The historic number is not imprinted in the minds of sports fans, like the records of baseball: Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in one season, for example, or Hank Aaron’s 755, for his career. In basketball circles, Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game scoring mark—a tidy, round 100 points—is probably more cherished.
Which makes sense: 38,387, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s long-standing NBA record for career points scored is so astronomically high most humans can’t really relate to it.
But this all-time scoring record still means so much. To pound your body year after year, over a grueling 82-game regular-season schedule and postseason, and continue to pour in points against some of the best athletes in the world—who are all trying their best to thwart you—counts as a colossal sports achievement. And this majestic mark now belongs to a new NBA scoring king.
On Tuesday night in Los Angeles, LeBron James hit a 14-foot fadeaway jump shot over Kenrich Williams of the Oklahoma City Thunder with 11 seconds left in the third quarter, to score his 36th point in the game and 38,388th point of his 20-year career, passing Abdul-Jabbar on the league’s all-time scoring list.
The game stopped. James hugged his mother, Gloria. A video tribute to James played on the Jumbotron at Crypto.com Arena. Commissioner Adam Silver and Abdul-Jabbar joined James at center court. Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers great, presented James with a ball. James started crying as the crowd cheered. He thanked his family, fans, and the NBA. “I would never, ever, in a million years, dreamt this [would be] even better than it is tonight,” he said. “F–k, man, thank you guys.”
The record-breaking moment was a reminder of all that James has accomplished. No basketball player in history came into the pros with more hype surrounding him. ESPN broadcast his high school games, for example, and Nike signed him to a $90 million contract when he was just 18. Unlike so many athletic prodigies who came before him, James exceeded expectations. He’s won four NBA titles with three different franchises, four league MVP awards, and will soon play in his 19th All-Star game.
And now, this record. Whether or not you believe he’s the best basketball player in history—the contender list is probably down to just James and Michael Jordan at this point—he’s inarguably one of the most influential athletes of this century. Besides his unmatched accomplishments on the court, he’s also succeeded as a corporate pitchman, businessman, movie producer, and social advocate.
And he’s not done yet. Abdul-Jabbar scored his final NBA basket after he turned 42, in 1989. James just turned 38. On an age basis, LeBron got to the top of the points chart faster than the NBA’s other top-5 scorers. Abdul-Jabbar (2nd), Karl Malone (3rd), and Michael Jordan (5th), scored their final buckets at 42, 40, and 40, respectively. Like James, Kobe Bryant—the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer, with 33,643 points—skipped college basketball, entering the NBA straight from high school. He was 37 when he retired in 2016, slowed by Achilles and knee injuries at the end of his career. James looks as dominant as ever at 38, and reportedly invests more than $1 million every year on taking care of his body.
In an era in which sports science has enabled athletes to extend excellence into later and later stages of their careers—Tom Brady serving as the most prominent example—it’s quite reasonable to assume James can play at an All-Star level for years to come, if he so chooses.
James’ 2023 title hopes were likely dashed on Sunday, when the team failed to land Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, who was traded to Dallas instead. James, who won a title with Irving in Cleveland back in 2016, wanted Irving back on his team, to make the Lakers a legit championship contender. Unfortunately, James is playing some of his best basketball for a pretty bad team: the Lakers were 25-29 going into Tuesday night’s game. His effort, in some senses, seems wasted. Even as he broke the record, the Lakers were still behind by 5 points on Tuesday night. The Lakers, however, can qualify for the play-in round if they finish in 10th—they’re just 1.5 games behind Utah for that slot. If LA can sneak into the postseason, you can’t count James out.
No matter how the Lakers finish this season, James has a more personal incentive to keep playing: his son, Bronny, is a high-school All-American, and may have a shot to make the NBA. He’ll likely spend at least a year in college playing basketball (Bronny has listed USC, Oregon, and Ohio State as options). James has vocalized his wish to play with Bronny in the NBA, which would make them the first active father-son combo in league history.
More than anything, James’ record is a testament to his love and respect for basketball. While he’s being compensated handsomely to continue playing—the Lakers are paying him north of $44 million this season—endorsement income and business interests would have continued to enrich him for years. Basketball has remained his core enterprise.
“You see it on his face,” says former NBA player Michael Cooper, who won five titles with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. “Even though LeBron is a grown man, you can still see that kid in him when he makes a move or he does something special or makes a good pass. He may not look it — he’s bald and he’s got a beard now — but when he first came into the league and he wore that headband and was just jumping around, you can still see that. That’s the one thing I enjoyed watching him as he progressed through this march to breaking the record.”
Cooper was on the court when Abdul-Jabbar passed Wilt Chamberlain in 1984 to set the new NBA all-time points record. Magic Johnson insisted that he be the player to deliver the historic assist to Abdul-Jabbar. “Listen,” Johnson told his teammates in the locker room before the game, according to Cooper. “When Kareem is getting ready to get it, I’ve got to have the f–king ball.” Johnson did indeed throw the ball to Abdul-Jabbar, who hit a sky hook over Utah’s Mark Eaton to give him 31,421 career points. (James needed no assist to secure his record).
James is likely to finish his career with more than 40,000 points, setting a ridiculously high new bar. Typically, recency bias kicks in when such sports records are broken. It’s an almost knee-jerk reaction to claim, “this is one record that will never be broken.” Here, that prediction is a bit more difficult to justify: given the modern basketball predilection for launching, and making, three-point shots, and the progressions in player health, it’s possible to imagine someone coming along and scoring at a LeBron James pace, for a sustained period of time (a 19-year-old phenom from France, 7-foot, 2-inch Victor Wembanyama, already has scouts salivating).
We can save, however, such prognosticating for another day. Now’s a moment to celebrate James. What makes him so unique, and perhaps what separates him from Jordan in the GOAT debate, is his all-around play. No one has combined the art of passing with the science of scoring quite like James, who also ranks fourth in all-time assists. He’s been an effective rebounder his whole career—James has averaged 8.5 boards per game—and his standout clutch moment was a blocked shot that helped the Akron, Ohio, native end a 52-year-championship drought for Cleveland.
The NBA’s all-time scoring record now belongs to a man for whom scoring was never his standout skill. That’s incredible. That’s LeBron James.
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Write to Sean Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org