LOS ANGELES — Lakers fans were slow to warm to LeBron James when he came West in 2018.
Lakers nation was excited about the possibilities but held LeBron at arm’s length. Part of that was the shadow of Kobe Bryant — L.A. was his town, these were his fans, and LeBron felt like a mercenary by comparison. Was he coming to town to carry on the Lakers’ legacy, or to make movies and television shows? It didn’t help that in his first season the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs. A year later when LeBron put banner 17 in the rafters, Lakers fans had to watch it on television while isolated in their homes. There were no fans gathering in bars for watch parties, there could be no championship parade, and there wasn’t the same sense of community around the city.
Tuesday night that changed — Lakers fans fully embraced LeBron, and he cemented his place in NBA history and the Lakers’ pantheon.
With a free throw line turnaround jumper in the third quarter, LeBron passed the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, with 35,388 points (he would finish the night with a couple more.
“I write that ‘Man in the Arena’ on my shoe every single night, from Theodore Roosevelt. Tonight I actually felt like I was like sitting on top of the arena,” LeBron said. “When that shot went in and the roar from the crowd, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to feel that feeling again, unless it’s like a game-winning Finals shot…
“Everything just stopped and it gave me an opportunity just to kind of embrace it and look around. And seeing my family, seeing the fans, seeing my friends, it was, it was, it was pretty cool.”
As the shot fell through the net, LeBron raised his arms and Lakers fans roared as loud as this building has ever heard — it sounded with the echoes of the Shaq/Kobe era and Kobe’s wild 60-point final game. It was history made in purple and gold, it cemented LeBron in the hearts of Lakers fans.
Play was stopped and LeBron soon doubled over with the emotion of the moment. He was wiping away tears, while his sons sitting courtside were filming him on their phones (the way teenagers must in this era). LeBron, at age 38, has spent 20 seasons in the NBA — and a lifetime focused on conditioning and health — to reach this moment, and his emotions hit him when it happened.
Abdul-Jabbar was sitting courtside and was gracious, despite what had been a frosty relationship between the pair in the past. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Abdul-Jabbar took part in a brief ceremony to mark the historic occasion. Then LeBron made an emotional address to the crowd — and dropped an F-bomb at the end, a sign of the emotions and lack of a filter in that moment.
By the middle of the first quarter, it started to feel as if this could be his night, that LeBron was going to to the 36 points he needed. The energy was high, but LeBron started the game 0-of-2 shooting and focusing more on what he has always done — making the right basketball play and dishing off when the defense overloads on him — much to the frustration of the crypto.com arena crowd urging on history. He eventually broke that streak four minutes in with a corner 3.
Soon after LeBron went into attack mode. He was able to get downhill, getting into the paint seemingly at will, and when the Thunder point-of-attack defenders started to play back to take the drive, he knocked down 3s. LeBron was showing off the full arsenal, hitting on post-ups and in transition. It also was a game starting to feel like a lot of Lakers games this season — it was going to take a heroic effort from LeBron just to keep the Lakers in the game (ultimately it wasn’t enough OKC won 133-130).
LeBron had 20 at the half, was scoring whenever he wanted, and told his sons he was getting the record this night.
“I felt pretty good, I got into a good rhythm, and once I get in a good rhythm, then I can make any shot on the floor,” LeBron said describing the moment he set the record. “You know, to break the record, I was able to get to a really good spot where I’m very comfortable with and get to one of my patented fadeaway shots.”
It fell. Saying he is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer is another pillar holding up his GOAT argument. It’s another chapter in a career that has been in the spotlight since high school but never felt off track. And it was a shot that forever cemented his legacy with West, Wilt, Shaq, Kobe, Magic and the pantheon of Lakers greats in the hearts of Lakers fans.