Even at his most ordinary, Kobe Bryant somehow managed to find the biggest stage for a big moment.
He scored 33,643 regular-season points in his 20 NBA seasons, but it began with one humble free throw in his second game, on Nov. 5, 1996. That was it. One point on 1-for-2 free-throw shooting in three minutes.
But Bryant being Bryant, he made sure to do it at Madison Square Garden after being fouled while driving against a thicket of Knicks, including Patrick Ewing. And an iconic sports play-by-play voice, Verne Lundquist, had the call on TNT.
“There is his first point in the NBA,” Lundquist said, “and it comes at the age of 18 years, 2 months and a couple of days . . . Can you imagine what he thought when he walked in here today?”
With the benefit of a quarter- century of hindsight, yes, we can. Bryant, who died at 41 in a helicopter crash on Sunday that also killed his daughter Gianna and seven others, would make the Garden a home away from home.
That is the way it usually goes for the greats, including Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
For Bryant, it began that day in 1996 and was celebrated one last time Sunday when the Knicks hosted the Nets and paid tribute to their longtime nemesis.
The exterior and ceiling of the Garden were bathed in Lakers purple and gold light, and after a 24-second-clock moment of silence in honor of his old uniform number, many fans began chanting “KO-BE! KO-BE!’’
It did not take Bryant long to evolve beyond that measly free throw in 1996. In February 1998, he became the first 19-year-old All-Star in history and led the West with 18 points in a 135-114 loss to the East.
The venue? Madison Square Garden, of course. (Jordan scored 23 points to lead the East and was named MVP.)
Bryant’s annual visit became a date to circle on the Knicks’ schedule. (Bryant never got to play a playoff game at the Garden, through no fault of him or the Lakers.)
For most of the 2000s, Bryant generally beat the Knicks, and generally did so in style, thrice scoring 39 or more points at the Garden between 2003-07.
But he missed the Lakers’ Jan. 30, 2007, game in New York when the NBA suspended him for one game for elbowing the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili. “I’ve been waiting to play here; it’s always been a fun place for me to play, and I’m surprised,” Bryant said. “Shocked by it, actually.”
His Garden masterwork came on Feb. 2, 2009. He scored 61 points in a 126-117 victory, shooting 19-for-31 from the floor and 20-for-20 from the line to surpass by one Bernard King’s MSG scoring record.
(Carmelo Anthony later broke it with 62, and James Harden since has matched Bryant’s 61 for a visiting player.)
“It’s a blessing to do what you love and have moments like this,” said Bryant, whom Knicks fans serenaded that night with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson had a good seat for Bryant’s 61-point game as a Knicks assistant coach. “Yeah, yeah, incredible, incredible performance,” Atkinson said. “It’s iconic, right?”
Bryant had other productive days at the Garden in the 2010s before missing the Lakers’ visits in 2013-14 and ’14-15. But on Nov. 8, 2015, he played one last Garden game, scoring 18 points and shooting 6-for-19 in a 99-95 loss.
Fans filled the arena and cheered the visiting star in anticipation of Bryant retiring at the end of the season. “I wouldn’t say nostalgic or anything like that,” he said of the experience. “Just felt appreciated, playing in such a historical building all these years. It felt amazing.
“I can remember my first game coming in here, not knowing what the hell to expect and what to do, but just being in such a great arena. Then to be here 20 years later and have that happen, it feels amazing.”
Bryant enjoyed one last chance to trash-talk with Knicks fan Spike Lee, caught up with Knicks president and former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, and recalled that 1998 All-Star Game, when he was a teenager “surrounded by so many of the golden greats.”
His last point at the Garden came with 3:03 left and matched what he did on that long-ago day in 1996: He made his first free throw, then missed his second.
“I don’t think you understand how much I’ve watched this building growing up,” he said. “[Walt] Frazier and [Earl] Monroe, all those teams, and [Dave] DeBusschere and [Willis] Reed, all those guys. I was truly, truly a fan of watching all these games, then [against] the Bulls, obviously, and the Pacers battles.
“To be able to come here and have the performances I’ve had in this building, I feel extremely, extremely fortunate.”
Mamba Square Garden
A look at Kobe Bryant’s performances at MSG:
Nov. 5, 1996 — Bryant’s first appearance at the Garden and the second game of his career. He scored a single point with no rebounds or assists in a 98-92 Lakers win.
Feb. 8, 1998 -- Kobe becomes, at 19, the youngest All-Star in NBA history, scoring a Western Conference-high 18 points and grabbing six rebounds in a 135-117 loss to the East.
March 19, 2000 — After a loss in 1998 and their MSG visit lost to the lockout the following season, Bryant scores 24 with seven assists and nine rebounds in a 92-85 Lakers victory.
Jan. 28, 2001 — Bryant gets his first MSG double-double, scoring 33 points and adding 11 rebounds in a 91-81 Knicks win.
Feb. 6, 2003 — Bryant first of three 40-point games at the Garden — 46 in a 114-109 Lakers win.
Jan. 31, 2006 — Lakers’ 130-97 rout is the first of five straight wins for Bryant at MSG, where he scores 40 points.
Dec. 23, 2007 — The closest Bryant would get to a Garden triple-double: 39 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds in a 95-90 Lakers victory.
Feb. 2, 2009 — THE Kobe game: 61 points, the Garden record for a visiting player until James Harden tied it last year.
Nov. 8, 2015 — After missing the Lakers’ previous two appearances at MSG, Bryant plays Broadway for the final time, scoring 18 points in a 99-95 loss to the Knicks.
Bryant’s MSG record: 10-6
29.3 points per game
5.5 rebounds per game
4.3 assists per game