LOS ANGELES — Pass first? Not this night.
Not with nearly 20,000 eyes watching him in a packed, breathless Crypto.com Arena, and millions more watching at home. They wanted LeBron James to shoot – clapped their hands and raised their voices. A roar erupted every time James touched the ball.
So James – the 18-year-old who stormed into the NBA in 2003 and smashed every expectation put in his path for 20 years – gave them what they wanted.
With 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter, after a rampage on the rim that had made the anticipation skyrocket, James bumped Oklahoma City’s Kenrich Williams with his right hip, then spun around into a turnaround fadeaway jumper – one of his signature shots – for his 12th field goal, his 36th point and into a place in NBA history no man has ever gone before.
“I know a lot of people wanted me to go to the skyhook to break the record or one of my signature dunks,” James said later with a devilish grin, “but my fadeaway is a signature play as well.”
With the shot swishing in on Tuesday night, James is now the NBA’s all-time leading regular-season scorer, a place in the record books it seemed inevitable that he would occupy for years now – even though the Akron native has so often been lauded for his passing in addition to his ability to get the ball in the bucket.
Twenty years and 1,410 games of his NBA career seemed to suddenly weigh down on James’ shoulders. After briefly running back toward the Lakers’ bench with his arms raised, James put his hands on his knees and began to weep. The tears flowed as his well-wishers came to greet him – including the woman who has been there from the beginning, his mother Gloria James.
“I probably can count on my hands how many times I have cried in 20 years, either in happiness or in defeat,” James said. “So that moment was one of them when I kinda teared up a little bit. It was a ‘I can’t believe what’s going on’ tears.”
The fastest man to every thousand-point plateau became the first NBA player to score 38,388 – a staggering figure, but one made all the more special by the man who had scored 38,387 and held the record for nearly 40 years, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
A prearranged stoppage was called, and the 75-year-old Abdul-Jabbar took halfcourt to meet James and NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Silver officially declared James the NBA’s all-time leading scorer – but it felt somehow more official when Abdul-Jabbar raised a ceremonial basketball into the air, then turned to hand it to James. The two men, who have sometimes had a rocky relationship, shook hands and embraced.
“I thank you guys so much for allowing me to be a part of something I’ve always dreamed about,” James said while addressing the crowd with a mic. “And I would never, ever, in a million years, dreamt this even better than what it is tonight.”
While the record chase was plenty of entertainment for the sellout crowd on hand – many of whom shelled out extra hundreds and even thousands on the secondary market for a chance to witness history – the backdrop of the 133-130 loss was a blow for the Lakers’ diminishing chances to make the postseason.
James made just one basket in the fourth quarter, finishing with 38 points – his team scored just 28 points in the final frame after scoring more than 30 in each of the previous three. And their 133 points allowed to the 12th-place Thunder was one of their worst defensive games of the season.
The Lakers (25-30) have only 27 games remaining and are still in 13th place in the Western Conference, and with a looming trade deadline Thursday afternoon, the team could be retooled before its next game against Milwaukee. One of the Lakers in incessant trade rumors, Russell Westbrook, scored 27 points, had eight assists and six turnovers in what could be his final game as a Laker, a turbulent year-and-a-half.
“The guys, they wanted to see LeBron do what he did tonight,” Coach Darvin Ham said. “A lot of times I think the attention was more about the focus was more about trying to get Bron to the record as opposed to just playing natural basketball.”
But, Ham added: “I’m happy that LeBron was able to accomplish what he accomplished. And now we just move on and try to submerge ourselves in how we try and get better
The night got off to an inauspicious start for the record-watchers: James missed his first two attempts from the field, a floater and a stepback jumper. Three of his teammates had scored before he got on the board at the 7:03 mark, with a stepback 3-pointer from the corner.
But he kicked into gear soon after, and his intent was clear by early in the second quarter, when he made and-one baskets on back-to-back possessions.
A TNT microphone caught James talking to Bronny, his oldest son who is wrapping his senior year at Chatsworth’s Sierra Canyon High, at halftime: “Go ahead and get it?” the elder LeBron asked.
“Go ahead,” his son said.
James – who already held the NBA record for career postseason points (7,631) – got within single digits of the regular-season mark midway through the third quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers, one of the parts of his game that has been more hit-or-miss this season.
The record continued to run down as the Lakers unlocked their transition game – he scored his next three baskets on layups, whittling the chase to two points. A scoreboard high above the crowd counted off the points remaining that he needed to pass the record in all capital letters.
“He gave the people what they wanted in true LeBron fashion,” Ham said. “The biggest thing is to try to congratulate him. We love him.”
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Abdul-Jabbar watched his nearly 40-year stewardship of the scoring record wane from a baseline seat near the Lakers’ bench. Abdul-Jabbar, who has always shied from the public eye, wore a black letterman’s jacket with his No. 33 and his nickname “Captain” on the right breast.
“I know what Kareem meant to this league,” Ham said. “He was one of the pillars that built this league.”
James also dressed for the occasion, donning a white headband. It was striking since James has largely eschewed headbands in recent years – but he wore a red one in his first NBA game in 2003.
Wardrobe choices were especially bold for James, who showed up to the arena in a jet black suit with gold chains and a golden pin in his lapel that read, “STAY PRESENT.” He acknowledged his headband was a debut when he scored his first 25 points as a Cleveland Cavalier in Sacramento’s since-demolished Arco Arena. He remembered feeling more nervous than he looked, but simmering himself down with confidence in how he played (and how he continues to play) the game.
“I knew I came from a group of guys and a group of coaches that taught us how to play the game the right way,” James said. “And no matter how many times I’ve heard why he didn’t take the shot or why did he pass to an open teammate or why did he do this or why did he do that, I never wavered because I know for sure that it’s the right way to play the game.”
Former Lakers and NBA veterans were everywhere: James Worthy, Dwyane Wade, Michael Cooper, Bob McAdoo, A.C. Green and Richard Jefferson. A number of VIPs from the Grammy Awards, held two nights earlier in the same building, came back for the game: Jay-Z, Bad Bunny, Usher and LL Cool J. James’ immediate family – his wife Savannah, his children Bronny, Bryce and Zhuri and his mother Gloria – sat courtside, and so did other key figures in James’ life, like Nike founder Phil Knight, business partner Maverick Carter and agent Rich Paul.
Several congratulatory videos played in the arena, and while the well-wishers included President Joe Biden, they also included pre-recorded messages from James’ family members, who had joined him on the court to celebrate the moment.
James looked happiest as his evening at the arena wrapped up. A cadre of some of his closest, oldest friends were waiting, like his St. Vincent-St. Mary teammates Romeo Travis and Dru Joyce. He was heading to a party which many of them had flown out for, and he joked that if he hadn’t been able to break the record on Tuesday, he would have had to pay for two more hotel nights for a lot of his supporters.
He compared his 20-year career, with four championships and six Finals losses, with four MVPs and plenty of runner-up for awards, with triumph and heartbreak, to roller coasters at Cedar Point in his native Ohio.
“Your stomach drops at times, you’re excited, you’re yelling, sometimes you can’t breathe,” he said. “But you always want to do it again. And it’s been a pleasure and a 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.”
LeBron James hits the fadeaway jumper to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer! #ScoringKing pic.twitter.com/P5LyTZAZn3
— NBA (@NBA) February 8, 2023