LOS ANGELES — Lakers forward LeBron James is the leading scorer in N.B.A. history after breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career record of 38,387 points, a feat that once had seemed impossible for anyone — but James has become known for making the improbable part of his routine.
He broke the record on a fadeaway 2-point shot with seconds remaining in the third quarter of Tuesday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The record had seemed to be set in stone, untouched for decades even by greats like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. But the 38-year-old James, in his 20th season, is still pouring in points as one of the best players in the N.B.A. Since the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2003, he has made thousands of dunks, fadeaways, free throws, 3-pointers, hook shots and everything in between. And now, with his latest act of defying the odds of his age, James will bolster his supporters’ claims that he, and not Jordan, is the best player ever.
With his family among the crowd, James came into Tuesday night’s game ready to make history. The fans were ready, too. When James caught the ball, they buzzed. When he missed, they groaned. When he scored, they roared. Abdul-Jabbar, sitting courtside, smiled and clapped as he watched his record fall.
Abdul-Jabbar set the record with the Lakers on April 5, 1984, dethroning Wilt Chamberlain, who had retired a decade earlier with 31,419 points. Abdul-Jabbar added nearly 7,000 points over the next five years before retiring after the 1988-89 season. Jordan and Bryant ended their careers thousands of points behind him.
By the time the longtime Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone had played his last game in 2004, he was second behind Abdul-Jabbar — and about 1,500 points short. That was the end of James’s rookie year.
James had begun his own journey.
His first N.B.A. points came on a baseline jumper on Oct. 29, 2003, when he was 18 years old. He was already a physical marvel. At 6-foot-7 then, James was stronger than most guards and quicker than most forwards and centers. His passing, court vision, strength and agility made him unlike anyone the N.B.A. had ever seen. He could bully people in the paint like Malone and pass like the Lakers great Magic Johnson.
And he was already one of the most famous athletes in the world, having graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in high school, when his games were on national television. The front of the magazine dubbed him “The Chosen One,” and he seemed to be. As James has evolved from rookie to seasoned veteran and now to elder statesman, he has only increased his sphere of influence on and off the floor.
James was never the best at any one thing as a scorer — never the best shooter, highest jumper or most creative post-up player, though he may rival Johnson as the best passer. Instead, he became skilled enough at every facet of the game to remain relevant, and dominant, for 20 years.
While he accumulated points rapidly — he was the youngest player to reach 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 points — James also shifted his game in response to getting older and the changing N.B.A.
In the first half of his career, James wowed observers with a steady diet of ferocious dunks and midrange jumpers, while elevating his teammates with nifty passes all over the floor. As players like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and James Harden made the 3-pointer a core part of the game over the past decade, James sharpened that tool, too.
And though he doesn’t do it as often as he did earlier in his career, James can still barrel to the basket with the speed and strength of an Amtrak car with a reckless engineer.
Like Abdul-Jabbar, James owes his persistent pursuit of the scoring record to good fortune and another elite skill: durability, especially early in his career. In his first eight seasons, James missed just 29 of 656 regular-season games. He has dealt with injuries in recent years with the Lakers, but he has carried on in between absences like he had something to prove.
He has long been the heartbeat of a league that revolves around superstars. Few have embodied the term the way he has. James has won four championships across three teams — Cleveland, the Miami Heat and the Lakers — and he passed Jordan in 2017 to become the leading scorer in playoff history.
When he passed Bryant to become No. 3 on the career scoring list in January 2020, Bryant wrote on Twitter, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
As far as for who may be able to catch James, no one is on track to do it soon. The closest active player is the Nets’ Kevin Durant, a 34-year-old forward who is more than 10,000 points behind. Philadelphia’s Harden (33 years old) and the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook (34) are next and thousands of points behind Durant.
But no one thought Abdul-Jabbar’s record would be broken, either. James, as always, made it look easier than it was.