LeBron James made all those watching Thunder-Lakers witnesses to history on Tuesday night.
With 17 seconds remaining in the third quarter, James received the ball on the right elbow and faced up before backing downhill defender, Kenrich Williams. He pounded the ball once, twice, three times, then faded away from just inside the free-throw line and let it go.
With that shot, the arena exploded as the 38-year-old James, in his 20th season in the NBA, passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the league’s all-time leading scorer.
He needed 36 points heading into the Tuesday’s game to break the record. He scored eight points in the first quarter — solid, but not quite on pace. Then he poured in 12 more in the second quarter, and it felt like an inevitability. With each successive bucket in the third quarter, the anticipation grew.
As the record-setting shot went through the net, league officials triggered a timeout with 10.9 remaining in the period. The game stopped (something the NBA has done before for the most significant of milestones), giving James an opportunity to take in the moment — the emotion was clear on his face — as a tribute video played in the arena before NBA commissioner Adam Silver joined Abdul-Jabbar on the court for a ceremonial passing of the torch (with the torch being the game ball) to James. He celebrated with family, friends and teammates.
The they cleared the court, and the game resumed. James’ historic shot pulled the Lakers within five of the Thunder heading into the fourth quarter. Los Angeles tied the game up two and a half minutes into the period, but Oklahoma City responded with a 12-0 run to pull away again and the Lakers ran out of time, losing by three despite outscoring the Thunder by eight in the 34 minutes James played.
James finished with 38 points on 13-of-20 from the field (4-of-6 from 3) and 8-of-10 from the foul line. He’s sitting at 38,390 points — and counting — with the likes of Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan behind him (along with every other player in league history).
Sports Illustrated featured James on its cover during his junior year of high school (shout-out to the late, great Grant Wahl), dubbing him “The Chosen One.” People began referring to him as “King James” even before that — during his freshman year. The phenom from Akron bypassed college after graduating from St. Vincent-St. Mary and entered the league with as much hype as any player we’ve ever seen.
Even so, he’s found a way to live up to and even surpass the hype every step of the way, an exceedingly difficult task as the media landscape and way we view sports have changed dramatically and evolved over the two decades he’s been in the league.
James made an immediate splash, winning Rookie of the Year his first season then making the All-Star team in his second (the first of 19 and counting appearances. He led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the playoffs in his third season, won his first MVP (of four) in his sixth season and won his first championship (of four) in his ninth season. After leaving for Miami, he returned to Cleveland and delivered the Cavaliers the franchise’s first title before signing with the Lakers and winning a ring there as well.
In addition to being first in scoring, he’s fourth all-time in assists and ninth in steals, and he has over 10,000 rebounds as well. He’s one of the most physically gifted athletes we’ve ever seen play basketball, and he also happens to be one of the smartest. He’s worked on his body and game year in and year out in order to extend his career, and now at 38 years old he’s averaging over 30 a game (for the second straight season, no less).
The NBA captured my attention in the mid-2000s, and I’ve been hooked on basketball ever since. I fell in love with the game watching Steve Nash dish the ball all over the court for the Phoenix Suns, but I also took an interest in James during his first playoff run, tuning in to see what all the hype was about and being fascinated by what I found.
I’ll never forget watching him score 25 straight in game five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons (at a friend’s house). I remember where I was for The Decision as well (at the old Omaha Sports Academy location for the Metro Pro-Am Summer League; a friend alerted me to his destination via text), and for the chase-down block on Andre Iguodala in game seven of the 2016 Finals (at DJ’s Dugout in Aksarben).
James has been one of the faces of the league throughout my nearly two decades as an avid NBA fan. The precision, tight-window passing has captivated me as much as the highflying dunks, the runaway-train drives to the basket or off-balance jumpers. The way he could dominate a game both athletically and mentally with his ability to read the floor and anticipate what was coming next sets him apart from almost anyone who’s ever played the game.
He’s clearly lost a step or two from where he was in his athletic prime when his presence on your team essentially locked you into a Finals appearance, but what he’s doing at his age (and years of service considering he did skip college and has made deep payoff runs almost every year of his career) is truly remarkable.
I was born into a Michael Jordan household (to the point where my mom waited until the Chicago Bulls clinched the championship on June 14, 1992 until heading to the hospital when she was pregnant with me; I was born around 8 a.m. the following morning). I grew up with plenty of Bulls memorabilia in our house, but I was too young to have any real memories of watching the Bulls and Jordan at his peak. I know all of his accomplishments, I’ve seen the highlights and I watched “The Last Dance” with my parents. If you lived through that era and want to tell me that Jordan is the best basketball player who’s ever lived, I won’t tell you you’re wrong.
But LeBron James is the best player I’ve ever seen during my time following the NBA, and he certainly belongs in that conversation. I’ve had the fortune to see the vast majority of his career and was glad to be planted in my recliner on Tuesday night to witness his latest bit of history. King James finally took his rightful place on the career scoring throne, accomplishing what he was chosen to to do many years ago.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.