The big, historic moments are ones that LeBron James cherishes. These chances to do what only the greatest players in the history of basketball have accomplished before him, these legendary feats that keep marking his career.
He sat at his locker Saturday night in Philadelphia and delivered a soliloquy about everything Kobe Bryant meant to him, his voice heavy with the gravity of passing Bryant for third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
He shared a story.
On Feb. 10, 2002, James’ high school was playing Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy in New Jersey. Before the game, he and his friend Maverick Carter drove to Philadelphia in hopes of meeting Bryant, who was playing in the NBA All-Star game there. Bryant gave him his shoes.
“The red, white and blue Kobes,” James said. “I was a 15, and he was a 14. And I wore ’em anyways. And I sat and just talked to him for a little bit. He gave me the shoes.”
Almost 18 years later, James showed his appreciation for Bryant through shoes. On his game sneakers he wrote “Mamba 4 Life,” referencing Bryant’s nickname, along with both of Bryant’s numbers, 8 and 24, and the letters “KB.”
Then, in the third quarter of the Lakers’ 108-91 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, James did it. He drove across the lane. In a town where Bryant spent most of his childhood, in a building where fans once booed the Lakers great, the crowd rose in anticipation of a moment of history.
James made a layup, giving him 18 points in the game. At that moment, he had scored one more point in his career than Bryant had.
“It’s cool to know that you have the support of one of the all-time greats that ever played this game and someone that you admired to be like on the floor,” said James, who finished with 29 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. “And to do the things, winning championships, be young and be remembered.
“You don’t have that much time to play this game. If you’re able to be remembered for the great things that you did, the positive things that you did, making people feel great about what you did, that’s a pretty cool thing.”
James has scored 33,655 points in his career and sits third behind Karl Malone, who scored 36,928 points, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 38,387. Bryant scored 33,643.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” Bryant said in a tweet. “Much respect my brother.”
He finished the post with emoji of a flexed biceps and the hashtag “#33644.”
James’ effort, along with Anthony Davis’ contributions of 31 points, seven rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot, weren’t enough Saturday.
Philadelphia, led by Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, opened a 20-point lead in the third quarter. After the Lakers cut the deficit to five points, 93-88, with 5:21 left in the fourth, the 76ers pulled away when Al Horford scored seven consecutive points. Simmons finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists while Harris had 29 points and eight rebounds.
James crept toward the feat throughout the Lakers’ five-game road trip. He scored 31 points against the Houston Rockets, 15 against the Boston Celtics, 21 against the New York Knicks and 27 against the Brooklyn Nets. That left him 18 points shy of passing Bryant heading into Saturday night’s nationally televised game.
James scored his first point on a free throw, then the next two on a layup after a steal. In all, he scored six points but committed four turnovers in the first quarter. In the second quarter, he scored six more before resting, then re-entered the game with about three minutes until halftime.
With just under two minutes left in the half, James had 14 points and stepped back for a three. It missed. With 1:01 left in the half, James charged into Philadelphia’s Furkan Korkmaz for his third foul. He sat for the rest of the half.
As the third quarter began, he scored on a left-handed layup which cut the Lakers’ deficit to 10. A step-back three moments later would have done it. But it missed and James had to wait a little longer.
He scored his 18th point with 7:22 left in the quarter.
“I should’ve fouled him,” said Shake Milton, who was guarding James. “I wish he didn’t get it on me or close to me.”
Milton didn’t realize how close James was, and neither did some of his teammates. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who set the screen for James, didn’t realize it until the timeout when the Wells Fargo Center showed James on its video screen to acknowledge his feat. Until then, Caldwell-Pope wasn’t sure why teammates were congratulating James.
“When I set the screen, I just ran to the bench, after he scored, ran to the bench, sat down and that’s when I realized,” Caldwell-Pope said.
The fans in the arena gave James a standing ovation.
Bryant has said he plans to reach out to James, but at the time James addressed reporters, he had no idea what his messages looked like. His phone was filled with congratulations, and one well wisher — close friend Chris Paul — had called just as James was about to speak.
James collected as much memorabilia from the night as he could but didn’t know what he’ll do with it. For now, he’s still processing what he did.
“It doesn’t make no sense,” James said, “but the universe just puts things in your life.”