As LeBron takes the throne, don’t forget Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s greatness

For nearly 39 years NBA scoring record rested in the hands of arguably the player with the greatest career resume, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

38,387 career points was a total that seemed unfathomable for any player to ever eclipse. It was the basketball equivalent of Cal Ripken’s streak of games played in Major League Baseball or Jerry Rice’s N.F.L. receiving yards total: seemingly unreachable.

It would take the perfect of circumstances to even be threatened, let alone broken.

It would take a 18 year old phenom , straight from high school, to average 27 points per game for two decades. This player would have to never sustain a devastating injury, nor fall at the feet of Father Time.

This player ended up being LeBron James.

“Whenever a sports record is broken — including mine — it’s a time for celebration,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “It means someone has pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible to a whole new level. And when one person climbs higher than the last person, we all feel like we are capable of being more.”

James, with 38,390 points, has broken Abdul-Jabbar’s record at 38 years old, an age long after most players are done scoring any points, much less the 30.2 points per game James is averaging this season. He shares that durability, plus creativity and talent, with Abdul-Jabbar, who played from 1969 to 1989.

No one has won more NBA Most Valuable Player awards than Abdul-Jabbar’s six. With his 19th All-Star selection this year, James has tied Abdul-Jabbar with the most All-Star Game appearances; only James has more all-NBA selections (18) than Abdul-Jabbar, who is tied with Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan for second, with 15. Only Duncan, with 15, and Kevin Garnett and Bryant, with 12 apiece, have more All-Defensive team selections than Abdul-Jabbar’s 11. Only Hakeem Olajuwon (3,830) and Dikembe Mutombo (3,289) have more career blocked shots than Abdul-Jabbar’s 3,189 (and here, again, we must point out that the NBA didn’t start keeping blocked shots as an official stat until 1973

Abdul-Jabbar won six championships, tied with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and one behind the amazing Robert Horry. (The dynastic Celtics of the ’50s and ’60s have their own wing of rings, of course, starting with Russell’s 11 championships.)

Yet none of those players — not Russell, or Jordan or Pippen, for that matter — accomplished all of that, essentially, with one shot.

Yes, Kareem had a fadeaway jumper, and a drop step that he would break out on occasion. You don’t dominate at every level of basketball, as he did at Power Memorial High School in the mid-’60s, and UCLA in the late ’60s, and the NBA in the ’70s and ’80s, if you aren’t grounded in fundamental excellence.

He had one move. No crossover. He made exactly one 3-pointer in 1,560 career games.

The Sky Hook.

He knew he was shooting the Sky Hook, usually with the right hand, but occasionally, the left. You knew he was shooting the Sky Hook. Everyone watching knew he was shooting the Sky Hook. But no one could stop it.

That LeBron James broke Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record Tuesday is a testament to James’ own illustrious, historic career. LeBron, too, can lay claim to NBA GOAT status.

But Abdul-Jabbar retired … 34 years ago! He’d been the league’s all-time leading scorer for almost 39 years, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s mark for most points in April 1984. And Abdul-Jabbar’s record stayed put for more than three decades, so far out did he set the standard. (Here, one must add that Abdul-Jabbar also stayed all four years at UCLA, well before the one-and-done era. What if he’d been able to come out early?)

Like Hank Aaron in baseball, Abdul-Jabbar’s greatness stemmed from his remarkable consistency. He only led the NBA in scoring twice, early in his career. His career averages (24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds per game) are … kind of normal for a great player. His numbers aren’t cartoonish, like Chamberlain’s. But Kareem stayed at the top so much longer than so many. He won his second NBA Finals MVP award in 1985 in his 16th pro season, at age 37, 14 years after he won his first Finals MVP, with the Bucks, in 1971, his second pro season. Even at 42, the Lakers wanted him to re-sign for another year. But he said no.

Personality wise, LeBron and Kareem are polar opposites.

Kareem was never over friendly nor affectionate. And why would you expect him to have been?

He hated anything overt and joyful. It took Magic Johnson, the king of positivity and affection to slowly chip away at the stoic nature of Kareem. Only once the duo won championships did he lighten up, and even that hardly made a dent in his armor.

He’s been in the public eye since he was a teenager. As the nation fell in love with television, where easy answers came in facile, 30-minute chunks, he was a reader, a budding historian and author. He was a young Black man coming of age during the American Civil Rights movement in the ’60s, a witness to racism both close by and far away, and learned hard lessons about the truth of this country. He boycotted the 1968 Summer Olympics, a decision he made more or less on his own.

And, after years of learning about Islam, he publicly converted in 1971, declaring after the Bucks won their ’71 championship that he had changed his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means “generous, powerful servant for Allah.”

But like his signature shot, Kareem’s connection to the NBA didn’t escape the era he dominated.

He was, often, brusque, with teammates and others. His relationship with the media in his day probably hurt him. He was never all that comfortable with reporters, most of whom were White and older and decidedly not Muslim when he came into the league, and didn’t or wouldn’t understand where he was coming from. When he asked to be traded from Milwaukee in 1974, he went out of his way to say it wasn’t personal, but that Milwaukee just didn’t have much to offer culturally at the time to a young, Black, 7-2 Muslim basketball player. It was, nonetheless, taken personally by many in the city.

But, Kareem could laugh at himself, and did so publicly, and famously. And Kareem made his peace with Milwaukee, and the Bucks, many times over, and has become a very successful journalist himself, with his own popular Substack.

In doing so, he continues to speak out on social justice issues, just as James has done his whole career. And if their relationship isn’t especially close, there was obvious respect between the two at Arena Tuesday night, when James took his place atop the NBA scoring mountain, each knowing what the other had to do to accomplish such an amazing feat.

“I think the main reason that I never formed a bond with LeBron (again, entirely my fault) is simply our age difference. I established my scoring record in 1984 — the year LeBron was born,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote.When he started to make a name for himself, I was already pretty removed from the NBA world. Except for certain gala events, I was just like any other fan, watching games on my TV in my sweatpants while munching on too many unhealthy snacks.

“That disconnect is on me. I knew the pressures he was under and maybe I could have helped ease them a bit. But I saw that LeBron had a friend and mentor in Kobe Bryant and I was just an empty jersey in the rafters. I couldn’t imagine why he’d want to hang with someone twice his age. How many do?”

Abdul-Jabbar also acknowledged that he has “taken a couple minor jabs” at James over vaccine protocols, “which in (Abdul-Jabbar’s) mind was the kind of nudging one teammate does with another.” He wrote that he thinks James is “too accomplished, mature and savvy to hold a grudge over something so petty.”

“Bottom line about LeBron and me: LeBron makes me love the game again,” Abdul-Jabbar added. “And he makes me proud to be part of an ever-widening group of athletes who actively care about their community.”

As we all, rightly, celebrated James’ incredible accomplishment, we can also, and should, look up and smile, and marvel at the cathedral Kareem Abdul-Jabbar built on the basketball court, and all that he’s made since.

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