How LeBron James Became the NBA's Career Leading Scorer
It was supposed to be an unbreakable record. Over and over, we heard Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's NBA regular-season scoring record of 38,387 points could never be broken.
"Never" ended up being almost 39 years. Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James broke Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Los Angeles, hitting the record-breaking basket on a stepback jumper with 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter. James needed 36 points to break the record and finished with 38 points on 13-of-20 shooting to go with seven rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Here's a closer look at how James, who already holds the NBA career playoff scoring record, became the greatest scorer in NBA regular-season history.
Oct. 29, 2003: The Very First Points
Few debuts in the history of professional sports have been as anticipated as when Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James took the floor for a road game against the Sacramento Kings on Oct. 29, 2003.
James, an Akron, Ohio, native and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft had been projected as the top pick and "talent of his generation" since his sophomore year at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
James wasted little time in his NBA debut, hitting a pull-up jumper for his first points just seconds into the game. He finished with 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in a 106-92 loss.
Jan. 21, 2006: Youngest to 5,000 Career Points
LeBron James woke up on the morning of Jan. 21, 2006, in Salt Lake City, Utah, with a sore knee. He was not even sure if he would be able to play.
He went to bed that night as the youngest player in NBA history to reach 5,000 career points after torching the Utah Jazz for 51 points, five rebounds, eight assists and two steals in a 108-90 win for the Cavs.
James, 21 years old, entered the game needing 45 points to break Kobe Bryant's record as the youngest player to score 5,000 career points. Bryant set the record when he was 22 years old.
Quotables: Utah Jazz Forward Andrei Kirilenko
"He got dunks. He got 3-point shots. He got mid-range shots. He did … just everything he wants. He's amazing, and I think he's the guy that won the game (for the Cavs). He drives, he shoots, he scores, he goes to the line, he rebounds the ball. He's not like anybody else." —Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko
Feb. 27, 2008: Hated Rivals and 10,000 Career Points
The best two NBA rivalries of the last 20 years have both involved LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In his first stint with the team, that meant their rivalry with the Boston Celtics.
On Feb. 27, 2008, James injured his ankle in the first half of a game against the Celtics but bounced back to break 10,000 career points and finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists in a 92-87 loss. He only shot 7-of-24 from the field with the injury.
James once again took down Kobe Bryant's record in hitting 10,000 points at 23 years old and 59 days — almost a whole year younger than Bryant when he did it.
Quotables: Cleveland Cavaliers Forward LeBron James
"I didn't want to go down. I know my ankle, and tomorrow it's going to be a lot worse. It doesn't make me happy to (break the record) in a losing effort but to be in the record books is a tribute to my teammates, myself and my family." —LeBron James, on ESPN, on Feb. 27, 2008
Jan. 16, 2013: Hitting 20,000 Points Against the Warriors
We were still a few years from the rivalry between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers hitting its stride, when LeBron James scored his 20,000th career point against the Warriors on Jan. 16, 2013. He was still playing with the Miami Heat, and the Warriors were still over two years from kicking off their dynasty with the first NBA title with Stephen Curry.
James was as good as he ever was in 2013 as the Heat won their second straight NBA championship and he racked up 25 points, 10 assists and seven steals as the Heat rolled to a 92-75 win in which he also passed 5,000 career assists.
At 28 years, 17 days old, James became just the fourth player in NBA history to score 20,000 points before his 30th birthday, following Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Nov. 2, 2015: Alley-Oop Dunk for 25,000 Points
LeBron James was back on his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers when he scored his 25,000th career point on an alley-oop dunk against the Philadelphia 76ers. His teammate Matthew Dellavedova provided the assist.
In a shocking display of sportsmanship — for Philly, at least — the crowd gave James a standing ovation after he hit the milestone. James finished with 22 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds, four steals and two blocks in a 107-100 win where the Cavs trailed big early.
In a testament to the era the game was played in, James became the sixth active NBA player to pass 25,000 points and 20th overall, joining Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce as part of the 25,000-point club of active players.
Quotables: Will Gibson, Waiting For Next Year
"My fear entering the game was that the Cavs would come out lackadaisically enough for the Sixers to hang around and get half an idea that they could actually win this thing. That fear, if only for a time, was justified. The 76ers are an athletic, active side, yet there was a feeling that the Cavs could put this game away in a quarter. Instead, they looked like they were nursing a two-day hangover from their Halloween bash. They turned it over eight times in the opening period. After getting out to a 5-0 lead, they finished the quarter down by 14." —Will Gibson, Waiting For Next Year
Jan. 23, 2018: LeBron Joins Exclusive, 30,000-Point Club
LeBron James became just the seventh player in NBA history to score 30,000 career points after he went for 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a 114-102 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 23, 2018. It would also be his last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers before signing with the Los Angeles Lakers.
In an interesting twist, a player James mentored in high school and early in his career stole the show as San Antonio's Dejounte Murray finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven steals.
Quotables: San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich
"(Dejounte Murray) is fearless, he's not impressed. He really sets the pace for us. He's a fine defender. He's learning how to play the game and doing a fine job." —San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich
Jan. 25, 2020: Passing Kobe One Day Before Tragedy
After joining the Los Angeles Lakers before the 2018-19 season, LeBron James passed Wilt Chamberlain to enter the top five scorers in NBA history in 2018. In 2019, he passed Michael Jordan to move up to No. 4.
On Jan. 25, 2020, James passed Lakers great Kobe Bryant to move up to No. 3 on the career list and did so in Bryant's hometown of Philadelphia, scoring 29 points in a loss to the 76ers. Bryant took to his Twitter account to congratulate his old friend that night following the game. The two became close not only as competitors but as teammates, winning an Olympic gold medal with Team USA in 2008.
The next day, James and the rest of the world were mourning Bryant, who lost his life along with eight others in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26, 2020.
Quotables: Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant
"Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames Much respect my brother #33644" —Kobe Bryant (@KobeBryant) congratulating LeBron James on Twitter
March 19, 2022: Mailman, Move Back
LeBron James only needed 19 points against the Washington Wizards on March 19, 2022, to pass Utah Jazz legend Karl Malone for the No. 2 spot on the NBA career scoring list. In typical fashion, James did much more than that as he scored 38 points to go with 10 rebounds and six assists, although the Lakers blew a 16-point lead in a 127-119 loss.
For the first time, the attention turned toward breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record of 38,837 points. "I'm not letting myself think about it," said James, 37 years old at the time. "Not yet, at least."
Quotables: Los Angeles Lakers Forward Carmelo Anthony
"I'm still in awe to be alongside him while he's still doing what he's doing at a high level. Especially coming from somebody who was not, you know, 'known' for, as they say, scoring. Now to have the chance to be the No. 1 all-time scorer in the history of the NBA, somebody who's been doing it for 19 seasons at an all-time high, and somebody who just embraced the moment. He's been doing that his whole career." —Los Angeles Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony
April 5, 1984: When Kareem Broke the Record
Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke the NBA scoring record that would stand for almost 40 years in a game against the Utah Jazz at the Thomas Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on April 5, 1984.
Kareem, 37 years old, broke Wilt Chamberlain's record on an assist from teammate Magic Johnson in the fourth quarter of a 129-115 win for the Lakers.
Where was LeBron James? Not even born yet, but close. Gloria James gave birth to LeBron Raymone James just over eight months after Kareem broke the record, on Dec. 30, 1984, in Akron, Ohio.
Sports have a funny way of bringing things back around, don't they?
Quotables: Jerry West and Pat Riley
"When [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] played, he looked ageless. I watch LeBron play and he looks like he can play another 5-6 years. He looks younger to me this year than he did last year. That's what they both have: longevity and performance." —Former Lakers general manager Jerry West told ESPN
"What happens with great, great, great players is their amount of intellect and experience and all of that stuff and just knowing the game, that sort of eventually surpasses maybe your physical ability. [James] really knows the game inside and out and knows the whole industry and the environment. And so it's incredible what he is doing after 20 years. I mean, it's just incredible." —Pat Riley, a teammate of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for one season with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970s and coach of Kareem for four championship teams with the Lakers in the 1980s. Riley also was the president of the Miami Heat when he won two titles with LeBron James.