Lakers forward LeBron James brings the ball upcourt against the Knicks...

Lakers forward LeBron James brings the ball upcourt against the Knicks in the first half of an NBA game at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When the pregame introductions were voiced at Madison Square Garden it was simple to tell that this was a crowd gathered for a view of history. While no one may have entered, or paid a ridiculous price for the chance to enter, with a thought that LeBron James would get the 117 points he needed to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, there was still some sort of magical anticipation.

It was heard during the introductions as James drew a huge ovation from the sold-out crowd, overwhelming the partisan portion of the crowd countering with boos. And it was visible with the James jerseys of all incarnations dotting the stands.

While James is giving no indication of an end in sight to his career, still putting up prolific numbers, he had not been at the Garden since January 2020. He was injured two seasons ago and then suspended last season when the Lakers came to town. And at 38 years old there are no guarantees of future appearances.

Perhaps the one person who wasn’t thrilled to see the traveling circus arrive at Madison Square Garden was the one tasked with trying to slow James' march through the NBA record books: Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau.

If the all-time scoring record held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not in danger on this night — aided by load management and injury rehab keeping James out of games like the front end of a back-to-back set for the Lakers in Brooklyn Monday — Thibodeau was well aware that every star arriving at the Garden seeks out their own special moment in the self-proclaimed, “World’s Most Famous Arena.”

“The Garden’s always been that way,” Thibodeau said. “I’ve experienced it both ways. Obviously being an assistant here in the '90s and then coming back and coming in with opposing teams it’s the most unique building in the league. Players love playing here. There’s no other fan base that’s like it. There’s no other building that’s like it. So we understand it.

“That’s the way league is. If you love competition you love that aspect of it, it should bring out the best in you. And everyone has to go through something. When you look at his career, while I was in Boston we had good success. He went to Miami. Then when I was in Chicago that was who we had to go through. I think every team, you have to go through certain teams. That’s what makes the game so good is when you have two good teams battling it out.”

Two good teams battling it out might be an exaggeration this season with the Knicks barely above .500 and the Lakers entering the game five games under .500. But James creates drama on any night and adding in his quest for history only added to the allure.

“I never thought I’d see anybody walk down Kareem’s record and here we are,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “I think it puts him right at the top of the list. Just his durability, his longevity, what he's done, what he’s meant to the league on and off the court. He’s at the top of the list. I don’t mind calling him the greatest.

“I think he’s humbled by it. But I think his focus is to get us in the postseason. I think he’s really in the moment of what we have to do as a team to get ourselves together...The whole world, including you guys, won’t let him forget about it.” 

But Thibodeau had to find a way to contend with a star seeking history, something he has done here before, as an assistant in the 1990s when Michael Jordan would come to town or Kobe Bryant would arrive. And a long history with James may help him plot out a scheme, but he said that James learns just as a coach does.

“Over time, he’s seen every defense that you can throw at him,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve done a lot of things with him and he’s learned from all of those experiences. When he came into the league, he wasn’t as good of a shooter as he is today. I think he exerted a lot of energy early on trying to score. But the thing when you think about his game, the Irony of it, he’s going to break the all-time scoring record and everyone said he didn’t score enough. He’s going to be the all-time leading scorer and he’s going to be at the top of the league for assists. He’s pretty much done it all.”

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