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Catching Kareem: How LeBron James chased down the NBA points record

LeBron James is on the cusp of overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record for most points scored.
Kevin C. Cox
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Getty Images
LeBron James is on the cusp of overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record for most points scored.

It's hard to imagine what 38,387 points looks and sounds like.

But given Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds this record for the NBA's all-time points scored, it's safe to presume it includes thousands of his famous skyhooks. He said as much, estimating in an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, that three-quarters of his points came by way of the hook.

From its crisp release at the highest point, to the smooth windup, Kareem (aka "Cap") used it to help etch his name in the record books.

But no record is immortal. And now Kareem's Mount Rushmore rival, LeBron James, the kid from Akron, is moments away from ceremoniously becoming the new record holder.

The GOAT debate

Every generation of basketball admirers, fans and zealots believes they've witnessed the greatest player of all time. On the hardwood; showcasing grace as they glide in mid-air; poise as they make a crowd-silencing jump shot; and demonstrating the heart of a champion as they empower and will their team to victory.

"His Airness" Michael Jordan. Bill "Mr. 11 Rings" Russell. Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Kobe "Black Mamba" Bryant. You get the picture. This belief to have witnessed greatness serves as lighter fluid to the GOAT debate of basketball.

We aren't gathered here today to stoke those perpetual fires ... but if we were, LeBron's crowning achievement of surpassing Kareem's all-time scoring record would be the coronation act.

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Since the inception of the National Basketball Association (NBA), more than 4,500 players have taken to the hardwood — no doubt living out childhood dreams that started at the local YMCA, the basketball court down the block, or the adjustable miniature Fisher Price rim standing a mere 2 feet off of the ground. Yet only a select few are recognized as icons in the great pantheon halls of basketball.

For the past 34 years, Kareem distinguished himself from every other player as he posted what many believed to be an unbreakable all-time scoring record of 38,387 points. And for good reason. Kareem had no equal, mentally or physically, with his skyhook, a true work of physics.

Kareem's skyhook was a thing of beauty.
Tim DeFrisco; Tim DeFrisco; Mike Powell / Getty images
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Getty images
Kareem's skyhook was a thing of beauty.

But thanks to the modernization of the game; the creation of the 3-point shot in 1979 (10 years after Kareem's NBA debut); innovations within the sneaker and health industries; as well as dedication and a sprinkle of luck; LeBron will become the new all-time points record holder.

How did he get here, you might ask?

Availability

In order to fully appreciate Kareem's 34-year reign as the points champion, and then LeBron's journey to this point, we must underscore the reliability of both players.

Kareem played in 1,560 games and logged more than 57,000 minutes over the span of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks. He only missed more than six games twice in the span of his 20-plus seasons in the NBA, and it's all a testament to his healthy lifestyle off the court and style of play on the court.

LeBron has a number of miles on his legs as well. At age 38, he has played in roughly 150 fewer NBA games than Kareem and logged 4,000 fewer minutes, for three different teams, to reach the 38,000-point club.

LeBron is on the record saying how much he hates letting fans down with missed games, but he has missed considerably more of them than Kareem. LeBron has missed more than 140 games over his 19-year career — more than 70 of those since he debuted with the Lakers in 2018.

Style of play

On the court, Kareem's lethal skyhook made him just as dangerous in his 40s as he was in his 20s. He famously said, "You don't have to know where the ball is. You gotta keep your eye on the basket, but you don't have to have your eye on the ball" when breaking down the mechanics of the skyhook. The brilliant, high-arching shot, coupled with untold hours of practice, translated to an efficiently long career. And while Kareem's offensive prowess was the envy of the league, he took enormous pride in his defense, making the All-NBA Defensive Team 11 times.

What's most bewildering about LeBron's pursuit of Kareem's record is (1) he is a facilitator by nature, who is ranked 4th all-time in assists, and (2) how much of his game is predicated toward explosiveness, power and jumping – abilities that typically depart from one's game after years of playing above the rim. But LeBron adjusted, similar to the late-great Kobe Bryant, and developed a more formalized post-up game and a consistent 3-point shot.

LeBron's explosiveness was a key part of his game — and how he scored.
Andy Lyons / Getty Images
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LeBron's explosiveness was a key part of his game — and how he scored.

Sure, Kareem was accustomed to watching players like Magic Johnson push the ball relentlessly and get fast break points, but basketball's modernity favors LeBron. Historically speaking, players possessing Johnson and LeBron's size haven't been efficient 3-point shooters.

And that's where LeBron was able to make gains on Kareem. He is currently 9th for all-time 3-pointers made, having made more than 2,230. That's a 6,690-plus point injection that LeBron enjoyed thanks to the league's adoption of the shot and basketball analytics valuing the 2-point shots less. Kareem, on the other hand, has made one, singular 3-point shot ... ever.

Lifestyle changes

Off the court, Kareem was a stickler when it came to nutrition and was one of the first NBA players to widely elevate the profile of yoga across the league. He came across yoga in 1961 and began practicing hatha yoga in 1976. Back in 1991, he told Jet magazine that yoga improved his posture and was responsible for the injuries that he didn't have.

Growing up, LeBron never experienced any injuries, yet he followed Kareem's lead, implementing yoga into his regimen as early as his 2007 season in Cleveland. An argument could be made that LeBron's commitment may have surpassed Kareem's after LeBron disclosed he spends just over $1 million a year on his body alone to endure the grueling NBA season.

This level of preparation and growth from LeBron, in his 19th season, is completely foreign to his rookie days in Cleveland. where he'd play in games without taping his ankles – much to the awe of his teammates.

The fundamentals

Beyond their physical traits, what's aided both players is craft dedication and an emphasis on basketball fundamentals.

That manifested in high field goal percentages in the paint for both. Kareem's season-high average was 60%. LeBron's highest is 56% — with lots of trips to the free throw line.

Kareem's career free throw average was 72% — not bad for a big guy — and he made more than 6,700 in his career while taking more than 9,000 shots at the charity stripe.

Kareem was blessed with great coaches throughout his career.
Mike Powell / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Kareem was blessed with great coaches throughout his career.

Given LeBron's explosion up the court and at the rim, there's no surprise he has taken at least 1,600 more free throw attempts than Kareem and has made more than 8,000 in his career.

Over the past few years, LeBron's free throw percentage has fallen off a bit. His nadir was the 2018-19 season where he shot 66%. But his career average is just over 73%.

The coaches

Talent and dedication take many athletes far, but what enables people, regardless of the profession, to have distinct edges over competition comes down to the great teachers they've learned from.

Kareem came up under the tutelage of John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood — a UCLA famed coach who is widely considered the greatest college basketball coach. While at UCLA, Kareem helped bring three national championship banners to the rafters of Pauley Pavilion over the span of four years.

In the book, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-year Friendship On and Off The Court, Kareem said:

"There were no shortcuts in John Wooden's basketball program. You did it until you did it right, and then you did it again. The basic philosophy that I learned on those long afternoons enabled me to extend my professional career to 20 years, longer than any other player."

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Professionally, Kareem inherited, for the most part, coaches who came from winning cultures. Larry Costello coached him and Oscar Robertson to their first championships. And once traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Kareem was coached by Bill Sharman and Jerry West, and won championships while being coached by Paul Westhead and Pat Riley.

That same Pat Riley eventually took the ingredients for success over to the Miami Heat where he would, as fate would have it, have tremendous influence over a certain kid from Akron.

Yet LeBron didn't come through a prestigious institution like UCLA at first, or with someone like John Wooden. Still, the basketball culture flourishing in Northeast Ohio, spearheaded by St. Vincent-St. Mary's (STVM) coach Dru Joyce II, more than sufficed.

Long before Coach Dru had the basketball court at STVM dedicated and named after him, he was simply trying to get a rec league team off the ground while helping his son, Dru Joyce III, get more immersed in the area's basketball culture.

It was at STVM that LeBron began to earn his reputation as a remarkable studier, and learned to be prompt. Barbara Wood served as a librarian at STVM and observed LeBron being one of the first pupils to study in the library.

"He was actually a pretty good student," Wood told NPR. "He was polite, well-mannered and I knew nothing about him except he really wanted to get his work done. I think he used that time as an escape."

That same well-mannered LeBron surprised Wood with a gracious text just hours after he reached the 38,000 point marker on January 15 against Philadelphia.

LeBron's study habits were kicked into the next gear after being drafted out of high school by the Cleveland Cavaliers. His decision to leave Cleveland for Miami arguably led to a doctoral-level experience under Riley's wing.

LeBron's evolution as a player helped him chase down the record.
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LeBron's evolution as a player helped him chase down the record.

Kareem's points record endured the tenure of six U.S. presidents. The question now is how long will LeBron's record hold up given the fast-paced tempo of today's game that's more advantageous for scoring.

One thing is for certain, his record will be contingent upon his health. The Lakers have just under 30 games left this year, and if LeBron continues to average 30 points a game, he could start to flirt with 40,000 points by the close of the season.

And that's the crux of the story, really, says basketball writer and author Brian Windhorst.

"This is a record that is masquerading as about being the greatest scorer," he told NPR. "But he's not really the greatest scorer. He's not the best shooter in NBA history. He's not the best free throw shooter. He is not the best post-up player. He's not."

"What LeBron has done basically better than everybody is, no one has been this great for this long."

And he might keep going. He has hinted at the fact that he'd like to play in the NBA with his son, Bronny, who is 17 and will graduate high school this year. If that's the case, it's plausible LeBron could reach the 44,000-point marker by the end of the 2024 season.

That could be too much for any of LeBron's contemporaries or the premiere NBA young bulls to overcome anytime soon. But it won't stop them from trying to grab the crown from King James.

So, any takers?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.