- Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Author of “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron”
- Author of “Juicing the Game”
When the NBA summer league was quaint, when it was just the business of evaluating basketball before the evaluation of basketball and the pleasures of Las Vegas, it was played in Boston. In the summer of 2003, LeBron James was there. He hadn’t yet played an official professional game, but he was already rich, having signed a seven-year, $87 million endorsement deal with Nike before sinking his first basket. LeBron in the University of Massachusetts Boston gym 20 years ago represented two things at once, a staggering physical presence for a mere 18-year-old, and physically, a mere child compared to what his fearsome adult body would become.
Two decades later, over the span of a week when he neared and finally surpassed the league’s all-time scoring mark now formerly held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the totality of James’ remarkable journey came into clearer focus during one remarkable week in the NBA.
In comparison to other professional sports, the basketball point is an odd quality. Because of the individualist nature of scoring, points are alternately the most revered and reduced commodities in sports. Points are similar to the home run: wholly selfish — one pitch, one swing, one run. They are the most exciting and defining barometer for greatness, but also a measure of success independent of team concepts. Like the home run hitter, the basketball scorer stands alone, and, like the home run, points can be interpreted as detrimental to the team game and paradoxically, to winning. Just as the case with the one-dimensional baseball slugger, Bob McAdoo, Adrian Dantley, George Gervin, James Harden and even Wilt Chamberlain scored a ton of points but were not always considered winners. Their high point volumes were often seen as examples of selfishness. That LeBron and Kareem now stand as the two greatest scorers in the NBA connects the top of the scoring record book to team success, winning and championships. Ten combined NBA titles, 20 combined NBA Finals appearances, 10 combined regular-season MVPs and nearly 80,000 combined points.
Like the home run crown, the scoring leader passed hands more frequently in the nascent period of the game, but from now on likely will be held only by the greatest of the sport. From 1871 to 1920, six men held the all-time home run record. In the 102 years since, when Babe Ruth overtook Roger Connor (who held the record for the previous 26 years) in 1921, the record has belonged to only three people, and they are giants: Ruth (1921-1974), Henry Aaron (1974-2007), and now Barry Bonds (2007-present).
The NBA was founded in 1946. Over its first 20 years of existence, four men held the all-time scoring record. On Feb. 14, 1966, in just his seventh season, Chamberlain passed Bob Pettit (who was in only his first full year of retirement), and for the next 56 years the NBA record book would show only two names at the top: Chamberlain (1966-1984) and Abdul-Jabbar (1984-2022). Now, in 2023, James becomes the third. It is what the most important all-time record of any sport should be: reflective of the very best players the game has to offer.
James has found himself in the space of Rickey Henderson and Ruth: He broke an all-time record without being a stat compiler at the end. Most career records fall after a lifetime of compilation, of emptying the tank, because that’s what it takes — the exhaustion of a career to reach these Everest peaks. But not LeBron. Ruth was the all-time home run leader as an active player for 14 years. Henderson broke baseball’s all-time steals record in his 12th season — and then played for 11 more. Though playing for another decade is probably unlikely, right now James is still a great player, and on any given night — and certainly potentially in a postseason series — at 38 years old can still be the best player in the league.
The record is astounding; James’ victory arc as a basketball player, total. American culture has been reduced into barstool debate, a pointless and relentless tsunami of lists, memes, comparisons. Neither James nor the rest of the sports world can turn on a television or social media without some comparison of LeBron to Michael Jordan, circuitous nonsense best discussed over beer and chicken wings — or not at all. The victory of James is not only in his being considered the greatest player of all time, but in his realizing the impossible standards forecast of him since he was 12 years old — and in many cases, exceeding them.
He is the greatest physical presence to ever play the game, its most dominant all-around talent. He is in one body the combination of every great player who ever lived: the size and power to dominate his position as Chamberlain and Shaq dominated theirs, the court vision and team-play disposition of Bird and Magic, the speed, athleticism and vertical game of Jordan, Dominique or Kobe.
And he won. And won. And won. James won when he was carrying Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes to the NBA Finals in 2007. He responded to the image of him quitting on the season in the 2010 playoff loss to Boston by appearing in eight consecutive NBA Finals — four with the Miami Heat and four with the Cleveland Cavaliers. When he failed in the 2011 Finals and the world was suggesting the moments were too big and he needed a sports psychologist to help him cope with pressure, he responded with consecutive NBA titles with Miami. He returned to Cleveland and made the Cavaliers champions in 2016. For nearly a decade, whichever team had LeBron James on the roster was the prevailing favorite to reach the Finals. From 2011 to 2018, a supernova period in Miami and Cleveland, he bent the NBA to his will. Kareem went 6-4 in NBA Finals, Jordan 6-0, Magic 5-4, Bill Russell 11-1. James is 4-6 lifetime in NBA Finals but has spent half of his career playing for the championship. The record, the championships, the domination and the high-altitude ranks in the numerous NBA career stats (with the exception of offensive rebounds, James is in the top 10 all-time in virtually every major offensive category) will stand as James’ greatest accomplishments, and he will stand with the greatest to ever play the game — the greatest to some, not to others. Perhaps one day, just as Wilt and Kareem and Michael had lived long enough to see an heir challenge them, someone will come to challenge and possibly surpass his numbers. But what was occurring while James was chasing Kareem was far more impactful than the record, out of his individual control, and will be his enduring legacy.
On Jan. 31, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the New York Knicks 129-123 in overtime at Madison Square Garden. James scored 28, leaving him 89 points from the record. The next night, at the TD Garden, the Celtics led the Brooklyn Nets 46-16 after the first quarter. The final score was 139-96. The next day, after losing by 43 points to the defending Eastern Conference champions, Kyrie Irving — his team just three games in the loss column behind the conference-leading Celtics, once winners of 18 of 20 games and 12 in a row just a few weeks earlier to revive an embattled season — requested a trade. Irving’s contract was to expire at season’s end, and unless the Nets offered him a four-year, $198 million extension, Irving informed his team he wanted out. Within a week, he was gone, Kevin Durant was gone, and so, too, was the superteam Brooklyn Nets as they had been known for the past three-plus years.
From the beginning, James has been differentiated, separate. He is not part of a historical lineage by blood — he is not a Vanderbilt nor Carnegie, Kennedy nor Barrymore. He is singular, of no heirs, an attitude befitting a person best known only by his first name. LeBron, no coat of arms surnames to follow. It is also true of his basketball genealogy and how he positions himself. Certainly, important people have taught him the games of basketball and life, but he presents as entirely self-made. He is not of the legendary old high school basketball programs, St. Anthony’s in Jersey or the DeMatha or Dunbar programs that made Washington, D.C., famous. He is not a Dean Smith disciple, a Carolina Man, from Bobby Jones to Phil Ford to Worthy to Jordan to Vince Carter and Rasheed Wallace, nor from Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski — or of any college. He is not a Manning or a Griffey, the progeny of sports royalty, Bobby Bonds to Barry, Dell Curry to Steph and Seth.
Once he joined the league, James rejected the traditional path of being that spear of lightning to a coach, where both player and mentor grow together, successes linked forever. They become one, make each other famous, introduce each other at their Hall of Fame inductions. There is no Phil Jackson to LeBron’s Jordan, no Auerbach to his Russell, no Popovich to his Duncan, no Joe Torre to his Derek Jeter or Belichick to his Brady. He was coached by Paul Silas and Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra and Tyronn Lue, the never-to-be-mentioned David Blatt, Frank Vogel and the rest, but none could claim LeBron and he certainly claimed none of them. Over the past 20 years, James has been called the best player on his team — as well as the team’s de facto coach and general manager. He is a singular entity.
The balance of power had been shifting in the NBA for decades, and in some ways, what James has been able to do with his career represents the ultimate labor victory after decades of management control. The NBA executives and the commissioner knew it, too. The players had leverage, but no player, not Magic or Bird or even Michael had been willing to stand alone, beyond the tentpole teams that made them famous. There was value in being a Celtic, a Laker, to bleed Dodger Blue. As salaries rose, players had been referred to as “individual corporations.” Michael, still connected to the traditions of team, coach, sponsor, wasn’t quite able to, or interested in, completely cutting the cord. He was of the Bulls, under the umbrella of Nike, and became great with the Phils, Knight and Jackson.
LeBron James saw a different future. He saw empire.
The generation that followed, Kyrie Irving’s generation, saw what LeBron was doing and wanted it, too. Kyrie saw LeBron control the marionette, tilting his hand and watching the puppet react. Kyrie saw it in Cleveland, in Miami and then in Cleveland again, where he and LeBron won an NBA title. LeBron was the blueprint. His generation saw James use his resources to build business interests inside the game — and wealth outside of it. They saw him create a marketplace for his services independent of team — James has changed teams three times but has never been traded. They saw him create an agency headed by his childhood friend Rich Paul that would tremendously influence the business of the sport. James not only had power of personnel on his own team, but impact on player movement across the league. Where there was a player represented by Klutch Sports Group, there was the shadow power of LeBron James in motion.
They saw him manipulate his first free agent year with The Decision. The old school ridiculed the gaucheness of turning a business decision into reality television, but there was no question that flex established him as the centrifugal force of the NBA. He not only chose where he would play, but moved every chess piece of the board around. This was the future.
In turn, Irving would control the chessboard, too. He would seek to be singular. He saw what power could do. Irving came from a blue-blood program, Duke, but he would not abide by the old machinery. In 2020, Lakers forward Jared Dudley said LeBron called 90% of the team’s plays. Later that year, when Brooklyn hired Steve Nash as head coach, Irving said he did not see the Nets as having a head coach but a “collaborative effort.”
As a legacy of The Decision, where the players created a free agent market and conspired to bring James and Chris Bosh to Dwyane Wade in Miami, Irving, in turn, manipulated the free agent market to convince Durant (like James, another Hall of Fame-level superstar independent of a traditional player-coach relationship) to come to Brooklyn, a place of no historical pedigree but fertile ground for an experiment in player control. Superstar players and their representatives demand input in personnel decisions, LeBron style. The coach as suggestion box, LeBron style. Irving orchestrated both the tantalizing beginning and the miserable end of the Nets. Perhaps it all was long overdue for organizations to have the balance of power finally tilted away from them. Players had the power. James showed them how to use it.
This is the legacy of LeBron James. He is the cord-cutter. He is beyond team, beyond the coach. With SpringHill Company, his own television and film production studio where he conducts the majority of his on-camera interviews, James is beyond media and the public — he controls his message and profits from its airing. As his website More Than an Athlete describes the mission of its “Uninterrupted” line, “Uninterrupted is the brand by athletes for athletes. We empower athletes to be ‘More than’ by telling their authentic stories without interruption.” “Without interruption” can be seen as a noble goal of athletes unworried that their perspectives, at long last, will be free of media distortion. Or it can be imperious, the athlete standing alone, unquestioned and beyond truth, a seductive proposition that’s been going around these days in American power circles.
In 2022, Forbes reported that James had crossed the billionaire threshold. James called it a lifelong goal. He had achieved empire. He has created the pathway to have not only money but business power inside and outside of his sports. James is a part-owner of Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox, and he has a stake in NASCAR, Liverpool and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The days of players slapping their names on a restaurant or car dealership are over. They traffic in venture capitalism now.
He is a champion with three teams, but beyond the memories of winning, he has no long-term connection to any of them. That includes even the Lakers. When the Lakers won the 2020 NBA title, not only was the roster virtually handpicked by LeBron, but half of the roster — six players — were clients of Klutch Sports. The championship was more a reflection of LeBron’s power than the venerability of the NBA’s most valuable franchise.
He might not even retire as a Laker. James already has stated he’d like to join whichever team drafts his son Bronny James, likely in two years. When he joined the Lakers as a free agent after the 2018 season, it was not primarily because he wanted to be associated with the team of Jerry West and Wilt, Magic and Kareem, Shaq and Kobe, but because being in Los Angeles made good sense for his business brand.
With the exception of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, teams in the James era seem to carry little to no special mystique. Durant, Irving and Harden have played for four teams in their prime. James has his production company and media machine. Durant has the Boardroom (with co-founder Rich Kleiman) and deep investment in Silicon Valley venture capital. Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony each have a production company.
During a turbulent decade dominated by police killings and accompanying protest, James became the most high-profile athlete to take an advocacy position for Black people in a half-century. He was, during the mid-decade, drawing comparisons to the great Black athletes who spoke in service of Black people: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and even Muhammad Ali. He was treated in reverential terms reserved for the most committed activists — and instead of being part of a collective movement, James branded his contributions to the Black struggle. His voting initiative became “More than a Vote,” his overall brand is “More than an Athlete.”
LeBron James, however, is not an activist. He is empire. Activists are largely non-profit. LeBron is all profit. Activists spend their time in the street, on picket lines, in protest, physically showing their faces in challenge to the state — or to the majority, oftentimes at great risk of physical harm. LeBron is embedded in venture capital, having proudly and unambiguously spelled out his goal of business domination and billionaire aspiration. Whether done by himself or affixed to him by a public and media that are far too casual with words, activist is a wonderful title for James to have added to his résumé, burnishing his talent with an inspirational element of morality. It is, however, simultaneously insulting to the actual activists in the world, the people who dedicate their lives to promoting values and challenging systems not for profit, but in service to other people.
When he chooses to lend his name and resources to a given cause — voter registration, for example — his presence can produce tremendous results. When he chooses not to, or waits to speak, as he did after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland police in November 2014 and he initially said nothing, the activists continued the work of protest without him. In 2019, when the NBA was caught in the middle of protests against the Chinese government by activists in Hong Kong during the league’s exhibition tour of China, James was not an activist. He was a businessman.
During the pandemic, when he was part of a celebrity class that flaunted its ability to flee the dangers of COVID-19 and the public restrictions, he used his outsized visibility to undermine a historic, devastating public health crisis. When he shared a childish Spider-Man meme on Instagram comparing COVID-19 to both the flu and the common cold, James was an activist of a different sort. He was actively attempting to instill doubt in the public confidence toward the country’s pandemic response. Kareem was watching. In his Substack, Abdul-Jabbar wrote: “As is evident by some of the comments that cheer LeBron’s post, he’s given support to those not getting vaccinated, which makes the situation for all of us worse by postponing our health and economic recovery.”
James is what many super-rich celebrities are: He is an enormously influential person who generally stands on the right side of issues and, not insignificantly, writes large checks to support them, as he did in when his foundation partially funded a new public school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He is financially powerful enough to turn thoughts into actions. His influence amplifies the voices of the police abolition and reform activist movements across the country when he wears an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt before games, as he did during the tumult of 2014 and 2015. His celebrity can legitimize issues to people who might be skeptical. His money might help open a school — a school with daily operations funded by taxpayers — while people like him pay less in taxes, but this is not activism. It is benevolence. He does, after all, refer to himself as a king.
The phenomenon of conflating each of the various Black successes to activism is a pernicious one, crumbs for a starving people. Black people have been so utterly absent from private business — thus it can never be forgotten that the beginnings of the Black middle class came from the expansion of civil service and not the private sector — that every promotion, every hire, every thing is treated as historic. James owning a piece of Fenway Sports Group, or Dwyane Wade gaining a 1% stake in the Utah Jazz, is positioned as activism — even if it helps no one but the individual. James’ billionaire aspirations are the opposite of activism, and that is appropriate, the natural progression for people with super-wealth. As his power grows, it will further pull him away from the streets, the public and the people. There is, after all, nothing unique about an American seeking all the dollars.
LeBron as billionaire rests on the premise that him as new boss will somehow not be the same as the old boss, but the Black athlete straddling the line between empire and community is unsustainable. Muhammad Ali loved money but died a world figure of peace and values, not a baron. The business card of John Carlos, he of the Black fist in Mexico City 1968, reads, “John Carlos: World’s Fastest Humanitarian.” Eventually, as his empire expands, James will inevitably become adversaries with the activists. He will own more companies that will expand or contract — as his SpringHill did Monday when it announced it would eliminate approximately 10 positions, or 5% of its workforce, and reorganize. His employees will unionize. He will realize his dream of NBA ownership, and his players will then be on the other side of the negotiating table. He will demand from his city a new stadium at taxpayer expense, for the public money that should be going to public schools like the one he once helped build — to instead go to him. None of this is personal to him. It is simply the price of the ticket.
When the chase ended on Feb. 7, and James’ third-quarter fadeaway against Oklahoma City put him in sole possession of the all-time scoring mark in a 133-130 loss to the Thunder, he shared the stage that week not only with his peers and celebrity admirers on the big board, and his family on the court, but also, at various cities in the league, with his own legacy. Irving was now in Dallas, Durant suddenly in Phoenix. The athletes had beaten the teams, the name on the back bigger than the one on the front, but neither Durant nor Irving emerged looking any better. They held Brooklyn like a marionette, cut the strings and watched the helpless toy fall to the floor. Maybe Brooklyn had it coming. The superteam failed. After flirting with the big time, the mediocre, nondescript Nets are back to being just another team that just might enjoy a rebirth being what it was pre-Irving: an unspectacular but hardworking, unified team.
On the court, the current Laker had surpassed the legendary one, but just like in 2020, in the backdrop of this season has been the silent hand of LeBron. There was the record, but also a flurry of trades — the jettisoning of Russell Westbrook, whom the organization did not particularly want to acquire last year but signed on LeBron’s insistence. Kareem, never exactly warm, congratulated James and took pictures at half court on the magical night. The next game, another Lakers Hall of Famer, James Worthy, emceed a pregame ceremony for LeBron and his family. The respect for James was as undeniable as the numbers and a career that has defined his generation. But the torch passed awkwardly. Perhaps the distance was appropriate, for LeBron has always positioned himself a step apart from every jersey he has ever worn — even that of the most powerful team in the NBA. Perhaps that detachment was appropriate, too, for it revealed in his greatest moment the hidden cost, now revealed, of always being singular. Sometimes, standing alone means exactly that.
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