LOS ANGELES — With the Lakers heading to Sacramento this weekend and LeBron James needing fewer than 500 points to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time mark of 38,397 points, James reflected on the time he scored his first NBA points in the home of the Kings.
“I knew that I was ready for the moment,” James told ESPN in an exclusive interview Friday. “I knew that I belonged in the greatest league in the world. But I didn’t know what to expect. And I was just super nervous. I didn’t know how my first bucket was going to come.”
Three minutes and four seconds into his first NBA game on Oct. 29, 2003, James hit his first NBA shot — a one-dribble pull-up jump shot, 16 feet from the basket along the baseline.
“Actually, kind of a difficult shot, too,” James said. “But I was just so, so nervous with excitement. Nervous with, I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to let people down.”
James has only piled up accomplishments — and points — since. He is on a tear as he approaches Abdul-Jabbar’s record, averaging 33.7 points on 57.8% shooting in his past 12 games, including 25 points on 10-of-19 shooting in Friday night’s 130-114 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
Not bad for a guy who has long made the argument that he’s not a scorer.
“I mean, I know how to put the ball in the hole,” James said. “When I say I’m not a scorer, I say it in a sense of, it’s never been the part of my game that defines me. … But there’s an argument to it. When you look at how long this record has stood and the great Kareem, being able to accomplish something like that.
“But it won’t be for me to discuss because I’ve never felt that way.”
Abdul-Jabbar has held the torch as the league’s top scorer since April 5, 1984 — nearly nine months to the day before James, who turned 38 last month, was born.
Unlike Abdul-Jabbar, whose signature skyhook is frozen in time in bronze as a statue outside Crypto.com Arena, James said picking one move from his offensive repertoire isn’t as obvious a choice.
“It’s not like I have a signature one-leg Dirk [Nowitzki] fadeaway or a patented Michael Jordan fadeaway or a Kareem skyhook or a [Hakeem Olajuwon] Dream Shake,” James said. “I think the only signature thing that people always talk about is my signature tomahawk dunk in transition.”
James is still playing above the rim as his career marches on, but his team is no longer playing near the top of the standings. L.A. has missed the playoffs in two of James’ four seasons with the Lakers and have a 18-21 record, 12th in the Western Conference.
“I want to win. [The losing is] not sitting well with me,” James said. “I don’t like having accomplishments, and it don’t feel right, when it comes in a losing effort. … So as we sit here right now as a franchise and as a team that’s below .500 — we’ve been playing some good basketball as of late, but we want to and I want to win at the highest level. Breaking records or setting records or passing greats in a losing effort has never been a DNA of mine.”
To illustrate his point, James explained how he decided to sit out the past five games of last season to rehabilitate an ankle injury after L.A. was already eliminated from postseason contention, rather than come back and play two more games just to have played enough of the season to be eligible to win the scoring title. James averaged 30 points per game in his 19th season.
“Me being out on the floor, trying to get the scoring Lakers’ LeBron James talks pursuit of scoring record, staying great at 38 in games that don’t matter, it felt so corny to me. So, I was like, I’m not even going [to play],” he said. “So that has never mattered to me unless it was about winning.”
While it has been 10 years since he won the last of his four regular-season MVPs in 2013, James still takes pride in opposing defenses preparing to stop him as one of the best players in the league.
“To be able to go out and still be a focal point of my opponent’s scouting reports lets me know I’m still playing at a high level,” he said. “I want to continue to play at a championship level and still be respected every time I touch the floor as a threat throughout whatever minutes I’m playing.”
James has two more years remaining on his contract with the Lakers. While he has repeatedly expressed his hope that the Lakers can find a way to field a more competitive team around him for the twilight of his career, there’s another goal he prioritizes above all else.
“I need to be on the floor with my boy, I got to be on the floor with Bronny,” James said of his eldest son, currently a senior in high school, who would not be eligible to play in the NBA until the 2024-25 season under the rules of the current collective bargaining agreement.
James has expressed this desire before, saying how he hoped to be teammates with his son in the league. However, he adjusted that stance slightly on Friday.
“Either in the same uniform or a matchup against him. I don’t mean like [guarding one another all game] — because he’s a point guard and I’m a, at this point now I’m playing center or whatever the team needs from me,” James said. “But I would love to do the whole Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. thing. That would be ideal for sure.”
James said he and Bronny do not actively discuss that future possibility, but he knows it’s something that interests his son, too.
“I ask him what are his aspirations, and he says he wants to play in the NBA,” James said. “So, if he wants do to it, he’s got to put in the work. I’m here already, so, I’m just waiting on him.”
And then there will be another first NBA bucket for the James family to get nervous about together.
James, referring to his career points total, said with a laugh, “He’s got a long way to get to me.”