LOS ANGELES — LeBron James moved past Michael Jordan into fourth place on the NBA’s career scoring list Wednesday night.
The Los Angeles Lakers superstar scored his 32,293rd point on a driving layup in the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets, getting fouled in the act and hitting the ensuing free throw.
This achievement was particularly special to James, who grew up in Ohio idolizing Jordan. James tweeted his excitement about the milestone shortly before the game: “Can’t even front. This is going to be UNREAL!! Wow man.”
James began the night needing 13 points to reach the mark. He now trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kobe Bryant (33,643).
— NBA (@NBA) March 7, 2019
Under direction from the NBA, the Lakers waited until the next timeout to honor James, who got a standing ovation from his new Los Angeles fans during a tribute video. James, still engrossed in the game, barely acknowledged the milestone after receiving hugs from several teammates.
James finished with 31 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, but powerful Denver beat the Lakers 115-99.
From the very first day James picked up a basketball, he wanted to be like Mike.
James and his closest friends idolized Michael Jordan while they grew up together on Akron’s competitive playgrounds and tough streets. As James grew into a tantalizing basketball prospect capable of jumping from high school to the NBA as the No. 1 draft pick, he studied, imitated and drew profound inspiration from Jordan’s tongue-wagging dunks, that fadeaway jumper, his competitive fire – even the little details of the way Jordan wore his sneakers and shorts.
James proudly put No. 23 on his back as soon as he could get it as a high school sophomore. He has never taken it off.
“He was everything,” James said.
When James surpassed Jordan’s career points total Wednesday night, he did it in a pair of Nikes with “Thank You M.J.” written neatly on the side. That tribute doesn’t begin to encompass what Jordan’s radiance meant to a youngster who dreamed of finding a better life through basketball.
“M.J. was an inspiration,” James said. “M.J. was the lightning in a bottle for me, because I wanted to be like him.”
James has grown into a 34-year-old man with three championship rings and a redoubtable 16-year NBA career. Yet he is still in awe of Jordan, who has represented the apex of achievement for his entire life.
He bettered Jordan’s scoring mark with another variation of the brute physical brilliance that defines his playing style – a style that was influenced by Jordan’s combination of grace and aggressiveness. His struggling Lakers rallied late on Wednesday, but dropped their fourth straight game in a season that appears to be lost.
Like I wrote on my shoes today, I thank M.J. more than he would ever know. I’ve got to carry it on to the next kid. Hopefully I can inspire the next kid.”
LeBron James, on Michael Jordan
Every loss eats at James, yet he fidgeted in front of his locker afterward with the anxiousness of a rookie, still buzzing over the enormity of the moment in his life.
“When you’re an inner-city kid from Akron, Ohio, like myself and my guys growing up, you look for anything that can inspire you,” James said. “You’re always just up against the numbers of failing. The percentages of guys like myself – single-parent household, only child, underprivileged – (the chance of) making it out is not high at all. M.J. 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 up a 45-minute flight away from Chicago, where he was putting in that work.”
James acknowledged he missed most of the tribute video aired at Staples Center during the timeout after his milestone points. That’s because he was crying into a towel on the Lakers’ bench.
James is among the last active players who were old enough to witness Jordan in his prime with the Chicago Bulls. Little LeBron would buy packs of basketball cards hoping for a Jordan, and he would study every aspect of Jordan’s game, down to the way he wore his calf sleeve turned slightly inside-out so that the red lining showed.
James couldn’t afford Air Jordans, but he remembers walking through the mall and marveling at the pristine red-and-black shoes. They inspired him to dream of having his own shoes, a natural result of being the star he hoped to become.
“You guys have no idea what M.J. did for me and my friends growing up,” James said. “Just in a sense of, some days where you just don’t feel like you’re going to make it to the next day where I grew up, because of everything that’s going on. Like I wrote on my shoes today, I thank M.J. more than he would ever know. I’ve got to carry it on to the next kid. Hopefully I can inspire the next kid.”
James is an inspiration to a generation now, many of whom have already reached the NBA. Several of the Nuggets spoke of idolizing James while they grew up, and his own Lakers locker room includes teammates playing alongside one of their boyhood heroes.
“I never saw Michael live,” said Moritz Wagner, the Lakers’ 21-year-old German rookie center. “(James) is the G.O.A.T. of our generation.”
James trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kobe Bryant (33,643) on the scoring chart. He seems likely to become the top scorer in NBA history if major injuries don’t cloud his next three seasons with the Lakers – but those moments just might not resonate as profoundly for James.
“To see where he is now is remarkable,” said Denver coach Michael Malone, an assistant coach with the Cavs from 2005-10. “He makes everybody around him better. … He made us look like really good coaches in Cleveland. I know that LeBron James is arguably one of the greatest ever to lace them up, and this is a great accomplishment in his career.”
Five of the top six scorers in NBA history played for the Lakers, who signed James as a free agent last summer. Although James has only played 47 games for Los Angeles, he has charged up the career scoring chart in that time: He passed Dirk Nowitzki for sixth place in October, and he passed Wilt Chamberlain for fifth in November.
He would have hit this milestone earlier in the winter, but a midseason groin injury on Christmas sidelined him for 17 games over five weeks — the longest injury absence of his career.
This achievement also might be the biggest highlight of a disappointing season with the Lakers (30-35), who have fallen to the fringe of playoff contention. The struggles bother James, who has played in the last eight NBA Finals and hasn’t missed the postseason since 2005.
But James still seems relatively content with his move to Hollywood, where he is closer to his burgeoning career as an entertainment mogul. He has spoken repeatedly of patience with the young Lakers while the club attempts to land a second superstar to turn James’ next team into a title contender.
Even if this season is a failure, James will never forget the night when he made a historic connection with his childhood hero.
“It’s crazy,” James said. “My high school best friends, they text me and they can’t believe it. I can’t believe it either. We remember walking up and down those Akron streets with a basketball, just singing, `I wanna be, I wanna be, I wanna be like Mike.’ “