It was Oct. 29, 2003. LeBron James played his first NBA game. The Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Sacramento Kings, and James scored 25 points.
That night, there were 2,708 names ahead of him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
He’s caught 2,707 of them.
Only one person remains ahead of James on the NBA’s career scoring ladder — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has been the scoring leader since April 5, 1984. His run is about to end, the crown getting passed from one Los Angeles Laker to another in just 1,326 more points.
“To sit here and to know that I’m on the verge of breaking probably the most sought-after record in the NBA, things that people say will probably never be done, I think it’s just super, like, humbling for myself,” James said. “I think it’s super cool.”
The score: Abdul-Jabbar 38,387, James 37,062. At James’ career pace of 27.1 points per game, he’s 49 games away from becoming No. 1; at James’ scoring pace last season of 30.3 per game, he would be 44 games away.
If James doesn’t miss games, the first target window is mid-to-late January. He’ll become the most prolific scorer while being one of the greatest passers ever; James is seventh all-time in assists and should be up to No. 4 when this season ends.
“One of the things that’s really amazing about LeBron is he’s such a willing passer and such a gifted passer,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, who coached James for four seasons (2010-2014) and two championships. “In many ways, that’s one of his most unique, special qualities. And yet, he’s going to break the all-time record for scoring — and that can be a secondary skillset for him. That’s crazy.”
Abdul-Jabbar played 20 seasons. James is entering his 20th season. They put up their points in different ways: James, for example, has 6,420 points in his career from 3-point range. Abdul-Jabbar has three.
Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook took the NBA by storm from the outset. He averaged 30.4 points per game in his first six seasons and 24.6 over his career, though managed only 14.1 per game over his final three seasons.
James hasn’t had a dropoff. He’s averaged at least 25 points per game in each of his last 18 seasons. Before last season, only one player — Kobe Bryant, who put up 22.3 points in 2014-15 — averaged more than 19 points in the 19th season of his career. James averaged just over 30.
Put simply, no NBA player has ever been this good for this long.
“It’s always gratifying to know that the work that you put in can have results,” James said. “I’ve never been a person that cheats the game. I’ve always put the work in.”
He acknowledged a few years back that he “could see” himself catching Abdul-Jabbar, though stressed it wasn’t a priority. The Lakers, just two years removed from the 2020 NBA title, were a disaster last season and missed the playoffs. James’ goal is to get back to championship contention, as he seeks a fifth ring.
His work ethic still astounds those around him.
“LeBron is not from this planet,” first-year Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “That’s for damn sure.”
James and Abdul-Jabbar have had a challenging relationship. Abdul-Jabbar was outside of the Cleveland locker room during the 2016 Eastern Conference finals as James was jogging by. James stopped and the two shared a hug and a few kind words, then later that night James spoke of the respect he has for Abdul-Jabbar and others who paved the way.
Other chapters haven’t gone that smoothly. Abdul-Jabbar has been critical at times, though said earlier this year that he has “deep admiration and respect for LeBron as a community leader and athlete. That hasn’t changed and never will.” Recently, James said he has “no relationship” with Abdul-Jabbar.
“Obviously, Kareem has had his differences with some of my views and some of the things that I do,” James said. “But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy that wore this same uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise … and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well, I think it’s just super-duper dope.”
They’ll be linked all season, at least until the record falls. And that could serve as a refresher course for some fans.
Russell Westbrook’s pursuit of the all-time triple-double record seemed to introduce a younger generation of NBA fans about the greatness of Oscar Robertson. James closing in on Abdul-Jabbar, whose last game was in 1989, might very well do the same thing.
Robert Horry, the seven-time NBA champion who spent seven seasons with the Lakers and is now a broadcaster for the team, said he hopes Abdul-Jabbar benefits from the attention the chase will generate.
“I look at Cap’s record as better than LeBron’s record, because Cap didn’t shoot any 3s,” Horry said, referring to Abdul-Jabbar by one of his nicknames. “When you look at what LeBron’s been able to do, it’s amazing. I’m not taking anything away from LeBron. But you have to look at what Cap did and be like, ‘Man, this dude put in years in college, then he went to the pros and didn’t shoot any 3s and played at a time where the game wasn’t sped up like it is.’ Cap’s record is amazing.”
It is. But soon, it won’t be his anymore. James is about to become the scoring king and, barring injury, he extend the mark for years to come.
“The way he’s always been a student of the game, the way he’s taken care of himself, you always knew he was going to play as long as he wanted,” Spoelstra said. “He hasn’t slowed down. He’s like Tom Brady. He literally can play until he decides, ‘All right, I feel like doing something else.’ And I don’t see that coming.”
— Tim Reynolds, Associated Press Basketball Writer