When Babe Ruth retired from baseball in 1935, he had hit 714 home runs in the course of his career and no one thought his record would ever be broken.
That number, 714, became one of the most famous numbers in sport, a bit like Bobby Charlton’s 49 goals for England was for soccer supporters for a long time. In golf, 18 is the magic number, the number of majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
Ruth’s record stood for 34 years until it was overhauled by Hank Aaron and then, more recently and controversially, by Barry Bonds.
The one mark in sport that many felt would survive all attempts to surpass it, though, was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA career total of 38,387 points, a record that has stood since 1984 and which reflects super-human levels of brilliance, consistency and durability rolled into one.
On Tuesday night, at the Crypto.com Arena, formerly the Staples Center, the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, in front of showbiz royalty including Denzel Washington and Jay-Z, who had come to witness history, LeBron James broke that record and, in the eyes of many, established himself once and for all as the greatest basketball player who has ever played the game.
LeBron James now sits alone atop the NBA’s scoring list, surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Los Angeles Lakers star James broke the record in front of thousands of adoring fans
James lofted his hands high into the air as his teammates celebrated before mobbing The King
James is 38 years old and even though he is playing on a mediocre Lakers team that is unlikely even to make the playoffs this season, he is scoring more points per game now than his career average of 27.1 points.
The Lakers lost the game 133-130 to the Oklahoma City Thunder but not before James broke the record in the third quarter and took part in a mid-game on-court ceremony with Abdul-Jabbar and NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
‘LeBron James is now the all-time leading scorer in the history of the NBA,’ the television commentator yelled as James sunk the fadeaway jumper that broke the record. ‘The King wears the crown.’
James has been known as King James almost since he exploded into the league as an 18-year-old straight out of high school for his home town Cleveland Cavaliers and Tuesday night felt like the final fulfilment of his destiny.
The rush to acclaim him the greatest of all time in the game was instant and inevitable but it is as difficult to compare greatness across the eras in basketball as it is in soccer.
To ask rule on whether James is greater than Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell is as difficult as deciding whether Pele was greater than Diego Maradona and whether both of them were better than Lionel Messi or whether Roger Federer was greater than Rod Laver.
One newspaper columnist told fans to ‘turn off “The Last Dance” videos’ after James’ record
There will always be debate over whether Jordan (pictured) or LeBron come out on top
Jordan won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls, either side of an attempt to make it as a professional baseball player with the minor league Birmingham Barons, compared to the four titles James has won with the Miami Heat, the Cavaliers and the Lakers. Many say the fact James has won with three different teams gives him the edge. Others point to Jordan’s greater scoring average, the best of all time.
‘Turn off “The Last Dance” videos,’ Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote after the game, ‘lose the romantic Bulls-colored glasses, separate the myths from the men, and the reality thunders down like a trademark James tomahawk dunk. James, not Jordan, is the GOAT.’
There is no correct answer to that debate. There never is because beauty in sport is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe you like Federer, maybe you like Rafa Nadal. Maybe you think Tiger Woods had a greater impact on golf than Nicklaus. Maybe you think George Best would have eclipsed all the greats of soccer had he played internationally for one of the leading nations.
I will always think of Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time because he was bigger than the sport in a way that James is not. Jordan is not measured alongside other basketball players.
LeBron’s incredible career has led to him overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s (right) record
James celebrated the achievement with his sons Bronny (left) and Bryce (right) on Tuesday
He is measured alongside sports stars like Muhammad Ali and Pele and Billie Jean King, stars who changed the game they played and changed society around them, too. He is measured as much for his cultural significance as his sporting significance.
Jordan was not the first black basketball star. Far from it. And in many ways, the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and their Lakers and Boston Celtics teams in the mid-1980s had propelled the NBA to new levels. But Jordan took the NBA’s visibility and popularity to a different stratosphere.
And even if he was notoriously reluctant to engage in politics, Jordan’s success as a player, an advertiser, a front man and a businessman helped to change racial stereotypes in the States.
James is now out on his own at the top, after overtaking Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone
Despite the amazing achievement, don’t write off someone else beating the record one day
In Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World he Made, author David Halberstam wrote about one aspect of Jordan’s influence. ‘In the past,’ Halberstam observed, ‘America’s ideal of beauty had always been an essentially white one; American males had looked longingly in the mirror, hoping to see Cary Grant or Gregory Peck or Robert Redford. Jordan, shaved head and all, had given America nothing less than a new definition of beauty for a new age.’
James, too, has carved out as a reputation as a successful businessman even as his playing career has continued to flourish and it is not his fault that he is playing in the league whose popularity Jordan built.
It does not diminish him and when he broke Abdul-Jabbar’s record on Tuesday night, he achieved something that was beyond Jordan and beyond anyone else.
It is tempting to say James’ record will never be broken but history teaches us to beware sport’s capacity for human endeavor.