LeBron James sat in the visitors locker room at Madison Square Garden with ice on his 38-year-old knees and 28 more points to his name after his Los Angeles Lakers beat the Knicks in overtime. James’s teammate Anthony Davis teased him about how close he was to breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s N.B.A. career scoring record, then about 90 points away.
Suddenly, James remembered something. His mother, Gloria James, was set to go on vacation soon. She might miss his record-breaking game.
He called her on speakerphone, with a dozen attentive reporters close by. He asked when she was leaving, reminding her every once in a while, lest she disclose too much, that reporters could hear the conversation. Eventually, he looked around, sheepishly, and said he would call her later.
“I love you,” he said. Then, just before he ended the call, he added: “I love you more.”
It was typical James: He brings you along for the ride, but on his terms, revealing what he wants to reveal and no more. It is perhaps the only way someone who has been so famous for most of his life could survive the machine of modern celebrity.
As he has closed in on Abdul-Jabbar’s record of 38,387 points, the very idea of what it means to be a star has shifted since James scored his first two points on Oct. 29, 2003. And James has helped define that shift. He has risen above the din of social media celebrities and 24-hour news cycles, buoyed by the basketball fans who love him or love to hate him.
James, at age 38, is closing in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s N.B.A. career scoring record while playing with the energy of a much younger version of himself.Credit…Ashley Landis/Associated Press
He has been a selfie-snapping tour guide for this journey, with a portfolio that now extends well beyond the court. He has a production company and a show on HBO. He’s acted in a few movies and received some good reviews. His foundation has helped hundreds of students in his hometown Akron, Ohio, and a public school the foundation helps run there, the I Promise School, focuses on children who struggle academically. His opinions are covered as news, given far more weight than those of almost any other athlete.
“Hopefully I made an impact enough so people appreciate what I did, and still appreciate what I did off the floor as well, even when I’m done,” James said in an interview. “But I don’t live for that. I live for my family, for my friends and my community that needs that voice.”
Basketball Is the ‘Main Thing’
In early 2002, James was a high school junior and on the cover of Sports Illustrated. News didn’t travel as quickly as it does now. Not everyone had cellphones, and the ones they had couldn’t livestream videos of whatever anyone did. Social media meant chat rooms on AOL or Yahoo. Facebook had yet to launch, and the deluge of social networking apps was years away.
“Thank God I didn’t have social media; that’s all I can say,” James said in October when asked to reflect on his entry into the league.
As a teenage star, he was spared the incessant gaze of social media and the bullying and harsh criticism that most likely would have come with it.
But social media, in its many changing forms, has also helped people express their personalities and share their lives with others. It lets them define themselves — something particularly useful for public figures whose stories get told one way or another.
James began thinking about that early in his career.
His media and production firm, now called the SpringHill Company, made a documentary about James and his high school teammates titled “More Than a Game” in 2008. It also developed “The Shop,” an HBO show James sometimes appears on with celebrity guests, including the former President Barack Obama and the rapper Travis Scott, talking like friends in a barbershop.
James likes to say that he always keeps “the main thing the main thing” — meaning that no matter what else is happening in his life, he prioritizes basketball. He honors the thing that created his fame.
He led his teams to the N.B.A. finals in eight consecutive years and won championships with three different franchises. He was chosen for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award four times, and he has dished the fourth-most assists in N.B.A. history.
James’s talent meant it didn’t take long for him to become the face of the N.B.A. He has mostly embraced that, capitalizing on an era when sports fandom was no longer about sitting down to watch a game so much as it was about catching small bites of the most compelling moments.
“People’s interest in athletes moves very quickly, especially with the N.B.A. season,” said Omar Raja, who in 2014 founded House of Highlights, an Instagram account for viral sports moments, because he wanted to share clips of the Miami Heat during James’s time playing there with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“LeBron’s Instagram stories would do as well as his poster dunks, and you were like, ‘This is crazy,’” Raja said.
House of Highlights reposted two videos from James’s Instagram stories in May 2019. One showed James and a former teammate dancing in a yard. Another showed James and friends, including Russell Westbrook, smoking cigars. Both videos outperformed anything that happened in the playoffs.
‘I Wish I Could Do Normal Things’
James has used his fame to further business opportunities and build his financial portfolio. He has used it to both shield his children and prepare them for growing up in his shadow.
He has used it for social activism, most notably in speaking about Black civil rights and racism. That began in 2012, when he and his Heat teammates wore hooded sweatshirts and posted a group photo on social media after the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot and killed in Florida. The Heat decided to transfer some of their spotlight to the national conversation about racism that emerged.
Black N.B.A. players have a long history of speaking out or demonstrating against racism and discrimination: Abdul-Jabbar and the Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell were vocal about the racist dangers they faced in the 1960s and ’70s. But what made the actions of James and his teammates stand out was that the superstar athletes of the ’90s and early 2000s — Michael Jordan, most notably — had often shied away from overt activism.
What James chooses to talk about (or not talk about) draws notice.
In 2019, when a Houston Rockets executive angered the Chinese government by expressing support for Hong Kong, James was criticized for not speaking out against China’s human rights abuses. James said he did not know enough to talk about them, but some skeptics accused him of avoiding the subject to protect his financial interests in China.
And in 2020, when protests swept the country after the police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both of whom were Black, the N.B.A. made social justice part of its ethos. James used many of his news conferences that season to discuss racism and police violence against Black people.
The attention to James’s words separates him from others, as does the attention to his life.
“I don’t want to say it ever becomes too much, but there are times when I wish I could do normal things,” James said Thursday while standing in an arena hallway in Indianapolis about an hour after the Lakers beat the Pacers there. A member of a camera crew that has been following him for the past few years filmed him as he spoke.
“I wish I could just walk outside,” James said. “I wish I could just, like, walk into a movie theater and sit down and go to the concession stand and get popcorn. I wish I could just go to an amusement park just like regular people. I wish I could go to Target sometimes and walk into Starbucks and have my name on the cup just like regular people.”
He added: “I’m not sitting here complaining about it, of course not. But it can be challenging at times.”
James grew up without stable housing or much money, but his life now is not like most people’s because of the money he has made through basketball and business (he’s estimated to be worth more than $1 billion), and because of the extraordinary athletic feats he makes look so easy. Once in a while, as when he’s on the phone with his mother, he manages to come off like just another guy.
Another example: In October 2018, during his first Lakers training camp, James gave up wine as part of a preseason diet regimen. He was asked if abstaining had affected his body.
“Yeah, it made me want wine more,” James said, relatably. “But I feel great. I feel great. I did a two-week cleanse and gave up a lot of things for 14 days.”
James had also quit gluten, dairy, artificial sugars and all alcohol for those two weeks, he said.
What was left?
“In life?” James said. “Air.”
There to See Him
The past few seasons have been challenging for James on the court. He is playing as well as he ever has, but the Lakers have struggled since winning a championship in 2020.
They missed the playoffs last season and are in 12th place in the Western Conference, though they have played better recently. James, his coaches and his teammates all insist that he spends more time thinking about how to get the Lakers into the playoffs than about breaking the scoring record.
Still, Madison Square Garden, one of his favorite arenas, buzzed on Tuesday night. Because of him.
Celebrities, fans and media came to watch him, just as they did when he was a constant in the N.B.A. finals.
He taped a pregame interview with Michael Strahan courtside. Then he went through his pregame warm-up, shooting from different spots on the court, working against an assistant coach, who tried to defend him. He took a few seconds to dance near the 3-point line as he waited for someone to pass the ball back to him.
He was in what he’s made into a comfortable place: the center of the basketball universe.