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On his way to immortality, LeBron James has confounded us all

Los Angeles Lakers forward and 4-time NBA MVP LeBron James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer on Feb. 7. (Video: Reuters)
7 min

During a game in early December, a fan sat near a courtside row in Detroit. He had a great view, close enough to bear witness to the complexities and contradictions of LeBron James.

The action paused when a player on the home team was attempting free throws, and the fan decided to take his own shot. With a cellphone camera recording, he called out to James and asked the visiting king a question: Are you going to cry when you break the NBA’s all-time scoring record?

James, idling a few feet away, scrunched his nose and shook his head. He would save his tears for the next championship, he explained, not an individual award. When the fan countered with the historic impact of the record — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had held the honor for nearly four decades — James shrugged.

“I ain’t even try to do it,” James said, according to the caption provided in the video.

He made it sound as if he never wanted the record. That he messed around and merely happened upon 38,390 points. But now LeBron James stands alone as the game’s greatest scorer. If that seems contrary to what we have witnessed over the course of his 20 years in the NBA — a pass-first teammate who didn’t intend to chase down Abdul-Jabbar, claiming the game’s supposedly unbreakable scoring crown — it’s hardly the only contradiction of James’s basketball story.

LeBron James passes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to set NBA’s all-time scoring record

He’s just a kid from Akron. As well as the Chosen One.

The champion obsessed with legacy. But also the billionaire preoccupied with branding.

He’s a mix of grace and force never before seen — nimble as a ballroom dancer, powerful like a bullet train and attacking the rim with violent intention. But he’s also a grating combination of emo and passive-aggressive — whining when he doesn’t get a whistle and subtweeting his feelings on social media.

He is his league’s thought leader, the one who embraced social responsibility and popularized the notion that modern-day athletes should express opinions outside of their sports. And still a citizen of his own kingdom, not inclined to listen to the voices from outside the walls.

Now that he owns this record, the tributes are pouring in. They will rightfully extol all of his accomplishments and express admiration for his impact both on the game and in the world. But no homage can account for the entirety that is LeBron James.

That is his superpower. He is too difficult to explain. A teenage phenom and the subject of our curiosity who dared to believe his own hype, then had the audacity to crush all that pressure while dominating the league for two decades.

James has stuck around for so long that he has confounded us all. He is the movie with a plot twist hidden in every scene, dizzying an audience that stays encamped in divisions and constant debates. Very few lukewarm opinions exist about James.

We are either fascinated or infuriated by his presence. He is either the King or the stooge we use to build up myths for our preferred GOATs because Michael Jordan would never miss the playoffs, lose a game in the Finals or allow Kyrie Irving to be traded to the Dallas Mavericks the way James did.

Quite possibly we’re so conflicted because he’s just so hard to pin down.

As he has grown up before us, we’ve come to know him as simply LeBron. Bron Bron, if we want to get even more familiar. Or the way he sometimes styles himself as just that kid from Akron who wasn’t supposed to be here. That humble identity contrasts with a tattoo stretching across his back suggesting a belief he was divinely appointed to reign over basketball.

Not every kid who was born near Lake Erie in 1984 sprouted to 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, gifted with the combinations of size and speed, ferocity and drive. Nor did every baby born there develop a genius level of mental recall and turn a portion of it into an off-the-charts basketball IQ. James’s brain and muscles make him an impossible problem to solve. Give him space — or don’t — and he becomes the snarling, flexing finisher for tomahawk dunks. And yet the toughest man to guard in transition also will slip into a telenovela character, dropping to his knees and dramatizing his dismay over a missed call.

He has led his franchises to four NBA championships, and he says he still plays basketball only to win more championships — a notion he repeated just two days before his 38th birthday. But while Abdul-Jabbar pursued the scoring record in 1984, his Los Angeles Lakers were chasing a championship. James and his temporary teammates in purple and gold are chasing — what? A spot in the play-in tournament or maybe the opportunity to give New Orleans their 2023 lottery pick.

“I’m a winner, and I want to win,” James said following one of the many losses the Lakers have endured this season, “so we’ll see what happens and see how fresh my mind stays over the next couple of years.”

How the NBA scoring record evolved from Wilt to Kareem to LeBron

But when he signed, then re-upped with the Lakers, a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs in the five seasons before his 2018 arrival, he had designs beyond simply winning basketball games. The first active NBA player to be minted as a billionaire, James rules over an entertainment empire with his SpringHill Company, which produces television shows and reboots movies from the ’90s. His mind seems to be as much on Tinseltown as it is on titles.

Still, James’s most impressive quality may also be the source of his greatest contradiction. Unlike the prior generation of sports heroes, he has boldly stepped out of the restraints of athlete-speak. He made statements with his hoodie in mourning the death of Trayvon Martin. With his warmup shirt in condemning police brutality. And with his choice in headwear, supporting Democrat Beto O’Rourke before a game in San Antonio.

But he has saved his loudest statements for his massive platform. James went from calling President Donald Trump “U bum” to millions of followers on Twitter to helping create a voting rights group ahead of the 2020 election. When he speaks, we lean in and listen. And maybe those who have applauded his stances came to expect James to always strike the right tone.

He didn’t do so by tweeting a Spider-Man meme that compared covid-19 to the flu and cold, drawing criticism from Abdul-Jabbar for making an uneasy alliance with vaccine deniers. Also, his enthusiastic support for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson rings as tone-deaf. Either James doesn’t mind that the quarterback for his favorite NFL team settled claims with 30 women who accused him of sexual misconduct, or he just doesn’t care what anyone else may think about his celebration of Watson.

At least his cryptic message after the Lakers failed to trade for his former teammate Irving (“Maybe It’s Me”) made more sense than James, a noted ally for women, outright ignoring the problem with this kind of fanboying.

This is James in a nutshell: self-aware at times, self-obsessed at others.

The kid who became King, so mindful of his carefully curated legacy and how people view him. But also the man who survived more than half of his life under our gaze and, by now, has earned the grace to be wrong at times. Twenty years in, and his contradictions still captivate us. And we will remain on the edge of our seats, at the foot of his throne, waiting to see what will happen next.


A previous version of this article incorrectly described a conversation between LeBron James and a fan. It was in Detroit, not Milwaukee. The article has been corrected.