LeBron James is a truly worthy successor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s long-held NBA all-time scoring crown.
“I’m not a scorer. I don’t want to be labelled as a scorer. I can put the ball in the hoop but I’m a playmaker. I’m a player. Put me on the court and I’ll find ways to be successful.” – LeBron James, May 2017
Almost six years after uttering those words before a Cleveland Cavaliers Eastern Conference Finals clash with the Boston Celtics, James – now clad in the purple and gold of the Los Angeles Lakers – has passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career total of 38,387 points to become the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
An all-time scoring record claimed by a pass-first player who does not even consider himself a scorer? On a superficial level, that is more than a little ironic. But consider this: it took Abdul-Jabbar 1,560 games over 20 years to set his total of 38,387 career points. It has taken James two decades to pass that mark.
The all-time scoring record is about more than putting the ball in the hoop.
Becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring champion requires longevity, durability, resilience, fitness, a will to win bordering on compulsive, the ability to adapt to a changing sporting landscape and, most of all, a love of the game.
On those terms, there is no more worthy successor to Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring crown than James.
But it will not define him.
With the scoring record looming before him, the 38-year-old James produced a 28-point triple-double in Madison Square Garden on January 31 to lead the Lakers past the New York Knicks and vault above iconic point guards Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into fourth place on the NBA’s all-time assists list.
In doing so, he now sits as the only player in the top five for both career points and career assists.
The man who famously proclaimed himself ‘more than an athlete’ is also more, so much more, than a scorer.
From one Laker to another
The all-time scoring crown passed from Abdul-Jabbar to James during the Lakers’ game against the Oklahoma CIty Thunder at the Crypto.com Arena on February 8.
With 10.9 seconds remaining in the third quarter, James drained a 13ft turnaround fadeaway jump shot over Kenrich Williams to finally overtake Abdul-Jabbar, breaking a record that had stood for 38 years, 10 months and two days.
The game was halted as Abdul-Jabbar and NBA commissioner Adam Silver took to the court to honour James, the former raising a basketball skywards before handing it to James, marking the passing of the torch, before the pair shook hands and shared a brief hug as a raucous crowded erupted with ‘MVP’ chants.
A visibly emotional James addressed the crowd before celebrating with his mother, wife, children and team-mates.
“To be able to be in the presence of such a legend as Kareem means so much to me and is very humbling,” he said before asking the crowd for a standing ovation for Abdul-Jabbar.
“To my beautiful wife, my daughter, my two boys, my friends, my mother, everybody who has ever been part of this with me for the last 20-plus years, I just want to say ‘thank you so much’, because I wouldn’t be me without y’all. All of your help, all of your passion, all your sacrifices helped me to get to this point.
“And to the NBA, to Adam Silver, to the late great [former NBA commissioner] David Stern, I thank you guys so much for allowing me to be part of something I’ve always dreamed about. I would never, ever, in a million years dreamt this even better than what it is tonight. Thank you, guys.”
After such an emotional outpouring, it was perhaps not a surprise James and Lakers could not muster a run to overhaul the Thunder and win the game. Buoyed by 30 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder ran out 133-130 winners. But the result was a minor detail on a night where James claimed a record many thought would never be broken.
Shared qualities of two scoring champions
While LeBron and Kareem are from different eras and very different players, both men dominated the league for extended periods of time.
Abdul-Jabbar was the undisputed best player in the league throughout 1970s, winning six MVP awards between the 1969-70 and 1979-80 seasons. His signature Sky Hook, a shot epitomising his grace and finesse, remains the game’s most accurate and unstoppable weapon.
James, playing in an era with a greater number of teams and a higher overall level of talent, won four MVPs in five seasons between 2008 and 2013. His status as the league’s standard-bearer has lasted far longer. “I should have more than four [MVPs] I believe”, James told USA Today in 2019 and it is hard to argue with him.
The shared longevity of the two players is best illustrated through their ability to perform at their very best in the biggest moments late in their careers.
The then-38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers past the Boston Celtics in the 1985 NBA Finals, averaging 25.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists to claim his second Finals MVP, 14 years after he won his first.
In 2020, the 35-year-old James won his fourth NBA title, powering the Lakers past the Miami Heat in six games inside the Orlando ‘bubble’. His 29.8-point, 11.8-rebound, 8.5-assist haul earned him a fourth Finals MVP award, eight years after he won his first.
Remaining at the pinnacle of a sport for two decades through unwavering dedication to fitness and a desire to push beyond conventional thinking is another trait Abdul-Jabbar and James share.
In 2018, Maverick Carter revealed James, his business partner, was spending $1.5m per year on his body in order to prolong his career at the highest level. According to Carter, James had embraced “cryotherapy, hyperbaric chambers, NormaTec leg boots etc” to bolster a strict training routine and a diet provided by a personal chef.
The 7ft 2in Abdul-Jabbar, who played college and professional basketball in a far more physical, lower-tech era, found forward-thinking ways to take care of his body.
As a teenage high school player, Abdul-Jabbar embraced yoga and practised it throughout his professional career, later acknowledging it helped kept him injury free, particularly in his final few seasons.
Abdul-Jabbar also gravitated to martial arts in the late 1960s, training with Bruce Lee (and famously appearing alongside Lee in the movie ‘Game of Death’). The flexibility, fluidity and balance he discovered from both pursuits shone through in the way he played on the court.
The last landmark
Abdul-Jabbar played his final NBA season in 1988-89. Durable to the end, he played 74 of 82 regular games on a season-long farewell tour before calling time on his glittering career at 42 years of age.
It is likely we will see James, currently in the middle of a regular season in which he is averaging 30 points a game, play into his 40s too.
With more championships, individual awards and statistical landmarks to his name than any other NBA player in history, James has found the motivation to remain at the top level from a source closer to home.
James has regularly spoken of his desire to remain an NBA player until his son, LeBron James Jr, is able to play alongside him. The earliest ‘Bronny’, currently a high school senior, could play in the NBA is the 2024-25 season.
What better spur for James to continue playing than ultimately throwing an assist to his son Bronny in an NBA game? The NBA’s greatest-ever scorer, but a playmaker until the end.