From the moment LeBron James arrived at the Lakers’ downtown Los Angeles arena in a crisp, all-black suit on Tuesday, there were giddy murmurs in the bowels of the stadium. Is tonight the night? Will LeBron try to end this tonight? Will he really go for it? James even took a little longer than usual to come out for his pregame warmup. And when he finally did, there were loud cheers from the many fans who had shown up hours early, and a horde of media crowding the baseline to film James putting up some practice jumpshots, which eventually turned into some practice skyhooks. For a regular-season game between two teams on the wrong side of 10th place in their conference, there was a palpable tension in the arena before James would ultimately score 38 points to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
There are a few common energies you can feel on the night of a big NBA game. The nervousness before a Game 7, one that usually doesn’t go away until the home team scores a few buckets. The frenzy before a team’s first home game in a playoff series, which feels like it may overwhelm the opponent. On nights when two megastars go head-to-head, you’d think you were at a prizefight. Everyone’s outfits look a little more sharp. The popcorn somehow smells more buttery.
Then there was Los Angeles on the night LeBron’s scoring chase became an actual possibility. The celebrity guest list was off the charts. Every seat was full by tip-off. The excitement felt like it would physically spill out onto the court because there was nowhere else for it to go. And every time James so much as looked at the basketball, cheers would quickly turn into an ovation, as fans tried to will the ball into LeBron’s hands. And James obliged, seemingly more committed to put on a show than anything else. From the first time he aggressively drove to the hoop, it was crystal clear this would not be a typical LeBron performance. There would be no getting other teammates going. There would be no easing into the game. There would be no settling for jumpers. James was putting his head down, driving to the rim and getting to work. And when fans realized only a few possessions into the game he was determined to score at least 36, the anticipation only grew more thick. Fans were not in attendance to watch a conventional basketball game. They were present to witness history.
It was thrilling to watch James in hunt mode. He displayed a level of offensive aggression reminiscent of his Game 1 of the 2018 Finals, or the furious fourth-quarter comeback he led in Game 6 of the 2013 Spurs series. For all the discourse leading up to the record of whether or not James is a pure “scorer,” he showed on Tuesday he very much has the capability of being a shoot-first player. If James played with the mentality he did with the record within grasp for his whole career, he may have passed Kareem a couple years ago.
The Laker faithful, which hasn’t necessarily always readily embraced James, was eager to watch Kareem’s record fall. Every possession that ended with a missed shot, or worse, someone besides James shooting, drew exasperation. Russell Westbrook turnovers that prevented LeBron field goal attempts were met with disgust. But if James caught the ball on the wing and sized up his defender, the entire crowd would rise to its feet, from the fans in the top row, to Dwyane Wade and Denzel Washington a few feet away from the court.
The united force James created Tuesday night was simply unlike any atmosphere typically experienced in an NBA arena. When the game stopped with roughly 10 seconds left in the third quarter, after James had hit a fadeaway to claim the record, seemingly no one cared about the score, who else was on the floor, or how long the stoppage would last. Every fan was hanging on James’s last word, soaking in their piece of NBA history.
Time has to pass before we truly know if eclipsing Kareem endures as one of the signature nights of LeBron’s career, during which he’s produced countless memories, both high and low. We won’t know until generations from now if the image of James’s turnaround jumper in the third quarter becomes one of the indelible scenes from the fabric of the game’s history, like Michael’s follow through against Utah, or Dr. J cradling the rock. What I can say for sure is I’ve never seen thousands of people, an entire arena-full, so thoroughly captivated by only one person as they were on Tuesday. People have come close, but for the first time in the 20 rollercoaster years of LeBron’s career, it felt like everybody watching was actually in his corner. And the resulting emotion was powerful.
That wasn’t a basketball game. It was a testament. It was a coronation. It was a singular achievement. It was James fully embracing the heroic journey he’s been on for the last two decades, and him receiving the full-throated support that’s most often eluded him.
As James made his way through the tunnel after the game, and after his press conference attended by over 200 people, you would have never guessed the Lakers had actually lost. James kept stopping to embrace his close friends, from business partner Maverick Carter to Nike founder Phil Knight. Even reporters approached James for handshakes and congratulations. Throughout it all, James had a massive smile plastered on his face.
Tuesday was a reminder that everything about James is once in a lifetime. From the hype surrounding him when Sports Illustrated put him on the cover as a teenager, to his early career failures and the resulting questions, to his championship redemption, to The Block and the 3–1 comeback, to the Bubble Finals, to the cryptic tweets, all the way to his record-setting night. Every aspect of James’s career, whether you love him, hate him, or are sick of him, all the highlights and lowlights, has been incredibly captivating.
I don’t know if I’ll make the argument, but perhaps that is his biggest accomplishment. From the moment he stepped on the court as a rookie in Sacramento nearly 20 years ago, to every time the ball left his fingertips and went toward the hoop on Tuesday, LeBron has commanded everyone’s attention. And the totality of what he’s done, the spectrum of passion he’s stirred, the countless basketball memories LeBron has created, like the record he broke on Tuesday night, we may never see again.