LeBron James wore the distant look of nostalgia. He spoke slowly and deliberately, letting himself drift into the memories of how much he loved Michael Jordan when he was a little boy. He held tape cutter in his hand and fidgeted with it, interspersing his memories with the loud staccato that came from it.
“Walking up and down those Akron streets with a basketball,” James recalled.
“Singing I wanna be, I wanna be like Mike.”
Those moments came to mind almost as soon as it happened. In the second quarter of the Lakers’ loss to the Denver Nuggets, James scored a contested layup to pass Michael Jordan for fourth all time in NBA scoring. Then James stood under the basket with his right hand clenched, pointing one figure, and counted off – one, two, three, four. He made the ensuing free throw and scored again before a timeout gave the Lakers a chance to recognize James’ accomplishment.
James sat on the bench with cameras surrounding him and a video tribute playing above him. He covered his face with a towel.
“It was very emotional, very emotional,” James said. “Lot of things that was going on inside me at that point in time. I wanted to look up at the scoreboard to see what was going on up there, but at the same time I didn’t want to show what was going on behind the towel.”
“A lot of stuff that I’ve done in my career, this ranks right up there at the top,” James said. “The championship, just for a kid from Akron, Ohio, that needed inspiration, needed some type of positive influence, MJ was that guy. I watched him from afar. Wanted to be like MJ. Shoot fadeaways like MJ. Wanted to stick my tongue out on a dunk like MJ. Wear my sneakers like MJ. I wanted kids to look up to me at some point like MJ. Just it’s crazy, to be honest. It’s beyond crazy.”
James’ moment was a bright spot for the Lakers in an otherwise dismal effort. The Lakers suffered their fourth consecutive loss, this time 115-99 to the Denver Nuggets. Denver led by as many as 23 points.
With a scrappy effort from a reserve group led by two-way players Alex Caruso and Johnathan Williams, the Lakers got to within two points of the Nuggets at 89-87 before Denver, with the second-best record in the Western Conference, pulled away again.
“I think we should start off by giving credit to what LeBron did tonight individually,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said after the game. “For someone that’s always looking to pass first, to score that many points in his career just speaks to the greatness in his game. … Unfortunate that it came in a loss, but still pretty awesome moment.”
Denver took a big lead early, but the arena’s attention fixated on James’ pending milestone. He entered the game with 32,280 points, needing 13 to top Jordan’s 32,292. James’ attention was on it too. It led to jitters that might have contributed to his missing his first four free throw attempts. .
“He was smiling and having fun, but I think someone that studies the game and knows the game and respects the game the way he does, knowing that moment was probably a few minutes ahead of him probably did something … to him that he doesn’t normally feel in a regular-season game,” Walton said.
James tied Jordan with 6:43 left in the second quarter. His teammates had asked him how he wanted to score the basket that would push him ahead of Jordan.
“I said either a fadeaway in the post or off two feet, lean in, tongue out, dunk on the break,” James said.
With 5:38 left before the half, James scored on a contested layup as he was fouled, and passed Jordan.
At shootaround Wednesday morning, James said he didn’t have time to appreciate the milestones he reached throughout the course of a season, pausing to think about it only when asked about it by reporters.
But 97 minutes before the Lakers tipped off against the Nuggets, he showed his excitement on Twitter.
“Can’t even front,” James tweeted. “This is going to be UNREAL!! Wow man.”
Jordan was someone James idolized. He has said the first time he met Jordan it was like meeting God.
He passed Wilt Chamberlain for fifth place on the list with a free throw against the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 14. James, Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar, Malone and Bryant are the only players in NBA history to have scored at least 32,000 points.
Last week, James became the first player in NBA history to be in the top 10 in career points and career assists.
This accomplishment, though stood above most of the others — with the exception of the championship he won for Cleveland in 2016. After the game his phone filled with messages from his childhood friends. They, too, were taken back to James’ youth.
“Me and my best friends, this is all we talked about,” James said. “All we talked about is MJ. Outdoor court, we used to play outdoor ball. In the snow. In the rain in northeast Ohio and we all wanted to be MJ. We all wanted to be MJ. Every last one of us.”
For 12 minutes he reminisced and shared what he felt. To stay calm, he never let go of the tape cutter, never stopped clicking it.
“He was everything,” James said of Jordan.