What I Think About LeBron Breaking My NBA Scoring Record
Everything You Wanted to Know About LeBron and Me and the Scoring Record
I begin everything I write with a lot of apprehension because I know how hard it is to translate complex thoughts and intense emotions into the exact words that accurately express those thoughts and emotions. But this article I approach with even more trepidation because I really want to get this right. It’s important to me, to basketball fans, and to the legacy of a great player (not me).
First, the facts: LeBron James passed my scoring record and now is the leading scorer in NBA history. It takes unbelievable drive, dedication, and talent to survive in the NBA long enough to rack up that number of points when the average NBA career lasts only 4.5 years. It’s not just about putting the ball through the hoop, it’s about staying healthy and skilled enough to climb the steep mountain in ever-thinning oxygen over many years when most other players have tapped out.
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It’s also about not making scoring your obsession. Otherwise, you’re Gollum and the record is your Precious. The real goal is to win games so that you win championships because you want to please the fans who pay your salary and cheer you on game after game. Fans would rather see you win a championship than set a scoring record.
It’s also about making sure your team gets their moments to shine and thrive and pursue their own greatness. A record is nothing if you used other players’ careers as stepping stones just for self-aggrandizement. For me, I strove to play at the highest level I could in order to be a good teammate. The points—and the record—were simply a by-product of that philosophy.
I think LeBron has the same philosophy.
Second, my reaction: In the months leading up to LeBron breaking my record, so much was written about how I would feel on the day he sank that record-breaking shot that I had to laugh. I’d already written several times stating exactly how I felt so there really wasn’t much to speculate about. It’s as if I won a billion dollars in a lottery and 39 years later someone won two billion dollars. How would I feel? Grateful that I won and happy that the next person also won. His winning in no way affects my winning.
Third, the context of it all: In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s character explains chaos theory in which a small event can have a ripple effect to create something much larger: “A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine.”
That’s what I think has happened a few months ago when two NBA legends flapped their wings and a tsunami of reaction washed over the basketball world.
The first wing flap came when LeBron James, who was on the verge of breaking my NBA scoring record, was asked what his thoughts were about me and what kind of relationship we had. His answer: “No thoughts, and no relationship.” Ouch. I’ll return to that in a moment.
The second butterfly making it rain is my long-time friend and ex-teammate Earvin “Magic” Johnson. He opined on a podcast that “If I got to say it, we got to be honest. And the fact that it’s a dude that’s playing for the Lakers, too… I think it’ll be a hard pill to swallow… I think he thought he was going to have [the record] forever.” Double ouch.
How Magic Got It Wrong
I love Earvin and, after forty years of friendship, he knows me pretty well. If he publicly announced that I had suddenly shrunk to 5’2”, even I would be tempted to believe him. But, in this case, he was very, very wrong. I don’t blame him for thinking that I might be bothered because he knows how competitive I used to be. And, if someone had broken my record within ten years of me setting it, he would probably be right. I might have hobbled out of retirement just to add a few more points on my record.
But that ain’t me today. I’m 75. The only time I ever think of the record is when someone brings it up. I retired from the NBA 34 years ago. For the past 20 years, I’ve occupied myself with social activism, my writing career, and my family—especially my three grandchildren. If I had a choice of having my scoring record remain intact for another hundred years or spend one afternoon with my grandchildren, I’d be on the floor in seconds stacking Legos and eating Uncrustables.
Sorry, Earvin. I love you, brother, but this time you got it wrong. I’m not the grumpy grandpa on the porch yelling at kids to stay off my lawn. I fret much more over picking the right word in this sentence than in my record being broken.
Why I’m Thrilled That LeBron Broke the Record
Whenever a sports record is broken—including mine—it’s a time for celebration. It means someone has pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible to a whole new level. And when one person climbs higher than the last person, we all feel like we are capable of being more.
For me, the inspirational power of sports is best explained in a scene in the 1985 film Vision Quest. In it, Elmo, an aging fry cook at a hotel, explains:
I was in the room here one day, watchin’ the Mexican channel on TV. I don’t know nothin’ about Pelé. I’m watchin’ what this guy can do with a ball on his feet.
Next thing I know, he jumps in the air and flips into a somersault and kicks the ball in—upside down and backwards. The goddamn goalie never knew what the fuck hit him. Pelé gets excited. He rips off his jersey and starts running around the stadium waving it around over his head. Everybody’s screaming in Spanish. I’m here, sitting alone in my room, and I start crying. [Pause.] Yeah, that’s right, I start crying. Because another human being, a species that I happen to belong to, could kick a ball, and lift himself, and the rest of us sad-assed human beings up to a better place to be, if only for a minute . . . Let me tell ya, kid—it was pretty goddamned glorious.
That is the magic of sports. To see something seemingly impossible, reminding us that if one person can do it, then we all somehow share in that achievement. It is what sends children onto playgrounds to duplicate a LeBron layup or a Steph Curry three-pointer. Or Mia Hamm inspiring a whole generation of girls to come off the bleachers and onto the field. Millions of children across the country pushing themselves toward excellence because they saw an athlete do something spectacular and they want to do it too. Or at least try. That same kind of drive is behind many of humankind’s greatest achievements.
And it’s all exceptionally glorious.
Here’s the main reason I don’t care that much about my record being broken: I’m no longer focused on my basketball legacy as much as I am on my social legacy. I’m not trying to build a billion-dollar empire, I write articles in defense of democracy and advocating on behalf of the marginalized. (Maybe the billions will roll in eventually if I write a really, really great article.) I also am deeply involved in my charity, the Skyhook Foundation, which treats disadvantaged kids to week-long STEM education in the Angeles National Forest. That and my family are all I have the energy for. (Did I mention, I’m 75!)
Why LeBron and I Haven’t Had a Relationship
LeBron said we don’t have a relationship. He’s right—and for that I blame myself. Not for anything I did, but perhaps for not making more of an effort to reach out to him. By nature I have never been a chummy, reaching-out kind of guy (as the media was always quick to point out). I’m quiet, shy, and am such a devoted homebody that you’d think I have agoraphobia. I like to read, watch TV, listen to jazz. That’s pretty much it. For the past 15 years my focus has been less on forming new relationships than on nurturing my old friendships with people like Magic, Michael Cooper, Jerry West, and so on.
I think the main reason that I never formed a bond with LeBron (again, entirely my fault) is simply our age difference. I established my scoring record in 1984—the year LeBron was born. When he started to make a name for himself, I was already pretty removed from the NBA world. Except for certain gala events, I was just like any other fan, watching games on my TV in my sweatpants while munching on too many unhealthy snacks.
That disconnect is on me. I knew the pressures he was under and maybe I could have helped ease them a bit. But I saw that LeBron had a friend and mentor in Kobe Bryant and I was just an empty jersey in the rafters. I couldn’t imagine why he’d want to hang with someone twice his age. How many do?
Why I’m Happy That LeBron Broke My Record
I have written many articles lavishly praising LeBron. In 2020, I wrote an article for Sports Illustrated describing why LeBron deserved to be named Sportsperson of the Year. In the article, I wrote, “Part of being a hero is to have both the modesty to feel unworthy of such a heavy word and the strength to accept the responsibility that comes with others looking to you to be that hero. What is a hero but someone who stands up for those who can’t? Who embodies our cherished ideals of sportsmanship: fair play, hard work and compassion? That pretty much describes the LeBron James I’ve watched and come to know since he was the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft and was named Rookie of the Year.”
Regarding whether or not LeBron is the GOAT, I wrote, “Lending weight to the vocal GOAT herders is the fact that LeBron is closing in on my NBA record for most points scored: 38,387. LeBron is about 4,000 points behind, but I was an elderly 42 when I retired and he’s a sprightly 35. He averages about 2,000 points a season, so in two years he could break my record. How does that make me feel? Excited. I expect to be there if and when he does it, cheering him on—as I know he will be on that day in the future when someone surpasses his mark. Breaking a sports record is a celebration of the human drive to push past known limitations, to redefine what we are capable of. It is an acknowledgement that humans have the capacity to always be improving, physically and mentally.” (Earvin, did you not read that article?)
My good opinion of LeBron has grown in the two years since I wrote that. His passion for social justice and bettering his community has only increased—and his athleticism has soared to a whole other level of performance.
While it’s true that I have taken a couple minor jabs at him over vaccine protocols—which in my mind was the kind of nudging one teammate does with another—I know that LeBron is too accomplished, mature, and savvy to hold a grudge over something so petty. That’s why I don’t want my fans to in any way tarnish or equivocate his enormous achievement. This is all about LeBron doing something no one else has done, about scoring more points than anyone has been able to in 75 years. There are no “yeah, buts,” just praise where it is rightfully and righteously due.
Bottom line about LeBron and me: LeBron makes me love the game again. And he makes me proud to be part of an ever-widening group of athletes who actively care about their community.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the black jacket I wore last night when LeBron broke my record. It’s part of a new adidas Evolution of Excellence line that is being made available to members only through Club Skyhook. Check it out here.
Copyright © 2023 Kareem Abdul-Jabbaar. All Rights Reserved. Any republication shall include a link to kareem.substack.com
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Man Kareem. Some things you write leave me looking at the screen and thinking for a second that everything is all right in the world. This is one of them. Thank you.
My white, 5’2”, blonde wife has never forgotten the time, many years ago (during your playing days), when you did “reach out” to her. She was alone and lonely in an an airport restaurant. The two of you were the only people there, and you came over to her table and asked her if she’d mind if you joined her. She was not a sports fan and didn’t know who you were. This happened many years before I met her, and she’d had a tough life. She has never forgotten your kindness, your intelligence, and that you were one of the very few perfect gentlemen she’s ever met. We share your compassion for those most in need of it—you have always been one of our heroes. Thank you, Kareem.