On Tuesday night, LeBron James broke the NBA’s all-time scoring record, originally held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Needing 36 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron scored 38 points, bringing his career total to 38,390 points scored. Breaking Kareem’s record was a feat that many believed to be impossible to reach. The game was paused with 10.9 seconds remaining in the third quarter to honor LeBron, with a tribute video being played on the big screen. LeBron gave a speech honoring Kareem and acknowledging that the achievement would not be possible without him.
By Ben Golliver; February 8, 2023
LOS ANGELES — Basketball has a new scoring king.
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James unseated Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer Tuesday night, breaking a record that was once thought untouchable by hitting a fadeaway jumper from the top of the key late in the third quarter of a 133-130 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. For James, a four-time NBA champion, a four-time MVP and a four-time Finals MVP, passing Abdul-Jabbar’s hallowed record of 38,387 points reflects an unmatched standard of consistency and scoring prowess across 20 seasons.
With less than 15 seconds remaining in the third quarter, James backed down on Thunder forward Kenrich Williams at the left elbow and worked his way across the paint. After bumping Williams to create space, James faded away and to his left, holding his follow-through as his jumper swished through to a loud ovation.
“I was able to get to a really good spot on the floor, where I’m very comfortable, and get to one of my patented fadeaway shots,” James said. “A lot of people wanted me to go to the skyhook to break the record, or one of my signature dunks. But my fadeaway is a signature play as well. I was able to get it, and it touched nothing but the bottom of the net.”
James then jogged down the court, raising both of his arms in celebration. The officials stopped the game for a brief ceremony with 10.9 seconds remaining in the period, as a video tribute played on the video board recognizing big moments from James’s career, including his titles with the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers and Lakers. James was joined on the court by his family, Abdul-Jabbar and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for a presentation of the game ball.
Later, in a statement, Silver saluted James’s “towering achievement,” adding that “quite amazingly, LeBron continues to play at an elite level and his basketball history is still being written.”
Before giving a brief speech, James choked back tears and posed for photos with Silver and Abdul-Jabbar, who held up a single finger in recognition of the achievement.
“To be in the presence of a legend as great as Kareem means so much to me,” James said. “It’s very humbling. Please give a standing ovation to the Captain.”
James then thanked his family, friends and “everyone who has been a part of this run” for the past two decades.
“I wouldn’t be me without y’all,” James said. “All your help, your passion and your sacrifice has helped me get to this point. To the NBA, to Adam Silver, to the late, great David Stern, I thank you guys for allowing me to be a part of something I’ve always dreamed about. I never, ever in a million years would have dreamt this even better than what it is tonight.”
James finished with 38 points, seven rebounds and three assists, shooting 13 for 20 from the field, 4 for 6 on three-pointers and 8 for 10 from the free throw line. He has scored 38,390 career points.
The milestone moment, which came at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles in front of a sellout crowd that repeatedly chanted “M-V-P” as he closed in on the record, was preceded by months of anticipation during an otherwise underwhelming Lakers campaign. James opened the season at media day in September saying he was “in awe” of the scoring record, and his chase of Abdul-Jabbar has been tracked on a game-by-game basis for weeks.
With James needing just 36 points to pass Abdul-Jabbar entering Tuesday, two courtside seats were listed on Ticketmaster for $75,000 each in the hours before tip-off. Meanwhile, the Lakers issued more than 200 media credentials, a season-high and roughly triple the typical number, and they deployed large video boards adjacent to the jumbotron to track James’s real-time progress relative to Abdul-Jabbar. At a hotel across from the arena, a large billboard bore James’s image and an appropriate tagline for the occasion: “Play the game. Then change it forever.”
Basketball royalty and A-list Hollywood celebrities dotted the crowd. Abdul-Jabbar sat in a baseline courtside seat near the Lakers’ bench, while Silver was joined by a cadre of league office employees on hand to recognize the historic achievement. In an homage to his target, James spent a few minutes working on his own version of Abdul-Jabbar’s signature skyhook during his pregame warmup.
Actor Denzel Washington, entertainers Jay-Z and Bad Bunny, boxer Floyd Mayweather, Nike co-founder Phil Knight, sports commentator Shannon Sharpe, former NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter, Dallas Mavericks General Manager Nico Harrison and former Lakers players Magic Johnson, Bob McAdoo, James Worthy and A.C. Green were all in attendance, as were James’s longtime business associates Rich Paul and Maverick Carter. James’s mother, Gloria, wife, Savannah, and children Bronny, Bryce and Zhuri turned the evening into a family affair. Jim Gray, the host of James’s polarizing “Decision” free agency special in 2010, also mingled courtside before the game.
Perhaps fueled by what he told ESPN was his “disappointment” over the Lakers’ inability to trade for former teammate Kyrie Irving, or simply a desire to end the circus that has developed around his chase, James came out unusually aggressive, attempting his first shot on the game’s opening possession, scoring eight points in the first quarter, tallying 20 by halftime and breaking the record before the fourth quarter. His every shot was greeted with excited shouts from the crowd, and each made basket drew loud cheers.
James surpassed Abdul-Jabbar in fewer games (1,410 to 1,560), with a higher scoring average (27.2 points per game to 24.6) and at a younger age (38 to 42).
Of course, James had the benefit of a head start by entering the NBA straight out of high school in 2003 at 18; Abdul-Jabbar spent four years at UCLA and debuted at 22. And after opponents such as the San Antonio Spurs famously dared him to shoot from the outside early in his career, James transformed himself into a reliable three-point shooter, thereby giving him another major edge. The NBA didn’t incorporate the three-point line until 1979-80 — Abdul-Jabbar’s 11th season — and the 7-foot-2 center made just one three-pointer during his career. The 6-9 James, by contrast, has connected on more than 2,200 three-pointers and counting.
“[James] got out of high school, he had the size and the talent to step right into the NBA, and he immediately started to have his effect,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a postgame interview. “That’s gone for almost 20 years now. You’ve got to give him credit for just the way he planned to last and to dominate. He led teams to [four] world championships, and they didn’t get there because of someone else. LeBron led them. He has that indefinable essence that they call leadership.”
Hall of Fame forward Karl Malone had previously come closest to threatening Abdul-Jabbar’s record, retiring with 36,928 points in 2004. Kobe Bryant (33,643) and Michael Jordan (32,292) retired as top-five scorers but never seriously threatened the top spot. Remarkably, the closest active NBA player to James’s total is Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant, 34, who ranks 14th all-time with 26,684 points.
Pitched by scouts as a blend of Jordan and Johnson when he was a teenager, James has long prided himself on his ability to balance scoring and playmaking throughout his career, regularly stating that he tries to “play the right way” rather than pad his own scoring numbers. Proving those lofty pre-draft expectations to be prescient, James now ranks first all-time in scoring and fourth all-time in assists, trailing only John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Chris Paul. James is also the all-time postseason scoring leader with 7,631 points, topping Jordan (5,987), Abdul-Jabbar (5,762) and Bryant (5,640).
Like Abdul-Jabbar, who led the NBA in scoring in his second and third season but never again, James arrived at the summit thanks to constant progress and durability. James’s only scoring title came in 2007-08, while Jordan won 10 and Chamberlain claimed seven. Yet James has averaged at least 20 points per game in all 20 of his seasons — and at least 25 points in the past 19.
More prolific scorers such as Jordan, who retired twice in the middle of his career, and Chamberlain, who called it quits after 14 seasons, proved incapable of matching James’s longevity. As such, James has made steady progress up the all-time scoring charts, passing Chamberlain in November 2018, Jordan in March 2019, Bryant in January 2020 and Malone in March 2022.
In contrast to Abdul-Jabbar, who dominated the paint thanks to his unmatched skyhook, James isn’t typically associated with one trademark move. Early in his career, his highflying transition dunks and chase-down blocks garnered most of the attention. As he aged, James worked to extend his shooting range beyond the arc and to improve his midrange turnaround jumper. In recent years, James has become even more reliant on the three-pointer, adding a look-away and sidestep combination that helps him generate cleaner looks.
Shortly after the game, a relieved and exuberant James shook hands with Abdul-Jabbar, took pictures with his family and watched a video of his record-setting shot filmed by his son, Bronny.
During a postgame news conference in a room that had been rearranged to accommodate a standing room only horde of media members, James sat beside the game ball, which was decorated with a purple crown. He told reporters that he had “dressed for the occasion” with a sharp black suit and black dress shirt, and that he had donned a white headband during the game as a nod to his early days.
“I don’t think it has really hit me on what just transpired,” James said. “As much as I try to live in the moment, it’s kind of a blur.”
Given that James is under contract through the 2024-25 season and said recently that he is “not going anywhere” and plans to play “at least a few more years,” he is on track to become the first NBA player to score 40,000 points — and he could exceed that threshold by a considerable margin.
Before James exited the arena, weaving through dozens of well-wishers, he was asked how the scoring record might impact the “Greatest Of All Time” debates that pit him against Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and other legends.
“It’s great barbershop talk,” James said. “It’s going to happen forever and ever. If I was the GM, or whatever the case may be, of a franchise that was starting up, and I had the No. 1 pick, I’d take me.”