. “Once we got into the fourth quarter, I knew there was something special going on.”

In fact, on the video, Swirsky says he hopes some viewers in Canada are recording the game for its historic value. The YouTube clip is proof someone did.

“This was not just a routine game, and I just, I was in awe,” he said, looking back. “To this day, after 18 years of college basketball with DePaul and Michigan, and now in my 22nd year in the NBA, there isn’t any question it was the single most remarkable event I’ve ever seen and ever called.

“To see a man go one on five, and he did go one on five, whether it was Bosh, Jalen Rose, Matt Bonner, Charlie Villanueva, Joey Graham, Mo Peterson, Mike James – I can go right down the list – and he just chewed them up, and that was that.”

When Swirsky heard of Sunday’s fatal accident, however, the 81-point game was not the first thing that came to mind.

Rather, he said, it was the memory of Bryant and daughter Gianna sitting courtside at a Nets-Hawks game in December in Brooklyn, interacting like any other father and child. And then there were the other victims to consider.

“I’m thinking there were a lot of people affected by this tragedy, and it’s unbelievable,” Swirsky said.

Bulls TV play-by-play man Neil Funk, fighting a flu bug, attempted to put Bryant’s basketball legacy in perspective. The greatest players own their eras in the game – with only their first names attached.

“I always look at whose era was it,” Funk said. “Magic and Larry, then Michael, then Kobe, then LeBron,” Funk said, adding he would “just marvel at (Bryant’s) level of play for so long.”

Swirsky said one of the reasons Bryant resonated with so many fans is that his 20-year career straddled generations.

“If you are a 15-year-old kid, you grew up in the last stage of Kobe’s career, and if you are 30, you watched him from day one,” Swirsky said. “If you are in the Baby Boomer generation like myself, you had the chance to see (and compare him with) different eras.”

Bryant’s passion was always evident.

“If you saw a tape of Kobe Bryant, you would never know it was Game 22 on a Tuesday night in Cleveland or Game 3 of an NBA Final,” Swirsky said. “I mean, he never coasted. He never failed to hustle back on defense. He never just stood around. He was into every play of every game. Load management? There was no such thing.”

So, as he looked back at Game 41 of an NBA season 14 years ago, when Bryant summoned all he had to rally the Lakers past the Raptors, Swirsky raised a glass in salute.

“Kobe left an indelible mark,” he said.