Yazid Powell doesn’t usually wear No. 24. But a Community College of Beaver County teammate who has the number knew Powell was a lifelong Kobe Bryant fan. Just for one game, on Monday night, Kobe’s old jersey number would be Powell’s number.
That was just the start of the tribute. The night after Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash, Powell, a freshman from West Philadelphia, pulled off maybe the most unique Kobe tribute of them all — scoring 81 points, matching Bryant’s famous 2006 NBA career-high.
“We do shootarounds before every game,’’ Powell said over the phone the next day. “We had a meeting. … What should we do to honor him?”
Powell had his own thought. He’d tweeted it earlier in the day, that he was going to get 24 points and eight rebounds, as Bryant started his career wearing No. 8 before changing to 24. Pretty doable for a guy who had once scored 44 in a high school game, and was averaging 13 points as a freshman.
Except the team, full of Philly guys, all latched on a different idea. Somebody should try to score 81. They passed out pieces of paper. Everybody was asked to vote for somebody to score 81.
“Everybody voted for me,’’ Powell said. “They knew how I feel about Kobe.”
He used to watch videos of Kobe talking, picking up on his thoughts, not just his game. After the shootaround, teammate Cyrie Coates, a former classmate at Overbrook High, “my brother,” told Powell, “You’d better watch that 81 game.” So he did, most of it anyway, as Kobe did his thing, scoring 81 against Toronto for the second-highest scoring total in NBA history, behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game in 1962.
It seemed possible for Powell to get the 81 against Butler County Community College.
“We just played them,’’ Powell said. “We beat them by a lot" -- 137-54, five days earlier.
Still, was there pressure on him?
“Yes, absolutely,’’ Powell said. “I thought, I don’t want to start it and don’t finish it. The goal is 81. I didn’t want to let him down.”
When his first shot, a three-pointer, went in, Powell said he knew he was going to get it. His thought had been “make 20 threes.” It turned out he made 7 of 17. How many did he have by halftime?
“I had 75 points,’’ Powell said.
You read that right. By the end, Powell had taken 52 shots, and had made 35. He had only six free throws, making four.
“I scored the 81st point two minutes into the second half,’’ he said. “I subbed out. I was so tired.”
He actually had a free throw to take after hitting 81. He air-balled that one on purpose. He didn’t want to take a chance of hitting it hard off the rim, he said, and it somehow still dropping in. His goal was not to score 82.
Did he try any Kobe flourishes?
“I actually tried a fadeaway,’’ Powell said. “It didn’t go. I didn’t want to try that again. That’s something you have to practice.”
A teammate was pushing him through it, he said. “He could see I was getting fatigued, telling me how to breathe, to breathe in and out.”
The opponents weren’t giving him points, though, and told him that whatever he was going for, they weren’t going to just let him get it. His highlight play: getting the ball on the left wing, driving to the middle, pulling back for a three-pointer, leaving the defender “far away,’’ and hitting the shot. The final score was 147-61. Powell’s scoring average is now up to 16.3.
He wanted to give a shout-out to his coaches and teammates, mentioning Chris Greene, who lent him his jersey, and Rasheed Browne, from Neumann Goretti — “he actually had 24 assists, and eight steals.”
A 6-foot-4 Division I prospect, he had a viral play once before, he said, when he threw down a crazy dunk in a tournament at Girard College for the Philadelphia Hurricanes. He wore No. 24 on the Hurricanes.
He was expecting to be a little more emotional after Monday’s game, as he’d been when he heard the news that Bryant had died. But really, Powell said, he just felt happiness at the accomplishment. There was an audaciousness about the whole thing, matching Kobe’s greatest scoring feat.
As you’d expect, his phone blew up when the news spread. ESPN put the feat on SportsCenter on Tuesday evening. By later that night, he’d picked up 7,000 more Instagram followers.