LOS ANGELES — The incident called for two accomplished NBA players to stand next to each other and then embrace.
LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shared many differences in how they became NBA stars and outspoken social activists with both their style of play and personality. Yet, they shared a stronger bond before and after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 133-130 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday at Crypto.com Arena. Shortly after James eclipsed Abdul-Jabbar for first place on the NBA’s all-time scoring record late in the third quarter, they became closer at least for a moment.
After NBA Commissioner Adam Silver handed him the game ball at center court, Abdul-Jabbar then gave the ball to the man that broke the NBA’s all-time scoring record that he previously held for almost 39 years. Abdul-Jabbar and James then shook hands and hugged each other.
“LeBron’s career is one of someone who planned to dominate this game,” Abdul-Jabbar said afterwards on TNT. “He had the size and talent to step right into the NBA, and he immediately started to have his effect. It’s gone for almost 20 years now. You have to give him credit for the way he’s played to last and dominate.”
Roughly an hour later, James handed an assist to Abdul-Jabbar for two things.
First, James called Abdul-Jabbar’s embrace “great for the game of basketball” and predicted that “it’ll be talked about for years and years and years.” Then, James expressed admiration for how Abdul-Jabbar collected six NBA championships, six MVP awards and 38,387 career points because of his refined sky-hook and training habits through 20 NBA seasons.
“He has the most unguardable shot in NBA history,” James said. “It lets you know how unguardable and how unique it is because nobody [else] has even tried it. You have the fadeaway that [Michael Jordan] perfected. A lot of guys have added that to their games. There are a few shots in our game that are unguardable. But there is only one that no one has tried to emulate. You add that to his longevity. It makes him one of the greatest ever to play this game.”
Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t the only Lakers luminary during the “Showtime” era to attend Tuesday’s game out of respect for James’ upcoming milestone. So did Magic Johnson, who hugged James shortly after he broke Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record in the third quarter.
Lakers fan favorite A.C. Green was there, as was Lakers legend James Worthy, who interviewed James afterwards for the Lakers’ flagship television station. Mychal Thompson, an on-air analyst for the Lakers’ flagship radio station and Bob McAdoo, a current Miami Heat assistant coach that coincided with James’ four-year tenure there (2010-14) were at the game, too.
McAdoo and James hugged and talked briefly during his pre-game warmup and McAdoo told NBA.com how he views Abdul-Jabbar and James among other NBA stars.
“Kareem is the greatest from my era. LeBron is the greatest from this era. They’re two of the greatest players in NBA history,” said McAdoo, who was honored at Tuesday’s game as being part of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. “You can’t stop either one of them. Kareem has the shot — the signature sky-hook that nobody else in the league has been able to perfect. I know why LeBron has been able to play. I watched him with the way he takes care of his body. It’s a marvel somebody at that age can get up and down the court, jump and dunk just like he’s 25 years old.”
How Abdul-Jabbar crafted a once-untouchable record
McAdoo then laughed to himself. Why? He also witnessed another NBA star break the league’s scoring record. On April 5, 1984, McAdoo played with Abdul-Jabbar when he eclipsed Wilt Chamberlain’s 31,419 career points.
“Magic was screaming at me to get him the ball,” McAdoo said, chuckling. “He wanted to be the one that made the assist when Kareem made the hook shot over Mark Eaton.”
After Abdul-Jabbar’s record-breaking shot, former Lakers announcer Chick Hearn predicted that no one would ever break Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring mark. Did Abdul-Jabbar’s teammates feel the same way?
“I didn’t see this happening,” former Lakers forward Jamaal Wilkes said. “Kareem was so far ahead.”
Consider the gap between Abdul-Jabbar (38,787 points) and Chamberlain (31,419) once Abdul-Jabbar retired following the 1988-89 season. A few NBA stars also eclipsed Chamberlain eventually, including Karl Malone (36,928 points), Kobe Bryant (33,643), Jordan (32,292) and Dirk Nowitzki (31,560). Though Bryant and Nowitzki also played 20 NBA seasons, none of those players could match Abdul-Jabbar’s durability.
“I thought Kareem’s record was too far for anybody to catch,” Thompson said. “Guys were coming into the league younger. But they weren’t staying as long as 38 or 40 years of age to chase the record.”
Abdul-Jabbar played in all 82 regular-season games in five different seasons. He only missed double-digit games in two other seasons. Although Abdul-Jabbar played less than 30 minutes per game in his final two seasons, he still only missed a combined eight games.
Kareem is the greatest from my era. LeBron is the greatest from this era. They’re two of the greatest players in NBA history.”
— Lakers legend Bob McAdoo
Former Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti (1984-2017) and other Lakers players from that era attribute Abdul-Jabbar’s reliability to his disciplined dieting, yoga and martial arts sessions.
“We always thought he was strange with doing yoga,” Thompson said. “But obviously he knew what he was doing, and we didn’t.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s teammates also found it strange that he declined to tape his ankles, something that most NBA players do before every game.
“There’s no need to,” Vitti said. “You only tape an ankle if you have an unstable ankle. So many players have sprained their ankle over time that they have an unstable ankle. You try to use tape to stabilize it. Some guys have sprained their ankle so many times that the ligaments are really lax. But he didn’t have an unstable ankle.”
Still, Abdul-Jabbar held the NBA’s all-time scoring record for over three decades mostly because of how he perfected his sky-hook.
“He mastered that shot and stayed committed to that shot,” Wilkes said. “If you watch him, he held it back there so far. The only way you might be able to get it is if you got behind him. You really couldn’t get it behind him or to the side. He just really put a lot of pressure on the defense to try to defend that.”
And when opponents tried to limit Abdul-Jabbar’s sky-hook? He had talented teammates to pass to in Johnson, Worthy, McAdoo, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott or he could just score in other ways.
“If you took away his left shoulder, he would just pivot and go the other way,” Thompson said. “If you took away his sky-hook, he would spin the other way for turnaround jump shots. Kareem had Nikola Jokic-type moves.”
Lakers legends can’t help but admire James’ game
Nonetheless, Abdul-Jabbar’s former teammates eventually sensed that his scoring record would not stay intact forever.
“I don’t think it’s really that important for him,” Wilkes said. “He’s accomplished so much. He’s won championships and Most Valuable Player. It probably would be nice if he can hang on to it. But I don’t think it dents what he’s accomplished much at all. Really, it speaks more to LeBron, and what an unbelievable accomplishment that is for LeBron.”
When LeBron James became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer pic.twitter.com/woWnDg0f7s
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) February 8, 2023
Abdul-Jabbar’s former teammates all pointed out some of the circumstances that partly led to James becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Abdul-Jabbar played for four years at UCLA, and James entered the NBA after high school. Abdul-Jabbar made only one career 3-pointer, while NBA teams traditionally scored less. James has made 2,233 career 3-pointers and today’s teams score at a much faster pace.
Nonetheless, Abdul-Jabbar’s teammates hold no resentment toward James and only marvel at how he has reached such lofty scoring heights.
“He’s one of the five most unique players you have ever seen play this game. That’s LeBron, Shaq, Jordan, Kareem and Wilt,” Thompson said. “Physically, we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron. He’s 6-foot-8 and has 260 pounds of muscle. He can run the floor like a gazelle. He can handle the ball like a point guard. He’s like a tank built into a sports car. He’s the greatest open-court player in basketball history.”
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