The NBA's all-time scoring record is one of the most sacred records in all of sports. Those who make the achievement share a unique burden that only a select few in the entire world will ever understand. Each of these men carried their own motivations, deeply personal to their very essence, which drove them to greatness.
Growing up in Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain stood out from a very early age, topping off at seven feet and one inch. He endured the gawkers as he searched for his place in this world. Like many individuals who seemingly stretch to the sky, Chamberlain was clumsy as he struggled to adjust to his rapidly growing body. However, by the time he reached high school he had grown into his body and began dominating the competition, earning a scholarship to the University of Kansas by graduation.
While a Jayhawk, he captured America's attention with his scoring prowess and nightly defensive masterpieces. As a junior in 1957, he led Kansas to the national championship but lost in a triple-overtime heartbreaker to North Carolina. This began a troubling trend for Wilt Chamberlain. While he was built like a god and remained the era's greatest scorer, Wilt Chamberlain struggled mightily to win a championship.
After having a brief stint with the Harlem Globetrotters between his collegiate and professional days, Chamberlain came home to Philadelphia to play for his hometown Warriors. From the very beginning, he forged a fierce rivalry with Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. Year after agonizing year, Wilt Chamberlain struggled to supplant Russell as that era's greatest winner. He consistently scored at will against any who dared to attempt at stopping him from reaching the rim, but his teams failed to have the same level of cohesiveness that is necessary to win a championship. In contrast, Russell's squads were the very definition of cohesiveness as they reeled off 11 world championships in 13 years.
Around the time that the Warriors moved to California, Chamberlain befriended a New York City prep phenom named Lew Alcindor. He took the young man under his wing, teaching him the wonders and warning him of the pitfalls of stardom. It was quickly becoming apparent that the quiet, unassuming Alcindor was going to walk straight into the lion's den without having an escape plan in place. The high school phenom soaked up as much as Chamberlain was willing to divulge like a sponge and couldn't help but crack a smile as Wilt Chamberlain loaned him some of his jazz records. Aside from basketball, the two shade quite an affinity for the musical classics.
By 1967, Wilt was back in Philadelphia, this time with the 76ers, fully intent on claiming NBA Finals glory. After vanquishing the aging Celtics and his eternal rival Bill Russell in the conference finals, Wilt Chamberlain and his group of merry 76ers defeated the Warriors in the NBA Finals. For much of his career, while he scored points at a rate that will never be equaled, Chamberlain had steadily pounded his head against the wall that had blocked him from claiming a world championship. As the years went on, he began to realize that he didn't need to score as many points as humanly possible to achieve victory. He simply had to trust his teammates. When he realized that epiphany, that is when he became all that he ever could be as a player. He was never a great free-throw shooter. No, this was an era ruled by the post and dominated with physical defense, much of which would be outlawed today.
When he retired in 1975, he held the NBA record for most points scored in a career with 31, 419, it was widely assumed that that record would never be touched. But like any exclusive fraternity, the next great scorer was closer than the public would think.
Lurking in Chamberlain's humongous shadow was his old prodigy, Lew Alcindor. Almost as a right of passage, Alcindor struggled with his height as a youth and thus remained quieter than most superstars for the rest of his life. He eventually grew into his body and dominated blacktops all around New York City. After an All-American career at Power Memorial High School, Alcindor moved across the country to UCLA and studied under the tutelage of their legendary coach, John Wooden.
While in Westwood, Lew learned the value of teamwork and the strategic values of the fastbreak. After three All-American seasons and with three national championships under his belt, Lew Alcindor was drafted first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks where he would quickly turn the newly formed organization into a winner. Alcindor's career was taking off like a shooting star in the night sky as he quickly became a champion and a perennial MVP candidate very early in his career. But something was missing from his life. A void that he struggled to fill. Disillusioned by the Vietnam War protests and the constant political turmoil and racial divide in America, Lew Alcindor decided to transition to Islam and change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was a popular move for famed African Americans in those days, with Muhammad Ali being at the very forefront of that movement.
While white America may have shown outrage over this radical move, it gave the newly minted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar peace in a tumultuous time in American history. But while it gave him peace, he still hungered for more. After winning the NBA Finals in 1971, his Bucks struggled to win again and began a slow downward spiral toward mediocrity. Abdul Jabbar knew that he couldn't win on his own and became weary of the bitter Wisconsin winters. He missed the California sunshine. Finally, the Lakers traded for him in the late 1970s and he immediately found his stride by winning another MVP in his first year.
But even in a new home, Kareem struggled to win another championship. While the Lakers were a playoff team in each of his early years, they never made it past the Conference Finals. The Lakers were in a rut, but their trajectory changed when they drafted Ervin Johnson from Michigan State in 1979. Ervin didn't take long to make good use of his nickname, "Magic", and riding the unique blend of Kareem and Magic, the Lakers played their way to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1973.
Along the way, Kareem earned another league MVP. At long last, after all of those years roaming the Desert of Despair, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had finally rediscovered his championship stride and was primed for another shot at that long-awaited second ring. Unfortunately, he badly sprained his ankle in Game Five of the NBA Finals against the 76ers.
This was why he had come to Los Angeles, for the opportunity to play with other great players and to lighten his own load. In stepped Magic. Although he was listed as a point guard, he could play effectively in any position. In the sixth and deciding game of the 1980 NBA Finals, it wasn't Kareem who led the Lakers to victory, but Magic Johnson. From that moment on, a new era was in Los Angeles.
Night after night, celebrities from all over Los Angeles gathered to watch the Lakers dominate the competition. While they were drawn to the magnetic glow that Magic Johnson brought every night, they were almost as attracted to Kareem's patented sky-hook. In a single moment, Abdul Jabbar would lift just off the ground, hook his arm towards the basket and deftly lob the ball in the net for two points. Much like a classic Jazz album, even though the move was well-known to fans, it brought the same level of enthusiasm every single night.
While the Lakers continued to win well into the eighties, Kareem continued to score, inching ever closer to a record that many felt would never be broken. When Wilt Chamberlain retired in 1973, his 31, 419 career points were so far ahead of anyone else, it was widely assumed that he would keep that record for at least the rest of his life. Perhaps it was the way that he obtained the record, having once averaged 50 points per game one year and scoring a mythical 100 points in a single game.
The way that he took a hold of that record was much different than how Kareem approached it, having a much better cast around him and never being one to violently dunk the ball, but rather deftly lobbing it in from above. Wilt was on hand on April 30, 1984 in Salt Lake City when Kareem performed his signature move, claiming the league's all-time scoring record as his own.
Just eight months later, the next record holder was born. LeBron James was born to a 16-year-old single mother in the slums of Akron, Ohio. They moved frequently for much of his youth, eventually resulting in his missing 40 days of the fourth grade. Growing up without a father in the house, LeBron sought male affirmation on the basketball court. He found what he was looking for in his coaches, immediately gravitating to their authoritative voices and fatherly advice.
But what drew LeBron to basketball, even more, was the camaraderie with his teammates. Early on, he found a group of friends that would help define him as a player and a person in high school. In the eighth grade, they came within a basket from claiming the AAU national championship. At that moment, they vowed to win a championship together.
They could have gone to nearby Butchel High School, a public school, which was an area powerhouse, but sometimes decisions come down to a single factor. In a camp before the school year began, it became apparent that the Butchel coach was not going to give the smallest member of their group a fair shake, they decided to go to Saint Vincent-Saint Mary, a private school with a good reputation but not a tremendous basketball program at the time. LeBron's crew changed that as they all played on varsity as freshmen and led the team to an undefeated season, culminating with a state championship. By the time they graduated, they had added two more state titles, a national championship and notoriety.
As a junior, LeBron had been the cover story of Sports Illustrated, being given the nickname "the Chosen One". He loved that nickname, so much so that he had it tattooed across his back. He believed that he was destined for greatness, perhaps even the NBA's all-time scoring record. With schools from across America salivating for his services and the NBA showing him a level of luxury that he never could have dreamed of, LeBron decided to forgo college and jump straight to the NBA. While heavily ridiculed at the time, he was determined to prove the naysayers wrong.
Years of poverty and fatherlessness had hardened LeBron with the toughness that he needed to play against players more than a decade older than him. His work ethic in the gym and penchant for valuing teammates as brothers had prepared him for this life transition.
Over the next seven years, LeBron grew as a player and as a person, but what eluded him the most was a championship. Desperate for a ring, LeBron elected to test free agency in 2010 and signed with the Miami Heat. This broke the hearts of many in Cleveland. They had thought that their long-awaited savior had arrived, but in the end he only broke their hearts for greener pastures.
LeBron went on to win two titles and two league MVPs in Miami, all the while knowing that those four years came with a tainted legacy. Deep in his heart, LeBron knew that there was only one way to truly cleanse his soul. He had to return to Cleveland and bring his beloved hometown its long-awaited championship.
Shortly after he signed with the Cavs, the team signed a slew of veterans including Kevin Love. Along with franchise mainstay Kyrie Irving, the trio went out to dominate the NBA. Amazingly, despite their last-place finish just a year earlier, the Cavs made it.to the NBA Finals in 2015, losing to the Golden State Warriors after both Love and Irving went down with devastating injuries. LeBron knew that he needed both of those men if he had any hope of accomplishing the one thing that he was certain he was destined to do.
The 2016 season began tumultuously and by the All-Star Break the Cavs decided to fire their coach David Blatt and promote from within, giving assistant Ty Lue the chance to prove himself. For some reason, this worked and LeBron willed his squad to another NBA Finals appearance. Standing in their way from immortality? The Golden State Warriors. The Warriors had just finished a league record 73 wins and looked to become the greatest team of all time if they won a second straight championship. The odds were further on the Warriors' side when they went up 3-1, needing one more win to claim the title.
Facing elimination, LeBron summoned every bit of greatness from his body for this moment. But this wasn't just his moment, it was Cleveland's. Incredibly, LeBron led his team to a seventh game. No team in NBA Finals history had ever won with that big of a deficit. After all that he had been through, LeBron was made for this moment. In front of a sold-out Oracle Arena, LeBron led his team to victory, stifling the Warrior's historic shooting and making a block for the ages late in the fourth quarter to secure Cleveland's first championship since 1964.
After years of being ostracized for his leaving Cleveland, LeBron had fully redeemed himself. And the city embraced him. While he had had many great moments on the court, this moment was the foundation of LeBron's legacy. From then on, every minute that he played and every point he scored was building upon his legacy.
He wasn't done. By 2019, he opened the I Promise School, a public school for at-risk students in Akron, Ohio that guarantees free tuition to the University of Akron as long as the student graduates high school with at least a 3.0 GPA. By establishing the academy, LeBron became more than a celebrity in Cleveland, he became a superhero. All that was left was the league's all-time scoring record and LeBron needed the perfect setting.
It quickly became obvious that Los Angeles would be LeBron's final destination on his road to the NBA's all-time scoring record. Los Angeles has long been one of the biggest media outlets in the world and both of the previous record holders had played for the storied franchise. It felt like it was meant to be as LeBron signed the dotted line in the summer of 2018. Destiny awaited him.
The next few years provided quite the lead-up. LeBron played well, then grew disenchanted with the organization in his first year as a Laker. Sensing his displeasure and knowing the luxury they had in having him on their roster, Lakers management wasted no time in building an uber-talented roster that offseason that catered to his needs as a player. That second year was tumultuous with the death of Laker icon Kobe Bryant, the coronavirus putting the world on pause and racial/political unrest enveloping what little summer America seemed to have. Like any great leader, LeBron took the reigns, constantly speaking out on racial injustice while leading .his team to their 17th Finals championship. While the atmosphere within the NBA Bubble was vastly different than the arenas that LeBron was accustomed to, it didn't deter him from his ultimate objective.
Even with a new ring dangling from their fingers, the Lakers were not destined to last for the long run. Over the next two-and-a-half years, they struggled to find that championship swagger, ultimately falling on their faces and out of the playoffs by 2022. But unlike 2019, LeBron was not as disenchanted with the franchise. He knew that he was destined to break the all-time scoring record wearing purple and gold.
The team continued to struggle well into the 2022-2023 season as LeBron inched ever closer to immortality. Finally, the calendar turned to February 6, 2023. Destiny awaited the Chosen One in Los Angeles. As with much of his time in the City of Angels, the Lakers struggled against a weak Thunder squad and LeBron filled the stat sheet with much-needed points. With ten seconds left in the third quarter, LeBron caught the ball from Russell Westbrook, dribbled twice, turned around and nailed the two-point shot. With this being the 21st century, the audience was a bit muffled considering the fact that all of their phones were out recording the moment, but the moment was LeBron's. As he stood in the middle of the court to receive the game ball from Kareem, the torch was officially passed, from one immortal to the next.