LOS ANGELES — LeBron James might insist he’s not a scorer, but the Los Angeles Lakers star punched a major hole in his own argument with a historic night amid the 20th season of his decorated NBA career.
With a 14-foot fadeaway jumper late in the third quarter, James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s 38,387 career points to move into the No. 1 spot on the league’s all-time scoring list Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After the record-breaking basket, which came with 10.9 seconds left in the quarter, James raised both hands into the air as he looked skyward. Photographers quickly circled him on the court, as chants of “MVP, MVP” rained down from the crowd at Crypto.com Arena and highlights of James’ career played on the videoboard.
The game was stopped for about 10 minutes while James hugged his family, including his wife, his mother and his three children, and participated in a brief ceremony with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Abdul-Jabbar, who watched the game from a baseline seat near the Lakers bench.
“A record that has stood for nearly 40 years,” Silver said. “Many people thought it would never be broken. LeBron, you are the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. Congratulations.”
Abdul-Jabbar held the game ball aloft, then handed it to James, the ceremonial passing of the torch. They posed for photos with Silver, then with one another. James said he almost never cries, but he acknowledged the tears in his eyes.
“I just want to say, thank you to the Laker faithful. You guys are one of a kind,” James told the fans that turned out in droves for the chance to see a once-in-a-generation achievement. “To be able to be in the presence of such a legend as great as Kareem, it’s very humbling. Please give a standing ovation to the Captain, please.”
James then thanked his family and those who have supported him, including Silver and late NBA commissioner David Stern.
“I thank you guys so much for allowing me to be a part of something I’ve always dreamed about,” James said.
James entered the game with 38,352 points, needing 36 to overtake Abdul-Jabbar. He finished the night with 38 points on 13-of-20 shooting (4-of-6 from 3) to go along with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals in a 133-130 Lakers loss.
“I had a moment when it happened, and I embraced that moment,” James said afterward. “Seeing my family and friends, the people that’s been around me since I started this journey to the NBA, definitely very emotional right there. Just a kid from a small town in Ohio. I had a moment there, but I don’t think it’s really hit me, what just transpired.”
The Lakers credentialed more than 200 media members for the occasion, an amount typically seen for a late-round playoff game. James’ family and friends from Akron, Ohio, were in attendance, including some high school teammates.
James didn’t let them down: He scored 20 points in the first half with a full showcase of the offensive talent that still shines blindingly after two decades in the NBA, and he tore through the record in a 16-point third quarter capped by one of his patented fadeaways.
“A lot of people wanted me to go to the skyhook to break the record or one of the signature dunks,” James said with a grin. “But the fadeaway is a signature play, as well.”
Lakers coach Darvin Ham offered his thoughts.
“It was a blessing and an honor to be a part of it,” Ham said. “He gave the people what they wanted, in true LeBron fashion. … It sucks we didn’t get the win on a night like this, but there’s a lot of things to pull from it, a lot of things to take away.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s record had stood since April 5, 1984. James, 38, was born about nine months later.
“LeBron’s career is one of someone who planned to dominate this game,” Abdul-Jabbar said in an interview with TNT after the game. “And it’s gone for almost 20 years now. You have to give him credit for just the way he played and for the way he’s lasted and dominated. He has that indefinable essence that they call leadership.”
What a night.#ScoringKing pic.twitter.com/hsvuOeiNgv
— NBA (@NBA) February 8, 2023
“I never thought that Kareem’s scoring record would be broken by anybody,” Lakers great Magic Johnson said in a message congratulating James. “It means even more to myself that you’re wearing that purple and gold — and broke it as a Laker.”
Abdul-Jabbar, for his part, told TNT, “I thought it had every chance of being broken. It just had to have someone that the offense focused on continually.”
Silver also issued a statement congratulating James on breaking “one of the most hallowed records in all of sports,” while noting that “his basketball history is still being written.”
Last month, with the record approaching, James told ESPN, “When I say I’m not a scorer, I say it in a sense of, it’s never been the part of my game that defines me. The scoring record was never, ever even thought of in my head because I’ve always been a pass-first guy.”
The four-time NBA champion and four-time MVP has bolstered his claim by also ranking No. 4 in all-time assists, No. 9 in steals, No. 32 in rebounds and No. 91 in blocks — all a testament to James’ dominance and longevity, having logged the third-most minutes in league history.
“I’m a historian of the game, so I know what guys like Kareem, and Wilt, and MJ, and Magic, and Bird, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, the rest — I could be up here all night talking about some of these greats, the legends,” James said Tuesday night when asked about the ceremonial “passing of the torch” moment with Abdul-Jabbar. “For me, personally, it’s just an honor to be named with the greats. Being in the conversation with the greats that played this game before me, some of the greats that are playing right now, and then there’s going to be some greats that play when I’m done playing the game. It’s always a surreal feeling.”
James’ basketball life is one that has played out in the national spotlight since the time he was a teenager, playing televised games in high school, skipping college to become the No. 1 pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, announcing his first major free-agency decision on a made-for-TV special — all the while leading his teams to 10 appearances in the NBA Finals.
This Lakers season has been up and down, starting off 2-10 and marred by a slew of setbacks that have caused Ham to shuffle through 27 different starting lineups — the most in the league — but James’ sustained excellence led to a parade of praise from his coach and contemporaries around the league.
“I’m of a certain age so I know what Kareem meant to the league. … He was one of the pillars that helped build this league,” Ham said. “And then, to see LeBron, his whole trajectory coming into the league as a youngster straight out of high school and just what he’s done transcending basketball — he’s become a global icon. All the work he puts in on and off the floor. His businesses, him speaking out on social issues, his leadership; he’s an example to not just young basketball players but young human beings, domestically and internationally, for how to be a professional, how to have passion, how to be persistent, productive, and never to be satisfied.”
As San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has the most coaching wins in league history and has battled James in the Finals three times, said, “LeBron, he’s a confident man. He knows he’s a hell of a player. He knows what he’s accomplished. But he still has his humility. He hasn’t lost it.”
Abdul-Jabbar made only one 3-pointer in his career, averaging 24.6 points in his 20 seasons, setting the all-time mark in 1,560 games played. James has evolved along with the league, ranking No. 9 on the all-time 3s list, and has averaged 27.2 points in his 20 seasons, catching the legendary Lakers big man in his 1,410th game.
“This ride has been fantastic,” James said.
Inside the building, celebrities gathered to witness history: Denzel Washington, Jay-Z, Bad Bunny, LL Cool J, Usher, Andy Garcia and countless others. Dozens of basketball greats also turned out, including Lakers heroes James Worthy and Bob McAdoo along with Dwyane Wade, who teamed with James for two NBA championships while with the Miami Heat.
As the youngest player ever to score each thousand-point milestone from 1,000 to 38,000 in league history, James, who is averaging 30.0 points this season, is also the oldest player to ever average 30 points per game.
“He put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this game, so, I’m just honored to witness it live,” Lakers teammate Anthony Davis said.
Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.