Usually, a routine, under-the-basket inbounds play in the third quarter of a regular season NBA game wouldn't make "SportsCenter." Usually, the in-bounder passes the ball to a teammate and the flow of the game continues.
But on March 7, 2010, at the will of Kobe Bryant, a certain third quarter inbounds play became an iconic moment -- one that had to be seen to be believed, because it cut directly across basic human instincts.
During the inbounds play, Bryant, pacing in motion, was following Orlando Magic forward Matt Barnes' eyes to read the play developing behind him, and chewed his gum nonchalantly. Suddenly, Barnes pretended to throw the ball at Bryant's face, yanking it back with equal force. Bryant was unmoved. His reading of the game didn't miss a beat. He didn't even blink.
Initially, Barnes didn't know that Bryant hadn't flinched, but once he saw it, he realized the enormity of what had transpired.
"That scared me a little. I mean, that wasn't even human," Barnes later told Sports Illustrated in a May 2010 profile of Bryant. "And then I saw the replay, and I was like, this close to him, and he didn’t flinch. I didn’t know what I expected, maybe something to happen, but he didn’t flinch."
Bryant pulled many more memorable Kobe on-court moments during his 20-year career: His momentum-swinging assist to Shaquille O'Neal during Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the fact that he outscored the entire Dallas Mavericks team for the first three quarters of a December 2005 clash, and, of course, the 81-point game. But this GIF-sized moment reinforced everything we believed we knew about Bryant in a more complete way. He was maniacal, sharp, and prepared to meet any challenge imaginable. He was unmoved by the people around him and in an almost inhuman way.
There was no fear in Bryant's mind of possibly sustaining a broken nose, no fright in Barnes' surprise ball fake -- just snake-eyed focus and a non-reaction. Instinctually, we move to avoid objects headed our way in potentially dangerous situations. Evidently, Bryant does not have this instinct wired into his brain. Fright or flight? He picked neither.
"He tried to get that mental advantage on you," Barnes remembered to Bleacher Report in November 2014 about that day's contest. "So he was elbowing me, hitting me in the balls a couple times. I just told him, ‘If we’re going to fight, we’re going to fight. Or we’re going to play basketball.'"
They didn't fight, per se, but playing basketball through intimidation tactics was definitely the game plan. Prior to Barnes' ball fake to the face, Bryant had shoved him after a high-flying dunk, leading to technical fouls for the both of them. Was the ball fake payback? Perhaps, but it didn't work one bit.
When asked about why he didn't flinch, Bryant's reaction was as cool as his non-reaction to the play: "I knew he wasn't going to do [anything]. What would I flinch for?" BOOM. That's some good Mamba right there.
Recalling the moment for reporters before squaring off against Barnes' new team, the Memphis Grizzlies, in December 2015, Bryant explained how he's wired, which again is clearly not comparable to a normal human.
"It was just a split-second reaction. I processed it pretty quickly and realized what was going on," Bryant said. He actually had time to process the ball fake, which you can easily miss on the replay if you blink. Bryant's brain moves faster than your eyes do.
In July 2010, just four months after the play, Barnes signed with the Lakers and became Bryant's newest teammate. Naturally, Barnes had questions about the infamous fake.
"[Barnes and I] laughed and joked about it a lot when we played together," Bryant later recalled. He told me, 'How the hell are you just not going to flinch? It's human nature to flinch.' I said, 'Dude, you're crazy, but you're not that crazy.'"
Bryant's note of Barnes' lack-of-complete-craziness was later echoed by Barnes himself -- the two knew and admired each other, even before Barnes became Bryant's teammate.
And technically, while Bryant won that inbounds battle, Barnes won the one-on-one war: Bryant scored 34 points on 12 of 30 shooting, ending the game with a -2 plus-minus ratio.
It was a job well-done by Barnes, but nobody remembers his defense getting the better of this generation's most prolific scorer -- we only remember Bryant's uncanny lack of fear, which lead to one of the most legendary moments of the future Hall of Famer's storied career.
Leave it to the Mamba to turn the routine into the spectacular.