The fun began in earnest on Oct. 29, 2003, in Sacramento, California. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Sacramento Kings. First quarter, nine minutes remaining.
LeBron James moved through the paint, left to right, and used a screen by Carlos Boozer to separate enough from Mike Bibby. LeBron received a bounce pass from Ricky Davis, dribbled once and elevated from the baseline. The right arm extended, the wrist flicked and the ball arched toward the rim.
LeBron James — at the age of 18 years, 303 days — had made the first shot attempt of his NBA career. That the rebuilding Cavs proceeded to lose the game barely registered; what mattered was the impact of the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2003. LeBron scored 25 on 12-of-20 shooting and had nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in 43 minutes.
LeBron, for all of his youth, talent and ambition, could not have imagined that the 16-foot jumper from the right baseline would be the first two of an NBA record for career points in the regular season. From those points forward, LeBron needed 38,385 more to tie Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If he made the calculations at that moment, he would have realized that he was .00005% of the way to the summit. If he scored 25 every night, he would get there in 1,536 games.
How could LeBron at age 18 — how could anyone at any age — be expected to dream that big?
For someone to score one point in the NBA is an incredible accomplishment. It means the player has beaten ridiculously long odds, regardless of upbringing. Countless millions have played basketball; plenty think they are NBA worthy; an infinitesimally small fraction actually make it. For a player from a broken home and poverty in inner-city Akron, Ohio, to scale the 38,387-point mountain, well, those odds don’t register.
Yet, here we are, 19 seasons later, and Los Angeles Lakers all-positions standout LeBron overtook Kareem, the legendary center for the Milwaukee Bucks (1969-75) and Los Angeles Lakers (1975-1989), Tuesday night with a 14-foot jump shot. Kareem has been the NBA all-time points leader since April 5, 1984, when he passed Wilt Chamberlain.
LeBron rates as one of the greatest stories not only in basketball history but in sports history. A movie will be made — provided, of course, that the script isn’t rejected for being too implausible. It’s a good thing LeBron owns a production company.
LeBron likes to say that he is "just a kid from Akron.’’ The sports world viewed him differently, beginning in middle school. By the time he enrolled at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, he was pegged to be a star at the professional level. By the time he graduated from SVSM in 2003, he was one of the most celebrated amateur athletes ever. Sports Illustrated put him on a cover, in SVSM Irish uniform, mouth open, ball behind the right ear, and dubbed him "The Chosen One.’’
All of the hype, all of the predictions of greatness, guaranteed absolutely nothing. If anything, the nonstop attention made it a more difficult road. Players already in the NBA, especially the accomplished elder statesmen, could not wait to see what all the fuss was about — and teach the young man a lesson or three. The Chosen One? Really? We’ll see about that.
(Yes, it is true that LeBron did not ride in the caboose of the hype train. At various times, he was the engineer, or conductor. He stayed true to his roots, but, at the same time, enjoyed the limelight to varying degrees.)
Regardless of the attention driver, LeBron’s burden of proof was ginormous. It came with immense scrutiny and pressure, largely because professional sports can be merciless: can’t-miss-kid one minute, wash-out the next. Some of the same people who show love and admiration early have no compunction about rooting for failure later. Rare is the athlete who not only withstands the heat and fulfills promise, but establishes a new standard. LeBron long ago began running with basketball’s all-time best; now he stands alone as holder of one of the most cherished records in sports.
How LeBron chased down Kareem is fascinating, a reflection of his relentless drive to improve and a testament to his vow never to cheat the game. LeBron’s regular-season points total of 38,390 includes 17.5% via the 3-point shot. If LeBron had been a long-range marksman since grade school, such a percentage would not be noteworthy. The LeBron of SVSM, though, while capable of knocking down long jump shots, built his brand as a high-flyer. His once-in-a-generation prospect status derived primarily from the ways he put the ball in the basket from mid- and short-range, and from bully-ball power moves that resulted in layups or dunks. LeBron knew that, at 6-foot-9 and chiseled, the arsenal could serve him well as a pro — but how well? He recognized that the NBA game was evolving to encourage more and more bombers to let it fly. He knew that joining the 3-point party was more a necessity than a luxury, so he turned himself into a serviceable 3-point shooter.
LeBron’s career 3-point shooting percentage of .344 is not going to make Steph Curry quake — as opposed to, say, reminding Curry that his 73-9 Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals to LeBron’s Cavs — but it does allow LeBron to kick his career field-goal percentage of .505 to an effective field-goal percentage, or eFG%, of .545. The eFG% is preferred by 21st-century talent evaluators because it incorporates the value of the 3-point shot.
Among the NBA’s top five all-time in points, LeBron ranks second in eFG%.
1. Kareem .559 FG%, .559 eFG%
2. LeBron .505 FG%, .545 eFG%
3. Karl Malone .516 FG%, .518 eFG%
4. Michael Jordan .497 FG%, .509 eFG%
5. Kobe Bryant .447 FG%, .482 eFG%
The 3-pointer diversified LeBron’s game to the extent that he became unguardable and, therefore, unstoppable. He became a threat from basically anywhere inside of 30 feet, something that never happened for Kareem (1-of-18 from 3-point range in 10 seasons played with 3-point line) or Malone (85-of-310, .274, in 19 seasons). Bryant, as magnificent as he was as a jump shooter, went 1,827-of-5,546 (.329) from 3-point range in 20 seasons. Jordan, considered by many to be the G.O.A.T., shot 581-of-1,778 (.327) in 15 seasons.
Sorry, MJ and Kobe fans: LeBron is the more efficient scorer, by a comfortable margin.
That LeBron has amassed a record points total while being ball-dominant makes it all the more impressive. He rarely has benefitted from a superior point guard or point guards, as was the case with the majority of the other top-10 all-time scorers. An offense that often begins and ends with point-forward LeBron brings an added layer of mental responsibility and physical wear and tear. Where the latter is concerned, LeBron is a magnet for double-teams and, because of his strength, endures a pounding from opponents. His points simply are harder to attain.
Great scorers have varying degrees of selfishness; otherwise, a premium skill set would not be maximized. A team that desperately needs points does not complain when the best scorer demands the ball. Where LeBron separates himself is with a complementary willingness to distribute. He is very much the accidental points king. When LeBron is not scoring, he is setting up teammates.
“The scoring record was never, ever even thought of in my head because I’ve always been a pass-first guy,’’ LeBron once told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
LeBron’s combination of basketball IQ, court vision, instincts and innate passing ability has created a scorer unlike any the NBA game has ever seen. He ranks fourth all-time with 10,354 assists; the other four in the top five are pure point guards (John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Steve Nash). LeBron is an offensive Dr. Frankenstein
The others on the NBA’s top-10 points list are not in the same area code in assists:
1. LeBron 10,354
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 5,660
3. Karl Malone 5,248
4. Kobe Bryant 6,306
5. Michael Jordan 5,633
6. Dirk Nowitzki 3,651
7. Wilt Chamberlain 4,643
8. Shaquille O'Neal 3,026
9. Carmelo Anthony 3,422
10. Moses Malone 1,796
It is almost inconceivable that LeBron is 4,000-plus assists clear of No. 2 Bryant.
Oh, by the way: LeBron has grabbed 10,583. Bryant and Jordan combined for 13,719 rebounds. Factor in LeBron’s steals (2,175) and blocks (1,065) and overall defensive performance, and the NBA has its all-time most complete player.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate LeBron as regular-season points king is to look elsewhere from the 38,390 and counting. What sounds counterintuitive makes sense given that his most important work on the court does not count toward that number. It never has.
Players want to get paid, no question, so they need to perform in the regular season. Players also want to win. LeBron has participated in 15 postseasons and won four rings with three franchises (Miami, twice Cleveland; L.A. Lakers). He is not a winner along the lines of Bill Russell (11 titles in 13 seasons) or Jordan (6 for 6 in Finals), but he need not apologize for anything. LeBron has played 11,035 minutes of 266 postseason games, averaging 28.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.2 assists. He has authored another NBA career — and still, despite all of the additional wear and tear on the body, maintained MVP-caliber performance into his age-38 season.
LeBron is the NBA’s all-time leader in playoff points with 7,631. Jordan is second with 5,987. There are just six members of the 5,000-postseason-points club:
1. LeBron 7,631
2. Jordan 5,987
3. Abdul-Jabbar 5,762
4. Bryant 5,640
5. O’Neal 5,250
6. Tim Duncan 5,172
LeBron’s playoff total, alone, would rank him inside the top 600 in regular-season points. It is remarkable to note big names in NBA history who never reached 7,600 points in the regular season. The list includes Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who had 6,215.
Best of all, LeBron is ours. He is the kid from Akron and, therefore, Northeast Ohio’s own. He played in Miami and is playing in Los Angeles, but he is ours. He will finish his career with more seasons played in Cleveland (11) than anywhere else. He was born here, raised here, drafted into the NBA here, and broke a 52-year title drought here.
And now he is the all-time points leader.
LeBron allowed us to believe the hype.