Stephen Curry’s favorite memory of playing against LeBron James isn’t from any of the three championships he won with the Golden State Warriors against James’s teams. It was from his 2009-10 rookie season, when James was in his seventh year with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They first met when James attended one of Curry’s college games for Davidson. The night before their first N.B.A. clash, in Cleveland, James hosted Curry at his home.
“For me, as a rookie, it was a whirlwind of excitement,” Curry said. He added: “The fact that he’s as big as he is, as strong as he is, as skilled as he is, there’s never a time he can’t get a shot off.”
James scored 31 points, most coming from near the rim or at the free-throw line. He hit just one 3-pointer.
More than a decade later, James’s game looks different, though he can still dunk as if the rim insulted his honor. The N.B.A. has evolved rapidly since James entered the league in 2003, and his ability to change with it helped him break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s seemingly unbreakable career scoring record of 38,387 points.
“Nobody could imagine somebody doing it,” said Drew Gooden, who played hundreds of games alongside James in Cleveland. He added: “If you would have said or told somebody in 2003 when LeBron James got drafted when he was 18 years old that he was going to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record, they would have looked at you like you were crazy.”
Drew Gooden (90) played with LeBron James in Cleveland from 2004 to 2008. He cited James’s strict diet as one of his secrets to staying in the game for 20 seasons.Credit…Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE, via Getty Images
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, in an email, called the record “one of the most hallowed” in all sports. Of James, he said, “His extraordinary athleticism, power and speed leave you in awe.”
Over the past 20 years, James’s ascent to the top of the scoring list has impressed Hall of Fame players as he made a definitive case to join their ranks and perhaps be considered the best among them. His shots have felled the toughest competitors, yet made them fans as he blocked them from fulfilling their sports dreams. His teammates have amassed stories of the joys of playing with him — and the pain of being on the other side.
At 38, James is one of the N.B.A.’s oldest players. He’s also still one of its best.
“It’s not like he’s holding on for dear life just to get the award,” Curry said. “He’s still playing at a high level. So it’s pretty damn impressive.”
‘Scored baskets in every way possible’
Abdul-Jabbar, 75, played in the N.B.A. from 1969 to 1989 after starring for three seasons at U.C.L.A. When he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s career scoring record in April 1984, he did so with his patented, and nearly unstoppable, shot: the sky hook.
James hasn’t cultivated that kind of signature.
“Now, is there a shot that you know that he got that would make you say LeBron James? No,” said George Gervin, 70, a Hall of Fame player who won four scoring titles and is known for his finger roll.
Instead, Gervin said, James’s “greatest attribute will be his ability to be consistent.”
James has methodically developed his game all over the floor, borrowing from the greats. During any given game, he might shoot the fadeaway from the post perfected by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, go for a logo 3-pointer like Curry or do the “Dream Shake” he was taught by its namesake, Hakeem Olajuwon.
“LeBron has scored baskets in every way possible,” Philadelphia 76ers Coach Doc Rivers said.
Rivers, who has also coached the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers, said he recently ran into James in Los Angeles and joked, “I think you scored at least 10,000 of those points against one of my teams.”
He said James responded, “‘Those Celtics points were the hardest damn points that I’ve ever had to score.’”
Defenders became “more fearful” as James expanded his game, Rivers said.
“When LeBron first started, you wanted to take away his right hand. His drive. His attacks to the basket,” Rivers said. “You actually would sag off and give him shots. Then he started going both ways with the ball, which made it more difficult to guard. Then he got the in-between game.”
The Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo, one of the league’s best defenders, said James was “like a computer.”
“He’s calculating everything that is going on at a rapid speed,” Adebayo said. “So it would be like you typing normally and you got somebody on, like, Excel saying it to the computer and the computer is just reading what they’re saying and just typing it.”
James is known for his savvy, but also for his strength.
“His area of attack is at the top of the floor,” said Mike Brown, who coached James for five seasons in Cleveland. “Everybody knows it, but nobody can stop it.”
Diana Taurasi, who holds the W.N.B.A.’s career scoring record, said James was “probably still the most dangerous man in transition.”
Gooden said he “took it for granted” that he had played with James. That is, until 2008, when Cleveland traded Gooden to Chicago and he tried to make the Cavaliers regret it the first time he faced off with James.
“I jumped right in LeBron’s way, and it was like a freight train hit me,” Gooden said. “He came across with two elbows. All his elbows went across my face. Basically, he got an and-one. And I came out of the smoke with a bloody, busted lip. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what everybody’s been having to deal with.’”
More passer than scorer?
James’s points are often an afterthought to his skill as a passer.
“He never set out to be a scoring leader,” Golden State forward Draymond Green said. “He’s never been viewed as a scorer. I think that’s more impressive than anything.”
James passed Magic Johnson for sixth on the career assists list in December and passed Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to become fourth in January.
Jeff Green, who was James’s Cavaliers teammate in 2017-18, said James’s passing “allowed me to get a lot of buckets.”
James has led the league in assists only once, in the 2019-20 season. But Erik Spoelstra, who coached James to two championships with the Heat, said he believed that James could have done it any time he wanted to.
“The skill that I thought was most fascinating with him, with his size and skill and his vision, is his passing,” Spoelstra said.
Some think the most momentous play of James’s career wasn’t even on offense.
Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, said: “In terms of memorable, it’s not points he has scored. It’s his chase-down block of Andre in the finals.”
Late in Game 7 of the 2016 N.B.A. finals against Golden State, James, then with Cleveland, flashed the length of the court to block a crucial shot by Andre Iguodala, helping the Cavaliers complete an improbable championship run.
“I never got mad about that,” Iguodala said. “Like, people think it hurts me when they say, ‘You got blocked by LeBron.’ That was an amazing play. Even in real time, I was like, ‘Geez, bro, that was incredible.’ ”
‘A grown man playing among kids’
During James’s rookie year, he averaged fewer than three 3-point attempts a game. Last season, he averaged eight a game — a reflection of the N.B.A.’s shift to emphasize 3-point shooting and his willingness to go with the tide. It’s also a reflection of graceful aging to preserve his legs.
Abdul-Jabbar rarely missed games because of injury and James largely had not either, until recent seasons with the Lakers. James is known for a diligent diet and exercise regimen that has allowed him to stretch his career and remain dominant past the typical N.B.A. retirement age.
“The reward for doing that is he’s a grown man playing among kids now,” Gooden said.
As James’s game has drifted toward the perimeter, his drives to the basket — and the foul shots they often draw — have become less common. Instead, he’s become a better shooter, with more of his points coming from 3-point range.
Still, Silver said he had always been struck by “the sheer force of his dunks.”
In 2012, when James was with the Heat, he jumped over the 5-foot-11 John Lucas III for a dunk against Chicago.
“It happened so fast that I didn’t know he actually jumped over me until it was on the Jumbotron and we called the timeout and the crowd was going crazy,” said Lucas, who was an assistant coach on James’s Lakers team last season. “My phone was blowing up at halftime.”
Lucas even has a picture of himself getting dunked on hanging in his house.
“That picture is going to be in the Hall of Fame,” Lucas said. “I have a great sense of humor.”
Malik Monk, who played with James on the Lakers last season, said he often teased Lucas about the dunk. “He said he wanted to punch him,” Monk said.
James has spent a career making once-in-a-lifetime athleticism look casual, which is why his career-best 61-point performance against the Charlotte Hornets in 2014 seemingly blends in with last season’s 56-point explosion against Curry and Golden State, not to mention his scoring at least 40 points against every N.B.A. team.
But James’s greatness is far from casual. He has been a symbol of consistent dominance for decades — just as Abdul-Jabbar was. When James entered the league straight from high school, he did so with unprecedented hype. He had already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His high school games were on national television.
As Rivers put it: “LeBron is one of the few people in the history of sports to overachieve from a position that was impossible to overachieve.”
Decades later, perhaps the most remarkable fact about James’s career is that his scoring at age 38 is at least as good as it’s ever been — meaning the story of his offensive prowess has not been fully written.