LeBron James had chased this moment, and one man in particular, for the entirety of his career -- all this with the points piling up, the legacy debates intensifying, that sense of history growing heavier and heavier with every bucket that brought him closer to surpassing that revered and lofty number: 38,387.
He wore the Lakers jersey now, the purple and gold perfectly suited for the meaning of the thing. He had the four rings, and the four regular season Most Valuable Player awards, and the four NBA Finals MVPs. The resume was glittering. He'd even cemented himself as the player with the fourth-most assists in NBA history a week earlier, reminding anyone who needed it of the multifaceted absurdness of his basketball gifts.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was there to watch, waiting, like the rest of us. Hollywood royalty filled the first few rows of what was once Staples Center. The media was at a NBA Finals level, overflowing. The weight of it all seemed heavy and beautiful and inevitable.
And when he went for that shot -- iso, a little shoulder nudge, the world watching and excited and holding its breath, and then that fadeaway -- its perfect arch and the two points that pushed him to 38,388 hadn't just moved him beyond Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time scoring record
He'd passed Michael Jordan, too, the true target of his pursuits, the true aim of a career that will now end as the greatest of all time.
There is so much to say about Jordan in defense of his position as the game's GOAT. The six rings, the perfect six-for-six Finals record, the lack of a single Game 7 in any of those Finals wins, the NCAA championship, the cold-blooded and almost mystical basketball ability to win and win and win.
But history has a way of forgetting as much as happening, and LeBron's mark Tuesday will not just etch him in greatness. It will also slightly, slowly, but inevitably help many to remember Jordan as something that was, not something that is.
The past tense can be brutal to those who crave history. And LeBron, in this present, just won the future. The record will last in a way other nuances of greatness won't.
I write this as a child of the Jordan era, as a fan of his, as a kid who grew up wanting to Be Like Mike, playing that jingle over and over and over again, going from Iowa to the Chicago suburbs and back, taking in the two threepeats as from what felt like next door as if I was witness to something never to be repeated.
Back then, wanting to Be Like Mike meant not wanting anyone else to be like him, not really, not when we sized up basketball and pointed to its best ever player. Mike was supposed to stand alone. Forever.
But LeBron is that player now. He has been too astounding for too long, with too much dominance, in a way that makes his greatness so similar to Jordan's but with a longevity Mike cannot match. The all-time scoring record encapsulates all of that.
Even when Jordan reigned as the GOAT, there were other old heads saying, and writing, and debating, and insisting, that it was Kareem who was the true Greatest Of All Time. That it was Kareem who was the all-time scoring leader, and a rebounding machine, and a six-time NBA champion, and all the things that marked his stupefying career.
That Jordan was not it, because they had seen Kareem and they knew. But history moves on. It can be fickle like that.
Part of being the actual all-time best is about erasing, ever so slightly, your rivals' place in the history books. The GOAT game is a zero-sum proposition. You are not just building something. You are chasing someone, and to pass them is to diminish them.
Jordan did that to Kareem, and, in a way, to the Magic-Bird duality that preceded him. Now LeBron has done the same, to all of them.
This record was always about Mike more than Kareem. I can remember, years ago, talking to LeBron for a television interview, the kind where guys, with the camera poised on them and the lights blaring down, tend to shy away from real candor.
LeBron was in a particularly jovial mood that day, but when I asked him about whether he wanted to pass Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all time -- this was before his second stint in Cleveland, in 2013, and it was the kind of question that made most suppress an eye roll and that signal to handlers to end the conversation -- his eyes lit up.
His intensity was real, and even then it was like he was gazing at some future plan he could see. Something like Tuesday night.
"I want to be the greatest player of all time," he said.
And today he is.
LeBron did two things Tuesday night. He passed Kareem. And he diminished, with time, but inevitably, how we will look at Michael Jordan.
Not because Jordan wasn't incredible. Nor historic. Jordan was so wonderful and gifted at the game he seemed to defy what seemed possible with his excellence. But this is how it works, how history can work. History is made and, with it, other parts are incrementally eclipsed, diminished, nudged aside.
It may take time for things to settle, for the zeitgeist to catch up, for the subjective but powerful currents of public opinion to go where they are inevitably headed. The debate will surely rage on, especially this week, but the deed is done.
LeBron didn't just pass Kareem's record. He eclipsed Jordan's No. 1 status.
LeBron is now the GOAT.
LeBron James scoring record commemorative gear now available
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