LOS ANGELES — The elapsed time is 14,075 days and counting since he first stood on the scoring mountaintop, taking ownership back when the NBA belonged to CBS, the Kings to Kansas City and the Clippers to San Diego, while he and the Lakers were ready for another tipoff in Los An … actually, they played in Las Vegas that night.
Yes, a quirky time for the league then, and an odd place for history to happen.
But there was normalcy in how it happened, inside Thomas & Mack Center, which served as a home-away-from home for the Utah Jazz in 1984. The iconic sky hook kissed the sky, then dropped through the net. And with that shot on April 5, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.
Eight months later, the player now positioned to leapfrog him was born. Five years later, when Kareem scored his final basket, the seemingly unattainable standard — 38,387 points for a career — was established.
By every reasonable metric, and assuming good health, LeBron James will become the new king, so to speak, right around mid-January. From Kareem to LeBron, nearly 40 years in the making. It’s a peculiar handoff if only because it links two different eras and men who, based purely on optics, share only the same ball and uniform.
Kareem was raised on Civil Rights and Vietnam, schooled at UCLA, soothed by John Coltrane and groomed in a big man’s NBA where he was, as his cinematic alter-ego Roger Murdock explained in “Airplane!,” out there busting his buns every night dragging Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes. He was moody, suspicious of strangers and reporters, the symptoms of a shy giant who couldn’t duck society if he wore a floppy hat and sunglasses.
LeBron is magnified by cable TV and dissected by social media, name-dropped by Drake and willingly lathers up the global attention, though on his terms. His rare basketball skillset managed to not only adapt to any and all stylistic trends in the game but overwhelm them.
There’s more: Kareem is an extensive reader, deep thinker and poetic writer. He made a fortune and lost some of it through shady management. LeBron built a financial castle greater than the gross national product of entire countries, without a degree or expertise besides basketball.
Partly because of their colliding generations, they lack a meaningful connection. Also: Kareem mildly scolded LeBron last spring regarding his initial nonchalance about the COVID-19 vaccine which caused LeBron to bristle from the criticism. Although an apology came quickly, and Kareem has since expressed admiration for LeBron, the all-time scoring list will represent the only close company they’ll keep until further notice.
LeBron was rather direct recently when asked if he had any thoughts on Kareem or if any relationship exists:
“I have no thoughts and there is no relationship.”
As is often the case in these situations, there’s more commonality than either of them know, more than what the surface shows, which aided both in their respective careers more than they realize.
Hoops, high school and hype …
The two most pursued basketball teenagers of the last 60 years are 1-2 on the NBA career scoring list. The difference is Abdul-Jabbar’s high school games in the mid-1960s weren’t on national TV, there were no AAU travel teams, and most distinctly, a go-directly-to-the-NBA path was not an option for him.
Born in Harlem, Abdull-Jabbar attended Power Memorial Academy, a Manhattan prep powerhouse since bulldozed and replaced by a 38-story condo complex. Power won 71 straight games with a 7-foot-1 center and had lines wrapped around the block. Opposing coaches prepared for Abdul-Jabbar by raising brooms in practice and having teammates shoot over them. It didn’t work — he lost two games in four years.
Despite the absence of the internet and 24-hour sports channels, Kareem was nonetheless magnified in basketball circles in high school. He was already friendly with Wilt Chamberlain — the man whose NBA career scoring record he broke — and Bill Russell, unheard-of then between high schoolers and professionals.
I wouldn’t trade my years at UCLA for an unreachable record.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to NBA.com on spending four years in college
He was on the wish list of every college with a gym. And therein lies the catch: While James went straight from the prom to a paycheck, Abdul-Jabbar had to grab a four-year scholarship. Spencer Haywood wouldn’t win the landmark court case regarding basketball hardship until a few years later. Imagine, then, if Kareem had the benefit enjoyed by LeBron, or was one-and-done with college. His scoring record would be high on the top shelf, requiring a stepladder and Boban Marjanovic to fetch.
As to that lost opportunity, Abdul-Jabbar said: “I wouldn’t trade my years at UCLA for an unreachable record.”
The chance to mingle on campus among regular students, listen to guest speakers discuss politics, get coached by John Wooden and absorb academia, he said, was priceless. And it shows; Kareem is eloquent and informed when discussing most topics, no matter the complexity.
Of course, it seems unfathomable if Abdul-Jabbar would defy all financial logic and spend (some might say waste) four valuable years in college if he came along today as a seven-foot teenager ticketed for greatness in a billion-dollar industry. As a product of his circumstances, he added:
“I went to college to get an education. I knew that my interests and passions extended well beyond basketball. There’s a mistaken belief that if one just reads a lot of books, it’s the same as getting a college education. In fact, college is supposed to teach you how to think critically so that you can better understand the books you read, know what information is worthwhile and what is worthless, and expose you to subjects you might not otherwise be exposed to, even those that make you uncomfortable but force you to think.
“I wish players didn’t go straight from high school into the NBA because I think they miss out on a crucial developmental stage that adds a level of maturity necessary to cope with the pressures of being a professional athlete. Plus, we need to prepare players for life after the NBA. Of course, there are those who went to college but crashed and burned and those who didn’t go who thrived. But that’s not the general rule.”
James was already among the best high school players before he even reached high school. As a sophomore, St. Vincent-St. Mary moved some home games to the University of Akron to satisfy the demand. LeBron was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior and two biographies were in the works. He would’ve been drafted No. 1 overall if eligible, some scouts said then (although passing on Yao Ming, the eventual 2002 choice, was debatable). ESPN also aired his showcase games during his senior season.
“I’ve known and dealt with this all my life,” he said, referring to the crush of attention.
Remarkably, an only child raised by a single mother in a poor neighborhood did not crack. Quite the contrary, actually. LeBron The Teenager avoided many, if not all, of the traps in front of him. He was seasoned as anyone could expect once the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him in 2003 and asked the 18-year-old to save them.
“He was about as dominant as anyone could be, especially at that age,” said Mike Brown, LeBron’s third NBA coach. “What he’s done in his career does not surprise me. And I’ll take it a step further: What he’s done off the floor has not surprised me at all. He’s special.”
Given the intrusion of a generation where everything and everyone undergoes daily if not hourly inspection by the masses, and the demands of being a member of the one-percentile, James’ rise becomes all the more remarkable as he closes in on the record.
“You always see my hashtag, ‘A kid from Akron,’ and these are the moments where I really think about that kid from Akron,” he said at media day. “Walking those streets and either playing basketball where I actually had a basketball in a hoop, or I was actually just walking around and air dribbling and shooting into an invisible hoop and counting ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ and making game-winning shots. It’s a dream come true.”
California calling, L.A. ballin’ …
Long before today’s NBA superstars leveraged their flex to force their way out of town, Abdul-Jabbar wanted what Milwaukee couldn’t offer. After six seasons and a championship, he asked the Bucks to trade him — his hometown New York was the preferred destination — citing a lack of cultural benefits in the drowsy Midwestern hamlet.
There was little public blowback then — again, social media didn’t exist — nothing like what pummeled James when he first bailed on Cleveland for Miami, and then to a lesser extent when, like Kareem, he wound up in L.A. with the Lakers.
Both wanted something beyond basketball, and the scent from L.A. proved both intoxicating and ultimately satisfying. For Kareem, it was a lifestyle uptick and the social goodies that come with fame. He befriended some of his jazz heroes, lived among both beautiful and intellectual people and obviously escaped the winter chill. When a flame destroyed his mansion along with his impressive collection of vinyl jazz records and imported rugs, L.A. fans flocked to replace most of the damage, and Kareem’s rigid stoicism slowly began to wilt in response.
Of course, his fortunes on the floor were enhanced as well. Abdul-Jabbar won five more titles and three of his six NBA MVPs with the Lakers and held a leading role in “Showtime,” the groundbreaking culture that gave growth to the NBA and made the Lakers an iconic franchise.
While those from his generation barked loudly and felt the game was being cheated when current stars began team-swapping over the last decade, Kareem didn’t join the choir. In a sense, he couldn’t, being a trailblazer in that regard. Anyway, he cites employee rights and puts all the power in the hands of those who hold it.
“To play their best, athletes have to be happy in their work,” he said. “If the average person is unhappy in their job, they should have the power to change jobs. The company has the option of changing circumstances so that employee wants to stay. I loved playing with the Bucks, but there’s more to life than my job. I wanted to live someplace where I could enjoy those things that give me pleasure. The game will survive and even flourish no matter who goes where. Sometimes that will lead to imbalances with stacked teams, but even that changes as new players come into the league.”
Meanwhile: LeBron in L.A.? It’s a match made in Hollywood heaven so far. This was mainly a business move, designed to maximize his star power in the entertainment world, where LeBron hopes to become a big player. Since relaunching in L.A., he formed a sports agency, a production company, starred in the “Space Jam” redo, dabbled in ritzy SoCal real estate, created TV shows and gets pitched for movies and documentaries.
“The goal is to make great content that people can enjoy,” said James, meaning the goal has never changed. Content is the product he generates on the court, and now through all forms of media, all while creating wealth.
The idea is to have a second career that rivals if not surpasses the first, which sounds blasphemous … but not impossible. He has yet to have a smash hit on the big or small screen, but LeBron has the attention of the industry and the traditional bigwigs are keeping appointments with him.
Unlike Abdul-Jabbar, who stayed more to himself, James already knows how to play the game in L.A., whose hand to shake, how to give proper time to strategically-placed media people and the magnetism of his name. He realizes that famous and powerful people, more than anything besides money, love other famous and powerful people, so he obliges.
The Lakers, who initially stumbled once Kobe Bryant retired, desperately needed LeBron. They won a title in 2020. But just the same, to execute his master plan, LeBron needed the Lakers.
Age like fine wine, beat Father Time …
It’s the goal of any great player to push the limits and stick around as long as possible, until both the tires and the head are bald. If that happens, it means the player is producing and the limbs are cooperating.
In that sense, Kareem won. He no longer needed a comb in 1989 and managed to stay at a reasonably high level for much of his 20 seasons, gassing out only at the very end. He was an All-Star in 19 of those seasons, won an MVP at 33 and was both All-NBA First Team and Finals MVP at 38. He literally left the game in a rocking chair, a gift from the Lakers at the final stop of his retirement tour.
Part of his sublime conditioning was due to dietary restrictions after converting to Islam in 1971, at age 24. Luck cooperated as well as Kareem missed a swath of games only twice, both due to broken hands. The first happened in the 1974 preseason when he punched a stanchion in frustration after an accidental swipe from Don Nelson scratched his eye. He eventually resorted to wearing goggles, which became a trademark. His other injury came on opening night in 1977, when he punched Kent Benson, who had elbowed him in the stomach. Otherwise, Kareem played at least 79 games in all but four other seasons.
He received a lesson in longevity very early after meeting a martial artist who was more than a foot shorter and many pounds lighter and sold Kareem on the benefits of healthy eating. They struck up a friendship and starred in a movie, “Game of Death,” the final film for Bruce Lee.
“He said to me, `You want jet fuel. Just make sure your dietary foundation is sound.’ So that’s when I stuck with the right meats, poultry, and stayed away from the stuff that’ll kill you.”
LeBron is in his 20th season and perhaps the most productive player in history as he approaches 38. He was All-NBA First Team at 36. He averaged 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game last season at 37.
While his court awareness and skills remain at an MVP level, he has been bedeviled lately by two annoying issues — decaying defense and nagging injuries. LeBron has played what qualifies as a full season only once in his four seasons with the Lakers.
Yet, he’s the model of durability plus performance at a time when others in the famed 2003 draft class (Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony) are either finished or diminished. It’s well known that LeBron spends roughly hundreds of thousands of dollars on his body. He employs a personal staff that prepares meals, stretches him pre- and postgame and supervises weight training, cardio, physical therapy and basketball skill sharpening year-round. LeBron has two teams: the Lakers and his own.
The payoff is handsome because he’s breaking all the rules regarding quickness, endurance, leaping ability and reaction time.
“The way he prepares his body, the way he conditions his body, how he recovers, just making sure all boxes are checked, all Ts are crossed and all Is are dotted,” said first-year Lakers coach Darvin Ham, who’s getting his initial glimpse of LeBron in the lab. “It’s been phenomenal, a blessing to see the time and resources that he puts into himself. He’s arguably the best athlete on our team. To see him dunking, damn near putting his head into the rim, on a lob? To have had his career, all the deep playoff runs, going to the Finals all those years, to still see that pop, that quick twitch? It’s a surprise but also something I kind of expected at the same time.”
Without insane physical maintenance necessary to endure for decades, LeBron is aware the scoring record would be pure fantasy.
“I’ve never played my career with saying if I do this, then this will happen besides just making sure I was in the best shape possible going into a season and being available,” he said. “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 would probably never be done, I think it’s just super humbling for myself.”
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“I’m kind of in awe of it,” he said. “Obviously Kareem has had his differences with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen at the end of the day: To be in the same breath as a guy that has worn this same uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise … I think it’s super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation. Any time my name is mentioned with the greats, it’s super humbling.
“… I think it’s a pretty historical moment when it gets here and as long as my family and friends are all there, that’s the most important for me.”
Family? Friend zone? Well, maybe he doesn’t fit either, but health willing, a 75-year-old with a vested interest in the chase expects to put aside any rift, both real and imagined, and witness the transfer of history.
“LeBron is one of the greatest players to ever have been in the NBA,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “His legacy as a player is assured even if he never played another game. I expect he’ll break my all-time scoring record this year and I hope to be there the day he does, cheering him on. I admire his outspokenness on many social issues and all he’s doing to improve communities and lives everywhere. He’s a great player and a great man.”
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