Tuesday, May 30 2023

There are numerous contributing factors to what makes it so very difficult, as human beings, to appreciate that which is special in real time. For starters, valuing the finite nature of anything brings into sharper focus our own finiteness, the fleetingness of our own mortal existence, and for obvious reasons, that’s something we’d generally rather not dwell upon. Beyond that, modern life passes by at a frenetic pace, and most days are spent just trying to weather the chaos. Most special, resonant, or important people or events, for that reason, are more easily appreciated in retrospect: at a healthy distance, the rose-colored glass of the rearv-iew mirror highlighting everything that was once muddled by the chaos of life and made harder to see at the time.

Related: Evergreen LeBron James becomes NBA’s all-time leading scorer

But it’s a worthy exercise in mindfulness, perhaps, to try to take stock of that which is here now, the gold which cannot stay. Such an opportunity arises this week as LeBron James, the face of the NBA whom many with knowledge on the subject argue to be the greatest player of all time, broke a record that was long believed to be unbreakable: passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the league’s all-time leading scorer.

LeBron has referenced the recently “retired for good” Tom Brady as someone from whom he derives inspiration for what the trajectory of his decades-plus career might look like when all is said and done. Brady is a blueprint for the kind of athlete who was confronted by Father Time and, for the most part, laughed in his face – continuing to shatter records into his 40s and setting new standards for what could be reasonably expected when it comes to career longevity. James isn’t knocking on the door of retirement just yet – he’s made it abundantly clear that he wants to continue playing at least long enough to share the court with his eldest son Bronny, who won’t be eligible for the draft under the current rules until 2024 – which makes the celebration of this achievement, and the subsequent reflection it has elicited by many on his career to this point, feel unique. It’s not often that athletes are still active, let alone still dominant, while receiving their flowers.

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“He’s 38!” is a refrain that’s become almost a cliché to NBA viewers in this, James’ 20th season of dominance. It’s mentioned pretty much every time he steps on the court, but with good reason: The sport has never seen anything like James’ tenure. He’s been one of the best (and for many years, the best) players in the league in every year of his storied career, singular in both production and durability. He was drafted to the NBA in 2003, directly out of high school, to unprecedented hype, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline ‘The Chosen One’ at the ripe old age of 17. But somehow, even with all the fanfare, LeBron managed to exceed expectations, quickly amassing a resume that vaulted him out of the conversation of the greatest players of his generation and into the stratospheric, hallowed top of the list of potential greatest players ever. No one has ever entered the league to more fever-pitched ballyhoo, but the Ohio native bested even the highest hopes for what he would become. It is, quite simply, extraordinary.

LeBron JamesLeBron James

The Lakers’ LeBron James hits the record-breaking field goal during Tuesday’s game against the Thunder. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

One of the most coveted records in sports, most never thought Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record (set in 1984, the same year James was born), would ever be broken. Even James himself seems surprised by the feat, telling ESPN’s Dave McMenamin in a sit down conversation this year: “The scoring record was never, ever even thought of in my head because I’ve always been a pass-first guy.” It’s true. LeBron’s game, in many ways, more closely mirrors that of a facilitating savant like Magic Johnson than a scorer’s scorer like his biggest GOAT title rival, Michael Jordan. He currently sits at fourth on the all-time assists list for that very reason. But the unique combination of James’ durability and longevity, coupled with the fact that he really can score the hell out of the basketball, brought him Tuesday to a promised land that, at one time, even to the self-proclaimed “kid from Akron”, seemed impossible.

When asked about the impact LeBron has had on the game in the days leading up to the breaking of the record, the nostalgia of James’ teammate Anthony Davis highlighted what a span of time like 20 years really means when it comes to an NBA career. “Watching him since I was younger, he’s been like a role model, idol type, for me. We had a good conversation when I first got here, about how I used to go to his camp, and looked up to him, like ‘I want a picture!’ and now, we’re teammates and ended up winning a championship that (first) year. It all comes full circle.” And in a comical moment when the Houston Rockets came to town last month, rookie Jabari Smith Jr jokingly reminded James that Smith’s own father had played against him in James’ very first NBA game, jabbing at him, “You feel old, don’t you?”

The reality is, though, that an accomplishment like breaking the scoring record is indelibly tied to the passing of time. As impressive (shockingly so, at times) as LeBron has been in this, his 20th season, and as convincingly as he impresses upon us that it doesn’t (both by his play and in those pervasive commercials with Jason Momoa), aging does eventually come for us all. Because of this, the joy of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes as a package deal with the melancholy of the truth the feat is inextricably tied to: this “rollercoaster ride”, as LeBron analogized his career to in the post-game press conference in Los Angeles after the record was broken Tuesday against Oklahoma City, will end at some point. And that day grows ever nearer.

The energy in Crypto.com Arena was kinetic before warm-ups even began, everyone in the arena buzzing off the high that only the anticipation of proximity to something special can provide. James entered the building in an immaculately tailored black suit and black sunglasses, dressed like he meant absolute business, calling to mind Johnny Cash when he replied to someone saying he was dressed like was going to a funeral with a simple: “Maybe I am.” James was dressed, it seemed, for a funeral for the former scoring record, or even for a funeral for doubts around his greatness. He accessorized with a ubiquitous few strands of diamonds, and a little gold pin on his lapel which simply read: “Stay Present.” Advice, presumably, for himself, to focus on the task at hand, one point at a time. But it was also poetic advice for the audience at the arena and those watching at home, who were witnessing history, as if to say: “Be here. You’ll want to remember this.”

LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-JabbarLeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

LeBron James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s longstanding NBA career scoring record on Tuesday night in Los Angeles. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

I remember one moment in particular when I was able to fully stay present and revel in the fleeting nature of getting to witness James’ greatness. It was the Lakers vs Celtics in Los Angeles, and the Lakers had just mounted an arena-galvanizing double-digit comeback in the final stages that would force overtime. A steal resulted in a LeBron fast break, and the entire arena palpably held their breath in anticipation for the inevitable thunderous tomahawk dunk that has become a certainty, even 20 years in, when James is left alone in transition. I felt the whole world slow to a crawl, and the dunk happened in what felt like slow motion as the arena erupted. I was able, in that moment, to soak all of it in. The finiteness of it illuminated in almost blinding clarity. I’d be telling my kids about this.

LeBron, it seems, had such a moment of his own on the record-breaking fadeaway (one of his signature shots) on Tuesday, as he recounted to ESPN’s Malika Andrews after the game. “I write ‘the man in the arena’ on my shoe every night – Theodore Roosevelt. Tonight I actually felt like I was sitting on top of the arena. When that shot went in, the roar from the crowd … I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to feel that feeling again. That’s like a game winning [NBA] finals type shot. When we stopped play, everything just stopped. It gave me an opportunity to look around, just embrace it. Seeing my family, seeing the fans, seeing my friends,” he continued: “I can probably count on my hands the number of times I’ve cried in 20 years, either happiness or defeat, and that moment was one of them. It was, ‘I can’t believe what’s going on’ tears.”

As difficult as it is to truly value just what it is we’re witnessing as it happens, it’s a worthwhile venture. Inevitably, before we know it, time has marched on, whether we’ve taken stock of what’s around us or not. To the NBA world’s credit, it does feel as if everyone involved leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of this game, whether as a participant or a spectator, did allow themselves a moment to soak in the historical nature of it. Kyrie Irving, LeBron’s one-time (and nearly current) teammate, had a wise and succinct take on the matter, saying last week: “I don’t think we should be surprised. I think we should congratulate and celebrate him as much as possible. Continue to enjoy the show that he puts on because it’s not going to be for too much longer. Whenever he decides to play [until], I’m enjoying the show.” For the time being, at least, the show goes on. It’s up to us to let it sink in, and enjoy our front-row seats.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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