One of the most extraordinary records in N.B.A. history had stood for nearly 39 years, until LeBron James grabbed it for himself. James, the Los Angeles Lakers forward, broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring record of 38,387 points on Tuesday. It was a feat that once had seemed impossible for anyone — but James has become known for making the improbable part of his routine. He broke the record on a fadeaway 2-point shot in the final seconds of the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder. James extended his arms out like he was flying as he jogged back toward the other basket. Then he raised his arms and looked up into the stands at the thousands of people who had come to see him make history. He paused for a second, bent over, rested his hands on his knees and smiled as his family and friends jumped out of their seats in celebration and joined him on the court. He had tears in his eyes. “I felt like I was sitting on top of the arena tonight,” James said in his postgame news conference. He sat in front of a backdrop with an image of himself with his arms outstretched above the words “ALL-TIME SCORING LEADER.” “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 kind of teared up a little bit. It was a ‘I can’t believe what’s going on’ tears.” The record had seemed to be set in stone, untouched for decades even by greats like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. But the 38-year-old James, in his 20th season, is still pouring in points as one of the best players in the N.B.A. Since the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2003, he has made thousands of dunks, fadeaways, free throws, 3-pointers, hook shots and everything in between. And now, with his latest act of defying the odds of his age, James will bolster his supporters’ claims that he, and not Jordan, is the greatest player of all time.
James made that case after Tuesday night’s game. If he were starting a team, he said, “I would take me.” “But that’s just me, because I believe in myself, what I bring to the table,” James said, “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.” James came into Tuesday night’s game needing 36 points to make history. He dressed more formally than he normally does for games, wearing a shining black suit on his way into the arena, with a gold pin fixed to his lapel that said, “stay present.” Dozens of reporters and cameras followed him as he went onto the court for his pregame warm-up. He greeted Bob McAdoo, a former Laker who was on the Miami Heat coaching staff when James played there. McAdoo was a reserve player in the game in which Abdul-Jabbar set the record. “I said, ‘Man, you got to do it tonight,’” McAdoo said. The fans were ready to see history. When James caught the ball, they buzzed and lifted their cellphones to record the moment. When he missed, they groaned. When he scored, they roared. Abdul-Jabbar, sitting courtside, smiled and clapped as he watched his record fall. A scoreboard in a corner of the arena, right next to where all of the Lakers’ retired jerseys hung, had been transformed into a tracker for how many points James needed to break Abdul-Jabbar’s record. When the moment came, James’s teenage sons were sitting courtside in perfect position to catch the record-breaking play. Abdul-Jabbar, in a black jacket bearing his jersey number, 33, came onto the court with N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver and hugged James, congratulating him. James finished with 38 points — and a career record 38,390 — but the Thunder won, 133-130.
Abdul-Jabbar had become the scoring leader with the Lakers on April 5, 1984, dethroning Wilt Chamberlain, who had retired a decade earlier with 31,419 points. Abdul-Jabbar added nearly 7,000 points over the next five years before retiring after the 1988-89 season. Jordan and Bryant ended their careers thousands of points behind him.
By the time the longtime Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone had played his last game in 2004, he was second behind Abdul-Jabbar — and about 1,500 points short. That was the end of James’s rookie year. James had begun his own journey. “I thought it had every chance of being broken,” Abdul-Jabbar said of his record in a televised interview with TNT after the game. “Just had to have somebody that the offense focused on continually, you know, game in, game out.” Abdul-Jabbar built his record with his signature shot, the sky hook. “I know what Kareem meant to this league,” Lakers Coach Darvin Ham said. “He was one of the pillars that built this league.”
Ham said that James, after coming to the N.B.A. out of high school, had transcended basketball. “He’s become a global icon,” he said. James lingered on the court after the game doing interviews and greeting his guests — the close friends he grew up with, the business associates he has trusted over the years. He said hello to the rapper Jay-Z and the actor Denzel Washington. Then James and the mass of people surrounding him moved to the corner of the court closest to the Lakers’ locker room, where James saw two people who were part of his childhood. Frank and Pam Walker were sitting in courtside seats. James walked over and tenderly hugged them. When James was a child, he stayed with the Walkers when he and his mother, Gloria James, didn’t have stable housing.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today without the support of everyone I got in town for this,” James said. “I wouldn’t want it no other way. Pam and Big Frankie are a huge part of why I can sit up here today and talk about this. They took me into their household along with their three other kids at the time and made me feel like I was one of their own.” In the locker room after the game, James sat for a while with his feet in a bucket of ice and his knees wrapped in more ice. His sons, LeBron James Jr., who is known as Bronny, and Bryce James, came into the locker room. Bronny showed his father the cellphone video he filmed of the record-breaking shot. “Which one of y’all gonna try to break my record?” James said, scrunching his face into a laugh. “It’s going to be two and three,” Bronny said, while Bryce shook his head, incredulously. “Oh, y’all going to be two and three,” James said, beaming. Later, near the end of his postgame news conference, James became reflective. He said his career had been like a roller coaster at Cedar Point, an amusement park about 90 minutes from his hometown, Akron, Ohio. “Your stomach drops at times,” he said. “You’re excited. You’re yelling and sometimes you can’t breathe. But you always want to do it again. He added: “It’s been a pleasure and an honor so far in my career, within these 20 years, that through the ups, through the downs, through the ins and outs, through the trials and tribulations, I’ve always maintained me and I’ve done it my way.”