LeBron James breaks NBA scoring record, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
LOS ANGELES — Long after he buried a historic 14-foot fadeaway jumper that put him alone atop the NBA’s all-time scoring list and celebrated by raising his arms high toward the ceiling of Crypto.com Arena, LeBron James got to relive his immortal moment through his son’s eyes.
As the Los Angeles Lakers star iced his joints late Tuesday night, Bronny James walked over and showed his father a video he shot of the moment James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record.
“Oh, that’s tough!” James told Bronny as he watched the record-breaking basket on his son’s phone. “You got that saved? Send that to me.”
It was a fadeaway jumper — not a skyhook ode to Abdul-Jabbar or one of his signature power dunks — with 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter of a 133-130 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder that sent James to the top of a mountain that Abdul-Jabbar stood on for more than 38 years at 38,387 career points.
James entered the game with 38,352 points, needing 36 to overtake Abdul-Jabbar. He finished the night with 38 points on 13-of-20 shooting (4-of-6 from 3) to go along with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.
As the game came to a halt to celebrate a new record that so many thought would never be reached, an emotional James broke down in tears.
“I write ‘The Man In The Arena’ on my shoe every single night from Theodore Roosevelt,” James said afterward. “Tonight, I actually felt like I was sitting on top of the arena when that shot went in, and the roar from the crowd. I’m not sure if I would be able to feel that feeling again, unless it’s a game-winning Finals shot.
“Everything just stopped. It gave me an opportunity to embrace it and look around and seeing my family, the fans, my friends. It was pretty cool. I probably can count on my hands how many times I have cried in 20 years, either in happiness or in defeat. So that moment was one of them when I kind of teared up a little bit. It was ‘I can’t believe what’s going on’ tears.”
Photographers quickly circled James on the court, as chants of “MVP” rained down from the crowd and highlights of James’ storied 20-year career played on the videoboard.
The game was stopped for about 10 minutes while James hugged his family, including his wife, mother and three children, and participated in a brief ceremony with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Abdul-Jabbar, who watched the game from a baseline seat near the Lakers bench.
“A record that has stood for nearly 40 years,” Silver said. “Many people thought it would never be broken. LeBron, you are the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. Congratulations.”
Abdul-Jabbar held the game ball aloft then handed it to James, the ceremonial passing of the torch. They posed for photos with Silver then with each other.
“I just want to say, thank you to the Laker faithful. You guys are one of a kind,” James told the fans who turned out in droves for the chance to see a once-in-a-generation achievement. “To be able to be in the presence of such a legend and great as Kareem, it’s very humbling. Please give a standing ovation to The Captain, please.”
James then thanked his family and those who have supported him, including Silver and late NBA commissioner David Stern.
“I thank you guys so much for allowing me to be a part of something I’ve always dreamed about,” James said.
James might insist he’s not a scorer, but the Lakers star punched a major hole in his own argument.
Considering all that he has already accomplished with four championships at the top, adding the all-time scoring record to his résumé is another accolade in the debate over who is the greatest basketball player of all time, which many have pegged between James and Michael Jordan.
“For me, I think it’s great barbershop talk,” James said when asked what this record does for his case as the GOAT. “It’s going to happen forever and ever. If I was the GM or whatever the case may be of a franchise I was starting up, and I had the No. 1 pick, I would take me.
“But that’s just me because I believe in myself, what I bring to the table, a guy that’s been able to transform his game over the course of 20 years, be able to play any position in this league, excel at any position. I can play 1 through 5. I’ve led the league in assists. I’ve been able to do whatever it is this game has wanted me to do and also transform my game, as well.”
“Just being able to stay with the curve and changing my game if I needed to and improve my game. That don’t take away from nobody else,” he continued. “So many great players that have played this game, that has lasting long legacies in this game, this NBA is a beautiful thing and there’s some beautiful players that play it, but I can’t take nobody over me.”
The Lakers credentialed more than 200 media members for the occasion, an amount typically seen for a late-round playoff game. James’ family and friends from Akron, Ohio, were in attendance, including some high school teammates.
James didn’t let them down: He scored 20 points in the first half with a full showcase of the offensive talent that still shines blindingly after two decades in the NBA, and he tore through the record in a 16-point third quarter capped by one of his patented fadeaways.
“A lot of people wanted me to go to the skyhook to break the record, or one of the signature dunks,” James said with a grin. “But the fadeaway is a signature play, as well.”
The atmosphere, which felt like a playoff game with the fans roaring louder with each point James scored, was “electric,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.
Inside the building, celebrities gathered to witness history: Denzel Washington, Jay-Z, Bad Bunny, LL Cool J, Usher, Andy Garcia and many others were in attendance. Basketball greats also turned out, including Lakers heroes Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo, along with Dwyane Wade, who teamed with James for two NBA championships while with the Miami Heat.
“It was a blessing and an honor to be a part of it,” Ham said. “He gave the people what they wanted, in true LeBron fashion. … It sucks we didn’t get the win on a night like this, but there’s a lot of things to pull from it, a lot of things to take away.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s record had stood since April 5, 1984. James, 38, was born about nine months later.
“LeBron’s career is one of someone who planned to dominate this game,” Abdul-Jabbar said in an interview with TNT after the game. “And it’s gone for almost 20 years now. You have to give him credit for just the way he played and for the way he’s lasted and dominated. He has that indefinable essence that they call leadership.”
“I never thought that Kareem’s scoring record would be broken by anybody,” Johnson, who helped bring James to Los Angeles when he was in the Lakers’ front office, said in a message congratulating James. “It means even more to myself that you’re wearing that purple and gold, and broke it as a Laker.”
This was something James never could have imagined because he said he never set this as a goal to chase when he began playing basketball.
Last month, with the record approaching, James told ESPN, “When I say I’m not a scorer, I say it in a sense of, it’s never been the part of my game that defines me. The scoring record was never, ever even thought of in my head because I’ve always been a pass-first guy.”
The four-time champion and four-time MVP continues to add to his résumé, also ranking No. 4 in all-time assists, No. 9 in steals, No. 32 in rebounds and No. 91 in blocks — all a testament to James’ dominance and longevity, having logged the third-most minutes in league history.
“I’m a historian of the game, so I know what guys like Kareem and Wilt and MJ and Magic and Bird, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, the rest — I could be up here all night talking about some of these greats, the legends,” James said Tuesday when asked about the passing of the torch moment with Abdul-Jabbar. “For me, personally, it’s just an honor to be named with the greats.
“Being in the conversation with the greats that played this game before me, some of the greats that are playing right now, and then there’s going to be some greats that play when I’m done playing the game. It’s always a surreal feeling.”
James’ basketball life is one that has played out in the national spotlight since the time he was a teenager, playing televised games in high school, skipping college to become the No. 1 pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, announcing his first major free agency decision on a made-for-TV event, and all the while leading his teams to 10 appearances in the NBA Finals.
“He put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this game, so I’m just honored to witness it live,” Lakers teammate Anthony Davis said.
This Lakers season has been up and down, including a 2-10 record to start to the year and a slew of setbacks that have caused Ham to shuffle through 27 different starting lineups — the most in the league — but James’ sustained excellence led to a parade of praise from contemporaries around the league.
“LeBron, he’s a confident man,” said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has the most coaching wins in league history and battled James in the Finals three times. “He knows he’s a hell of a player. He knows what he’s accomplished. But he still has his humility. He hasn’t lost it.”
Abdul-Jabbar made only one 3-pointer in his career, averaging 24.6 points in his 20 seasons, setting the all-time mark in 1,560 games played. James has evolved along with the league, ranking No. 9 on the all-time 3s list, and has averaged 27.2 points in his 20 seasons, catching the legendary Lakers big man in his 1,410th game.
“This ride has been fantastic,” James said.
As the youngest player in league history to score each one-thousand-point milestone from 1,000 to 38,000, James, who is averaging 30.0 points this season, is also the oldest player to ever average 30 points per game.
After Tuesday’s game, longtime NBA photographer Nathaniel Butler gave James a piece of white paper with the number 38,390 written on it, a nod to the iconic photo of Wilt Chamberlain following his legendary 100-point effort in 1962.
What a night.#ScoringKing pic.twitter.com/hsvuOeiNgv
— NBA (@NBA) February 8, 2023
Former Nike founder Phil Knight waited outside the news conference area long after the game before sharing a hug and a moment with James, who has been with the company ever since entering the league.
“It’s been like one of the great rides at Cedar Point,” James said of his career, likening it to the amusement park in Ohio. “In the sense that your stomach drops at times, you’re excited, you’re yelling, sometimes you can’t breathe. But you always want to do it again. And it’s been a pleasure and an honor so far in my career, within these 20 years, through the ups and the downs and the ins and the outs, through the trials and tribulations, I’ve always maintained me. And I’ve done it my way. I didn’t want to emulate anybody. I wanted to give praise to everyone that came before me. I wanted to acknowledge that I’m a historian of the game.
“But I didn’t want to emulate nobody. I wanted to be myself. And if you stay true to yourself, you’ll always feel better about the outcome, win, lose or draw in life. But it’s been great. I’m not going nowhere.”
Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.