Sometimes as a reporter, your job is to ask a question that you think you know the answer to.
After LeBron James passed Michael Jordan for fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with a left-handed, and-1 layup on Wednesday against Denver that got him to 32,295 points for his career, many of us reporters gathered to interview Lebron in the postgame locker room.
First, I asked about the significance of the milestone itself, and about the tribute LeBron wrote to Jordan on his sneakers (Thank You MJ 23), before getting to the question I had an idea how he might answer: why was Jordan his guy growing up?
“Well I mean what made him the guy for everybody? He was everything. I mean, name it. He was everything. Obviously we all saw how unbelievable he was on the floor, but his swag, the way he wore his shoes, the way he wore his shorts with the tights hanging out with the 23 on the tights. The way he wore his calf sleeve, folded it down so you could see the red part on the other side. The way he wore his wristband on his elbow with the 23. Everything. You used to see the cars he used to pull up in at the old stadium in Chicago. Obviously the Gatorade commercials, the McDonald’s commercials."
James wanted to “Be Like Mike,” as the commercials suggested. He wanted to shoot fadeaways like MJ, stick his tongue out on dunks like MJ, wear his sneakers like MJ. James put posters on his walls of MJ, and even watched the cartoon he was in with Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson, called “ProStars.” He saw him on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids, and S.I. itself, and hoped to get his basketball card out of a pack. He’d see Jordan’s shoes at the mall, but unable to afford them, would think about when he could one day.
The reason I thought I knew the answer was that I could relate to that as a kid who grew up in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, smack in the middle of MJ’s reign. The idea of Michael Jordan was even more powerful than the 6’6’’ force of nature on the basketball court. He was my hero, too. But as LeBron spoke of how crazy it was for a kid from a tough part of Akron, Ohio, in a one-parent household he often references, to surpass the one player that he and all of his friends idolized and mimicked for so many years, he took it to a deeper level.
Sure, LeBron being a ridiculous talented basketball player meant he could relate to what he was watching on those Chicago Bulls teams in a way most could not, but really, seeing Jordan represented a chance to dream of a way to change his life circumstances.
“I mean just listen man, I always tell you guys, when you an inner city kid from Akron, Ohio, like myself and my guys growing up, you look for anything, any lightning in a bottle that can inspire you, because you’re put up against the numbers of failing,” said LeBron. “The percentages of guys like myself, single-parent household, only child, underprivileged. Making it out, it’s not high at all. And MJ had a lot to do with me making it out, along with my mother, along with the city itself, along with the little league coaches I had. But Mike had no idea what he was doing for a kid that was growing a 45-minute flight from Chicago when he was putting in that work.”
The idea that James passed Jordan on the scoring charts is especially interesting because LeBron has always considered himself a pass-first player. In fact, he recently claimed the 10th spot on the all-time assists list, becoming the only NBA player to enter the top 10 in both points and assists.
“It hits it in a certain way because I’ve always been a pass first guy,” said LeBron. “I’ve always since I started playing the game of basketball and was taught by my little league coach and father figure Frank Walker, he always said you get a lot more thrill out of seeing your teammates succeed and that’s how I was taught … So that’s why it’s so crazy to me right now … just seeing where I’m at in the scoring of all-time greats in this game of basketball, because I’ve never been about scoring.”
LeBron’s incredible longevity has helped as well, as he’s been scoring consistently and constantly since he entered the league in 2003. Jordan claims the best scoring average in history, at 30.1 points per game, compared to LeBron’s 27.2. Not that LeBron is a slouch in that category … Wilt (30.1) and Elgin Baylor (27.4) are the only other players to have averaged more points.
Perhaps more than anything else, LeBron appears to just be thankful.
History in his hands pic.twitter.com/HNtbtSFzCl— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 7, 2019
“You guys have no idea what MJ did for me and my friends growing up just in the sense of some days where you just don’t even feel like you going to make it to the next day because of everything that’s going on so,” he concluded. “Like I wrote on my shoes tonight, like you saw, I thanked MJ more than he would’ve ever known. And I got to carry it all to the next kid, hopefully I can inspire the next kid like myself.”