MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Kobe Bryant has reached rarefied air.
The Los Angeles Lakers star passed Michael Jordan for third on the NBA’s career scoring list Sunday night.
Bryant entered the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves needing nine points to pass the icon with whom he is often compared. He got the mark with two free throws with 5:24 to play in the second quarter.
Now only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone have scored more points than Bryant.
“I congratulate Kobe on reaching this milestone,” Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, said in a statement released to The Associated Press. “He’s obviously a great player, with a strong work ethic and has an equally strong passion for the game of basketball. I’ve enjoyed watching his game evolve over the years, and I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes next.”
Bryant didn’t break a record Sunday night. Abdul-Jabbar is still more than 6,000 points ahead of him and in no danger of being caught. But moving past Jordan was cause for celebration.
The two players have been linked for years and Bryant often mimicked Jordan from his earliest days in the league, from the way he pumped his fist after big shots to adopting the fade-away jumper as his career has progressed and even sprinkling in a little tongue-wagging on his drives to the bucket as a youth.
The Timberwolves stopped the game, and a Lakers-heavy crowd gave Bryant a standing ovation as Wolves owner Glen Taylor — the NBA’s chairman of the board — presented him with the game ball.
With a big smile on his face, Bryant received hugs from teammates and the Timberwolves, and waved to the crowd during the brief stoppage.
Bryant has been chasing Jordan for almost two decades now. He’s still one title short of the six Jordan won with the Bulls, but has now caught Jordan in the game’s defining individual statistic.
Bryant had 32,284 points when he took the floor against a Timberwolves team that includes 19-year-old rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, two players who were barely born when Bryant made his NBA debut in 1996.
He missed four of his first five field goals, but knocked down a 3-pointer midway through the second quarter to pull within two points. He nearly passed Jordan with one of his patented fall-away jumpers from the baseline, but it rimmed out and with 5:24 to play and 24 seconds on the shot clock, No. 24 stepped to the line and calmly swished two freebies to do it.
It took Bryant 1,269 games to reach the NBA’s career scoring podium. Jordan amassed his 32,292 points in 1,039 regular-season games.
Jordan moved into third place in 2003, and the top of the NBA’s scoring mountain had remained unchanged for nearly 12 years. Ever since Bryant really started to hit his stride as an elite scorer beginning with his fourth year in the league, he was widely considered the one to the record books would have to reserve a spot for.
“Just like we’ve never seen another player like Michael Jordan, we will never see another player like Kobe Bryant!” Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson tweeted.
Jordan retired and came back twice, giving up prime years that cost him a shot at Abdul-Jabbar’s record. Jordan also played three years of college while Bryant jumped straight to the pros and started racking up the points, albeit at a gradual rate.
But Bryant endured his own hardship as he rose up the ranks. His aggressive climb up the scoring ladder was stunted as he dealt with major injuries to his Achilles tendon and knee that limited him to six games last season. He has returned this season as ferocious as ever, but has struggled with efficiency while shooting a ghastly 38.7 percent.
Moving any further up the list will be a challenge. Malone (36,928) is more than 4,500 points ahead of the 36-year-old Bryant for second place and Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) is on top of the mountain by a healthy margin.
If Bryant couldn’t surpass Jordan at home, and he couldn’t do it against the long-time rival Celtics in Boston, what better place than Minneapolis, the birth place of the Lakers franchise. The famed “Laker Nation” is as strong here as it is in any road venue, with thousands of fans wearing purple and gold every time they come through town.
Bryant’s first career game came against the Timberwolves as an 18-year-old in 1996, when he went scoreless in six minutes.
The vast majority of the fans who come to Target Center in Lakers gear weren’t around when uprooted and moved to Los Angeles after the 1959-60 season. They come not to see a team that brought five championships to the city between 1948 and 1954.
They come to see Kobe, and he gave them all a little history to remember on Sunday night.