The instinct is powerful in many sports discussions.
If a player from one era faced a player from another, who would win? Does record-setting and record-breaking mean a consistent upward trend in sports? Can an athlete’s transcendence be measured by how many points they have accounted for during their career?
That’s the question that naturally follows milestones, and one that surfaced Friday in Paris when Michael Jordan, whose Charlotte Hornets played the Milwaukee Bucks there, was asked about LeBron James.
“I know it’s a natural tendency to compare eras to eras, and it’s going to continue to happen,” Jordan said. “I’m a fan of his. I love watching him play. … I think he’s made his mark. He will continue to do so over a period of time, but when you start the comparisons, I think it is what it is.”
The urge to compare eras has resurfaced this week when James approached one of the more significant milestones in his career. He is poised to pass Kobe Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list Saturday, needing only 18 points against the Philadelphia 76ers to do so. In their journeys, just as in James’ and Jordan’s journeys, there are similarities, but more differences. There is also admiration.
“Seeing a kid, 17 years old come into the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise, I used it as motivation,” James said of Bryant. “He helped me before he even knew of me because of what he was able to do. So, just to be able to, at this point of my career, to share the same jersey that he wore, be with this historical franchise and just represent the purple and gold, it’s very humbling and it’s dope.”
Bryant scored 33,643 points in his career — 60 of them in his final game. He won five championships with the Lakers and was called the greatest Laker ever by Magic Johnson. Bryant attended only one Lakers game in the 2018-19 season and has been less scarce this season, bringing his daughter to sit courtside.
He played 20 seasons for only one franchise, and his final three seasons came in the aftermath of a career-altering torn Achilles tendon. It was one of many injuries with which Bryant dealt, and that might have slowed his progress toward more scoring accolades. Bryant, after all, was primarily a scorer. That is the biggest difference between him and James.
“We were just two totally different players,” James said. “His willingness to do whatever it takes to win is something that you admired and love his drive to get better and better every year, but as far as his game, we’re different players.”
James passed Jordan last season in a home game, where his feat was barely acknowledged amid a spiraling season. James put a towel over his head during a timeout shortly thereafter to give himself a moment alone in the arena.
This season, things are different for James. His team is poised to compete for a championship, having added All-Star forward Anthony Davis and a cast of wily veterans. He’s received Bryant’s blessing as he prepares to eclipse the retired Lakers star.
Last season James had the first major injury of his career, a torn left groin, but it was not a career-altering injury. James is now averaging 25.2 points and a career-high 10.8 assists per game. His inclination to pass the ball has perhaps delayed his rise up the all-time scoring list, but his durability has quickened it.
“The way he’s been doing it, the level he’s doing it for so many years without the bumps in the road, it still looks like he has a lot more years to do some damage, is what makes it so impressive,” Lakers wing Danny Green said. “He’s still at the top of his game. It’s year 17 he’s still got at least three more years to play some good quality basketball.”
When Green was asked if he knew how close James was to passing Bryant on the all-time scoring list, he smiled.
“I’ve heard,” he said.
The anticipation for the feat has been building for the last week as the Lakers make their annual Grammy trip.
He was 81 points shy when the Lakers faced the Boston Celtics — what a tribute that would have been. He was 66 points shy when they played the New York Knicks — to score that many points and pass Bryant at Madison Square Garden, his favorite arena, would surely have meant a great deal to James. He was 45 points shy Thursday as the Lakers prepared to play the Nets — James has had games of more than 45 points at least once in 10 of his 17 seasons.
But James hasn’t played like a man chasing the number.
“Things have happened organically because I just go about my business,” James said. “I don’t think about it going into it saying, ‘OK, this is what I got to do. This is how many points I need, this is how many assists I need.’ When it happens, it happens. If it happens. And, so, I don’t know how I’m going to feel when it happens. But it’s a pretty cool thing, you’re just linked with one of the greatest of all time.”
When: 5:30 p.m. PST, Saturday.
On the air: TV: ABC; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: For the fourth time on this five-game trip, the Lakers (36-9) will face a playoff contender for the first time. The 76ers (29-17) are coming off a 107-95 loss to the Raptors on Wednesday in Toronto. Philadelphia will be without All-Star center Joel Embiid (finger) and reserve guard Josh Richardson (hamstring).