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MINNEAPOLIS -- Kobe Bryant has shot more than 11,000 free throws in his NBA career. He has been at the line in critical moments with championships hanging in the balance.
Still, when he stepped to the line midway through the second quarter of a December game against the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, the weight of Air sat on his shoulders. And it was heavy.
"You get up there and the crowd's really waiting to see you score nine points, so don't (screw) this up and completely kill the moment," Bryant thought as he prepared to move past Michael Jordan on the NBA's career scoring list.
Bryant scored 26 points in the game, vaulting him past Jordan for third in league history and leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a 100-94 victory Sunday night.
Bryant needed nine points to pass Jordan and, after missing four of his first five shots, he knocked down a pair of free throws with 5:24 to play in the first half to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone on the NBA's career scoring podium. Bryant shot 7 for 20m but scored 10 in the final five minutes and hit a 3-pointer with just over a minute to play that helped seal the victory.
"I congratulate Kobe on reaching this milestone," Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, said in a statement given 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."
Magic Johnson also posted his congratulations on Twitter and said Bryant was a top-five player in league history.
"That's the most important thing to me, is playing for the respect of the greats and feeling like I'm a part of that culture and a part of that brotherhood," Bryant said.
Shabazz Muhammad had 28 points and nine rebounds for the Timberwolves.
Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) and Karl Malone (36,928) have scored more points than Bryant.
The Timberwolves stopped the game and owner Glen Taylor presented Bryant with the game ball, but what made the night even sweeter was Bryant's dagger with the shot clock winding down and Andrew Wiggins - Minnesota's 19-year-old rookie and the No. 1 overall draft pick - right in his face. It gave the Lakers a 97-94 lead with 1:02 to play, and the Lakers closed it out at the line.
"I witnessed greatness tonight," Wiggins said. "A living legend passed Michael Jordan, who everyone thinks is the best player of all-time. That's a big accomplishment. I'm glad I was there to witness it."
Bryant has spent the past 18 years measuring himself against, and being compared to, the man widely considered the best to ever play the game. Jordan shot a higher field goal percentage, won six titles to the five that Bryant has now and climbed past Wilt Chamberlain into third on the list in 1,039 games to Bryant's 1,269.
Bryant reached the milestone in Minneapolis, the place the Lakers called home for their first 12 seasons until moving to LA in 1960. As usual, there were purple-and-gold clad fans all over the Target Center, and they gave Bryant a rousing standing ovation when he knocked down the two free throws just past the midpoint of the second quarter to give him 32,293 career points.
He exchanged hugs with teammates and several Timberwolves, a few of whom were just 1 year old when Bryant entered the league straight out of high school in 1996. He was serenaded with "Kobe! Kobe!" chants as he left the court and a huge crowd gathered around the Lakers bus outside the arena to cheer for him.
"It was different," Bryant said. "I'm so used to being the villain all the time on the road it took a minute to kind of adjust. It felt good to be appreciated like that."
Lakers: Carlos Boozer had 22 points and 13 rebounds and Wes Johnson had 12 points and six assists. ... Bryant's first career game came against the Timberwolves as an 18-year-old in 1996, when he went scoreless in six minutes.
Timberwolves: C Ronny Turiaf will have surgery on Tuesday to address a hip injury that has kept him out for most of the season. Saunders said a timeline for recovery would be determined after the surgery, but there remains a real possibility Turiaf will not return this season. ... Wiggins had 16 points and received his Western Conference rookie of the month award for November.
Lakers: Visit Indiana on Monday night.
Timberwolves: Visit Washington on Tuesday night.