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LeBron James, NBA scoring record in sight, has lived up to his titanic nickname

As he approaches Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387 points, the league appreciates the 20-year journey of ‘The Chosen One’

Nearly 21 years ago to this day, a teenage LeBron James was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title “The Chosen One.” The basketball prodigy did not shy away from that bold declaration. Shortly after, he had “Chosen 1” tattooed on his back while in high school.

“When I saw the tattoo in the locker room. I was like, ‘Dang, man. Oh. OK. I’m with it,’ ” said Chris Dennis, who ran James’ website when he was in high school and during his early NBA years. “I took a step back. My mind was like, ‘Damn, that’s how you feel?’ But he knew his capabilities.”

It’s safe to say now that the four-time NBA MVP and four-time NBA champion has more than lived up to that titanic nickname. James already had mammoth expectations that he would be the next NBA icon before playing his first pro game in 2003. Now, the 38-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star is 37 points from becoming the NBA’s leading scorer.

Former NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored a league-record 38,387 points in his 20-year career with the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks. James is averaging 30 points per game this season and, assuming he plays, is expected to break Abdul-Jabbar’s record over the next two games. The Lakers’ next game is Tuesday against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder in Los Angeles.

“I just want to win. Want to play the game the right way and see what happens,” said James, after scoring 27 points during the Lakers’ 131-126 road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday.

Dennis plans to attend the potentially historic Lakers game on Tuesday, and he expects many of James’ family members and longtime friends to be there as well.

“I would have never envisioned him breaking the NBA scoring record in the beginning,” Dennis said. “I knew he would figure things out in the NBA. But there was not a man alive who could have predicted that LeBron was going to be the all-time leading scorer. C’mon, man. I knew he would be able to figure out the league and learn how to shoot from deep from how he works. But all-time leading scorer? You couldn’t have predicted that.”

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James talks to the media after his first NBA game against the Sacramento Kings at Arco Arena on Oct. 29, 2003, in Sacramento, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

An 18-year-old James scored his first NBA bucket on a 16-foot jumper while playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers during a 106-92 loss to the host Sacramento Kings on Oct. 29, 2003. The No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft scored 25 points in his first game, the most points by a prep-to-pro player in their NBA debut.

“I’m just trying to do the best I can,” James humbly said after his debut.

Said Dennis: “I knew he was going to be an all-time great after the first game in ‘Sac.’ ”

For those Cavs playing with James during his rookie year, they knew he was going to be superstar special before that first NBA bucket. Former NBA center Jelani McCoy, who played for the Cavaliers during the 2003-04 season, said he knew James was special during workouts before training camp.

“In a pickup game, he was down early and ran off eight to 10 points against grown men before heading out the gym after shooting a Stephen Curry-type of 3-pointer,” McCoy said. “He never saw the ball go in as he headed off the court and all the vets watched it go through the net as he exited.

“Even when he was an observer, he cheered and rooted on guys in drills. I’ve never seen a young man at that age and as a rookie be so comfortable with his greatness without alienating those around him.”

Former NBA center DeSagana Diop, who played for the Cavaliers from 2001 to 2005, said he knew James was special when he dominated the drills at the first practice.

“One thing that stood out to me is how much he stretched before and after practices and games. He took care of his body at a young age,” Diop said.

Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (right) is greeted by NBA commissioner David Stern (left) after scoring the 31,420th point of his career, breaking the NBA’s scoring record during a game against the Utah Jazz at the Thomas & Mack Center on April 5, 1984, in Las Vegas.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

With each step of James’ Hall of Fame-to-be career, it appeared more likely that he could pass Abdul-Jabbar’s long-standing mark.

On April 5, 1984, just days before turning 37 years old, Abdul-Jabbar used his trademark skyhook from the baseline to break the NBA scoring record set by Wilt Chamberlain in 1966 against the host Utah Jazz. The game was oddly played at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, where the Jazz played some games at the time.

“I remember when it happened,” said Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a former NBA guard who grew up a Lakers fan in Southern California. “I’ve seen the highlight many times. I don’t remember if I was watching it live. As a Laker fan growing up, I followed that team and watched them. I remember that well …

“It’s pretty amazing. Most of us back then thought the record would never be broken. So, to see LeBron doing it is pretty remarkable. It’s a great testament to not only his ability, but his durability. He’s just a machine. He’s healthy and a physical force every night.”

Abdul-Jabbar played the last regular-season game of his 20-year career on April 23, 1989, scoring 10 points in the Los Angeles Lakers’ home win against the Seattle SuperSonics. The 19-time NBA All-Star was 42 years old with 38,387 points when he played his last regular-season game. James was then a four-year-old in Akron, Ohio.

“It’s one of the greatest records in sports in general,” James said recently. “It’s up there with the home run record in baseball. Just one of those records that you just don’t ever see, or think, will ever be broken.”

Said Lakers coach Darvin Ham: “It’s a great, huge individual accomplishment, and for someone like myself who’s been watching the NBA since literally Magic Johnson came into the league, it’s one of those records – not just in the NBA, but all of major sports – that you just thought wasn’t ever gonna get eclipsed.”

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James looks on in the third quarter against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 31 in New York City.

Elsa/Getty Images

So, the big question now is how many points does James add after he breaks the scoring record?

Like Abdul-Jabbar, James seems physically poised to play into his 40s. At age 38, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 23.4 points during the 1987-88 season, which was his last averaging over 20. Abdul-Jabbar was 41 and averaging 10.1 points per game in his final season. James, however, is currently one of the NBA’s leading scorers and is averaging as many points now at age 38 as he was when he led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2008 at the age of 23. And unlike Abdul-Jabbar, who made one 3-pointer in his legendary career, James’ scoring will continue to get a boost from beyond the arc.

Former NBA center Kendrick Perkins said recently on ESPN that when he was an AAU teammate with James with the AAU Oakland Soldiers as teens he saw that James was already eating healthy, always stretched before and after games, and took media classes. James’ business partner Maverick Carter has said James spends $1.5 million annually on his body on training, recovery, and diet. Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who coached James with the Lakers and also played with him on USA Basketball, also marveled at James’ longevity, saying “none of us will be able to see this again.”

“When you talk about how he has done it [longevitywise], he was very smart at a very young age to surround himself with good people,” said Kidd, who says he may be able to attend Thursday’s Lakers home game against the Milwaukee Bucks if James is still chasing the record. “He is young at heart. He enjoys working. When you talk about his body, he likes stretching, doing all the little things, paying attention to details of those little things to be successful. It’s time consuming in terms of stretching at 11 at night before you go to sleep …

“He understood that he had to do it, he had to stretch in order to play for a long time. Also, I think he is just young at heart. He’s a kid. He’s just having fun. He pushes to be a winner and a champion. We all keep stats. He would play the game if there were no stats.”

James is the youngest player in NBA history to reach 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000, 25,000 and 30,000 points. He became the Cavaliers’ leading scorer on March 21, 2008, at 23 years old.

By the way James has scored, is scoring at nearly 40 years old and will continue to score until the day he retires, it may be impossible to take the NBA scoring record from “The Chosen One.”

“I’ve always just played the game the way I’ve been playing it over the years, and these things have happened organically by just going out and playing the game the right way,” James said in 2022.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.