NEW ORLEANS — LeBron James headed into Saturday night’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans needing 63 points to break the N.B.A. career scoring record. It was a large number for anyone to reach in a single game, especially a 38-year-old in his 20th N.B.A. season.
And yet spectators wearing purple-and-gold jerseys and T-shirts displaying James’s No. 6 flooded Canal and Bourbon Streets ahead of Saturday’s game, and then they piled into the Smoothie King Center, most of them hoping to witness N.B.A. history.
Larry Unrein, a New York native who traveled to three of the Lakers’ last four games, came to New Orleans a day after his 40th birthday, hoping for a belated gift.
“He could break it, dude,” Unrein said before the game. “He’s 38, and he’s playing like he’s 24. I turned 40 yesterday and aspire to take care of my body, drink tons of water and stretch.” Unrein, who skateboards in his free time, said James was inspiring him to skate into old age.
An employee at the arena named Anita, who would not give her last name but said she had been working there for 10 years, was nervous that the record might be broken on the Pelicans’ home floor. “We can’t let him do it here,” she said. “It ain’t about the King tonight.”
No one, really, should have thought that James, at this point in his career, would score 63 points on Saturday. (His career high is 61 points, in a game against Charlotte in 2014.) But James has provided many miracles in his career. That he is competing at such a high level at 38 seems to be just one more — a feat that is altering perceptions of athletic limits and athletic primes.
James fell short of the scoring record on Saturday, finishing with 27 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists, and the Lakers (25-29) lost to the Pelicans (27-27), 131-126. James is now 36 points away from passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 38,387 points from 1969 to 1989, and tickets for the Lakers’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night have soared in anticipation that James will break the record then.
On Saturday, James made plays that explained why many supporters will always believe that another miracle is on its way. He played 40 minutes, more than any of his teammates. It was the third time in his last four games that he played at least 40 minutes, a figure, he said, that was “catching up to him.”
“I’m tired as hell,” he said after the game. “But I’ll be ready to go on Tuesday.”
“I think it’s historic on a lot of different levels,” Lakers Coach Darvin Ham said earlier this season. “For him to be at this point of his career and still able to produce at the level in which he’s producing, I just think all of us, just really being able to witness it, be a part of it — it shows his competitive spirit, his no-quit mentality.”
A moment of “How is LeBron doing this at this age?” came in the third quarter, with the Lakers leading by 7 and forward Herbert Jones barreling toward the rim. James took a charge, flying onto his back from the impact of Jones’s crashing into him. Many N.B.A. players, especially stars and older players, are reluctant to take a charge, given the risk of injury or, more simply, the wear and tear on the body over a long season. Even Kobe Bryant, who was known for his toughness and mentality when he played for the Lakers, was publicly against taking charges.
Bryant’s reasoning was that great players such as Scottie Pippen and Larry Bird were injured after taking many charges throughout their careers, while others, including Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, didn’t take charges and avoided significant long-term injuries.
But there was James, nearly 40, taking a charge on a player listed at 6 feet 7 inches and 206 pounds.
With just under three minutes remaining in Saturday’s game and the Lakers losing by 4, James dived for a ball heading out of bounds, launching himself above courtside fans. It was the second time he had done so in recent weeks. He did not save the ball, but players of his age and status would be excused for not even making the effort. James would not excuse himself: There he was, his blue-and-pink shoes among the fans’ faces in the crowd.
“I think it inspires them out there to do their jobs,” Ham said this season about the impact of James’s play on his teammates.
James aggressively attacked the basket throughout the night, bumping and fighting through fouls to make layups and sprinting past players for scores. On multiple occasions, younger teammates passed up layup opportunities to give the ball to their much older, but somehow much more explosive, teammate, who threw down dunks that ignited fans, many who wore his jersey and some who wore New Orleans colors.
James was not perfect. He often settled for 3-point shots, including an off-balance one late in the game, which he missed and seemed foolish to take. He finished 1 for 7 from long range. Defensively, he, like his teammates, did little to stop the Pelicans’ 42-point barrage in the third quarter, which sparked their win.
As James went to the free-throw line with 18 seconds left and the Lakers losing by 6, he missed his first attempt. If the game wasn’t over already, it was effectively over after that.
But Anita, the stadium worker, wasn’t buying it. She thought James was too good to miss a free throw. This had to be part of a script: “He’s just doing that,” she said, “so he could get that record in L.A.”