This was LeBron James' moment, and only The King could rise to the occasion and deliver such a show
LOS ANGELES — Until the tears streamed down his face, it was hard to tell how much the all-time scoring record meant to LeBron James.
He raised his hands to the heavens, not dissimilar to his pregame powder toss and began to meander around the floor — his eyes searching for family members and close supporters located in various points throughout Crypto.com Arena.
The man in the arena became the man above it, in his own words. He began the evening 36 points away from the record, and ended the night three above Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 38,390 career points.
He addressed the crowd shortly thereafter, sharing hugs with his mother, wife and kids as a video tribute played on the Jumbotron. NBA commissioner Adam Silver and other top league officials were in attendance to witness the moment.
“As much as I try to live in the moment, it’s a blur … it’s a really good feeling,” James said. “I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve cried in 20 years, either in happiness or defeat. That moment was one of them when I teared up a little bit. It was an, ‘I can’t believe what’s going on’ tears.”
This wasn’t “Cleveland, this is for you!”
It was all for himself, his moment he didn’t have to particularly share or place into a team-first context — the ultimate individual tangible mark for the ultimate team player.
“He gave the people what they wanted,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “We appreciate everything he does, for the NBA, for our franchise.”
It was a circus-like atmosphere, a stoppage late in the third quarter to acknowledge James passing Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. A midrange fadeaway — not a hook shot or flying dunk — was the play that cemented James in history Tuesday night.
It was a shot that wasn’t in his arsenal when he began this journey in 2003 as the most-hyped high-schooler-turned-pro of all time, when the first impression of James wasn’t one of a scorer. He jumped so much higher then, almost too high that night in Sacramento when he unleashed his first feathery baseline jumper. James acknowledged the atmosphere then, admitting his steely expression only hid the unease.
That night, he believed so many wanted him to fail.
“I was super, duper nervous,” James said. “It was so many cameras on the floor, that shouldn’t have been allowed. I didn’t want to let my people down in my hometown, I knew the expectations that was on me that was out of this world. I bottled that doubt from people and zeroed in and said, ‘I know how to play this game.’ ”
This night, there was no such vitriol, even the visiting Thunder found themselves counting James’ points — if they couldn’t see the running ticker high above the floor.
On this third-quarter fadeaway, he used more guile than athleticism, a bump on Kenrich Williams and then an easy jumper.
Because James has played in virtually every situation possible, it was hard to quantify an almost random night in February. The buzz followed James from his usual innocuous pregame routine, as camera operators nearly tripped over themselves to walk the same path he did from the locker room to the floor.
He warmly embraced former Heat assistant Bob McAdoo — who was on staff when James was in Miami almost a decade ago, and a former teammate of Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
He wore headphones with the gold inscription “38,388,” and was generally loose even though history was awaiting him. He wore a slick all-black suit accompanied by dark sunglasses and gold jewelry — clearly dressed to impress, and in a way, get the record over with.
“I had to have the mindset and I dressed for the occasion,” said James, joking that many of his friends who flew into town were leaving on a red-eye Wednesday night and he wasn’t springing for the extra hotel nights for Thursday’s game against Milwaukee.
“Tomorrow’s not promised. And if I had an opportunity to do it tonight, I was gonna try to make it happen. I was still super efficient, and I was able to get it done,” he said.
With his MVP days likely behind him, and the feeling that he’ll get championship No. 5 being more fleeting than ever, it could be the last big moment for James short of retirement. Abdul-Jabbar sat courtside, near the Lakers bench. Magic Johnson strolled onto the floor moments after James broke the record.
Close friend Dwyane Wade was near and, occasionally, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss stopped her usual laps around the arena to take in the spectacle. Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison and Lynn Merritt — who both worked at Nike and are close with James — sat close behind the broadcast table at midcourt.
“If not tonight, we’ll be back again tomorrow — it’s what we do,” Wade joked at halftime.
It felt big, like NBA Finals big — a stage that given their titanic struggle with the 11th-place Oklahoma City Thunder resulted in a 133-130 defeat seems highly unlikely from here. But if any place in the NBA knows how to put on a spectacle, it’s Los Angeles.
And if it’s any player who has a sense of the moment as well as one of theater, it’s James.
Stars who could relate to sustained excellence, titans in their own field, sat courtside to witness the lead-up and the moment itself.
Denzel Washington and Jay-Z have been entertainers, world-renowned multiple times over, and were household names before James stepped onto the scene more than 20 years ago. Washington, upon entering the arena a few minutes into the game with his wife, Pauletta, motioned over to members of James’ inner circle: “How many he got?”
Right at that moment, inches away from Washington’s line of sight, James unleashed his signature side-step triple to register his first points of the night.
It turns out, James was waiting on every big star to be seated before starting his own personal show. The cellphones replaced the old-school cameras, but the intensity felt as familiar as any historic evening.
The NBA celebrates its history and history-making as well as any sports league, and even though there isn’t much mythology over certain numbers, the breaking of this record had gravity.
The league just celebrated its 75th anniversary, and Abdul-Jabbar held the scoring record for close to 40 years. With James playing at this pace and openly discussing playing a few more years, this record could be put out of reach the way Abdul-Jabbar’s was by his 1989 retirement — some 7,000 points ahead of the man he passed, Wilt Chamberlain.
The chase wasn’t glorified the way James would’ve preferred, but he’s always commanded an inordinate amount of attention through his career, so it was impossible to measure how this registers among the ripples on his personal Richter scale.
“This ride has been fantastic. Every so many years [Cedar Point] comes out with a new roller coaster,” James said. “And we spent plenty of times just testing out the roller coaster. Many highs, many loops, how fast it goes and you get off feeling so much excitement, feeling like I wanna do it again.
“My career has been like that. Stomach drops at times, excited, yelling, sometimes you can’t breathe, but you always wanna do it again. It’s been a pleasure and honor so far in these 20 years, the ups and downs, trials and tribulations.
“I didn’t want to emulate anyone, I wanted to give praise to everyone who came before me. Acknowledge I’m a historian of the game. But I didn’t want to emulate nobody, I wanted to be myself.”
The ride took another heart-stopping dip everyone could see coming, but what’s ahead is anyone’s guess.