Lakers forward LeBron James shoots a technical free throw in...

Lakers forward LeBron James shoots a technical free throw in the first half of an NBA game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

LeBron James was 19 years old when he first played a professional game at Madison Square Garden. It was late February 2004, and the rookie already had a four-story billboard on 34th Street; even just 52 games into his professional career, his No. 23 Cavaliers jersey was the best selling in the NBA.

We look at James now – the 38-year-old superstar who’ll soon break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record – and it can be tempting to take his greatness for granted. Of course, his talent and brilliance would lead him to these heights. Of course, MSG would be buzzing on Tuesday night, his first game back here to play the Knicks since 2020. He came into the day still 117 points from passing Abdul-Jabbar, but that didn’t stop celebrities from packing out the front rows, and it certainly didn’t dampen anyone’s mood. He scored a team-high 28, with a triple-double for the Lakers in their 129-123 overtime win over the Knicks, and now there are just 89 more points to go.

Nearly 20 years later, LeBron doesn’t just star in the show, he is the show – and we shouldn’t lose sight of how special that really is.

As James climbs toward Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387 career points, there’s going to be a lot of discourse about his ultimate place in NBA history. Does surpassing that mark really count the same way, considering the advent of the three-point shot in 1979, Abdul-Jabbar’s 11th season?

And then there’s the oldie: In a world where Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan, can James really be considered the greatest of all time? How much do championships factor?

Does James get extra points for the fact that with his 11 assists Tuesday, he surpassed Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to become fourth all time in that area, too?

These are all valid questions, but there’s a sort of bloodlessness to them that turns the magnificent into the mundane, especially during this march toward history. James was little more than a child when he was saddled with the type of pressure that few grown men ever experience, and he not only survived, but helped redefine a billion-dollar league on the force of his star power alone.

James was asked about that pressure all those years ago, when he was just a few months removed from his senior prom. "If I didn't create it, I wouldn't be able to handle it," he said then, according to Newsday’s Barbara Barker. "I created it because of my ability on and off the court. If I averaged four points for my high school team, this wouldn't be happening."

It’s kind of a stunning thought – the idea that James controlled this machine years before he could legally buy a drink or rent his own car. Back then, you’d probably think it was the arrogance of youth, but it didn’t end up being that at all.

James has planned the trajectory of his career, sketched out his the how and the where and the when, and even now, with this huge milestone looming, he remains unbothered by the pressure. Now, like then, it’s something he’s created.

The weight of the record is “not getting heavier because I’m going to do it,” he said Tuesday. "It’s just a matter of time of when I’m going to do it. It’s not getting heavy. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be in this league a few more years."

It's that same type of one-mindedness and Zen-like control that has allowed him to adapt, even as the league became less focused on power, and more on dexterity and shooting (it helps that James was never really lacking in any of those categories). But it’s also the same savvy that has led to his longevity: James remains a force, is routinely double- and triple-teamed at nearly 40 years old, and hopes to play with his son, Bronny, who is 18. He’s taken care of his body and mind in a game that often erodes both.

And because of that, he’s looking at a record no one thought would ever be broken. His coach on the Lakers, Darvin Ham, who grew up watching Abdul-Jabbar and played in the same league as Jordan, never thought it would happen.

“I think that’s probably – in all of major sports, there are some big-time records, but that one? I never thought anybody would walk down Kareem, personally,” 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.”

There’s going to be a lot of debate about that, even long after James hangs it up. But for now, as we watch history unfold, it’s OK to sit back and enjoy watching the King reign, and to marvel at the sheer improbability of what he’s about to do.

And Ham's right -- no matter where you fall on the various debates that will pop up when he breaks the record, there's no reason to truly mind calling James the greatest.



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