LeBron James stares down Michael Jordan’s scoring record at a crazy time in his career
The victory coincides with James potentially missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years
The old barber, “Georgia,” is fed up. Around the Northern Virginia barbershop, a friendly argument about money has turned into a heated discussion about respect. It feels as if a fight might erupt.
Georgia is never the loudest man in the shop, although he’ll talk your head off — if he likes you. The man’s tongue is slicker than a can of motor oil too. On the day in question, anger is building inside Georgia, evident by the way he snatches blades from his clippers. Then he says something I’ll never forget. “How can I really care about this wedding,” he says, “when the church is on fire?”
It’s one of those classic, old-black-men phrases. No clue from where it originates. Maybe on the farms of Mississippi, or the jazz-filled speakeasies of Harlem. But it makes absolute sense the moment it leaves Georgia’s nicotine-stained lips. Can celebration coincide with chaos? Georgia has no idea he could be easily be talking about LeBron James. More specifically, James’ pursuit of Michael Jordan’s receipts, and the blazing situation of the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers.
Sometime between Monday night and Saturday — when the Lakers play three must-win home games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics — James will pass Jordan for fourth all time in scoring with his 32,293rd point. History will be made. And with it perhaps a brief moment of joy and serenity in James’ season of chaos.
James is already looking back at Jordan in other scoring areas. Two years ago, he overtook Jordan in playoff points. And James also looks back at Jordan in consecutive double-digit scoring games. Only two players have surpassed Jordan in career points: Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the game’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, never surpassed Jordan, because in the NBA space-time continuum, he’s never had to.
This particular mark is deeply personal for James’ generation. It’s a generation born in the ’80s and who came of age in the ’90s at the height of Jordan’s reign of dominance over not just basketball but pop culture as a whole. This is personal —
- for the kids who grew up eating Wheaties and drinking Gatorade — because Mike did so.
- for the kids who wore sweatbands on their wrists, or on their elbows or on their knees — because Mike did.
- for the kids who really believed Air Jordans would make you fly — because they did for Mike (and who took that addiction into adulthood).
- for the kids who did play ball and stuck their tongue out — because Mike did.
- for the kids who both enjoyed and agonized running with “Player 99” in NBA Live ’95 — because Mike wouldn’t allow his likeness in video games.
- for the kids whose favorite channel growing up was WGN — because you knew Mike and the Bulls would always be there, even if you weren’t a Chicago native.
A classic marketing campaign suggested that people “Be Like Mike,” not “Better Than Mike,” and meeting Jordan “was godly,” James said earlier this season. “It was like meeting God for the first time. That’s what I felt like as a 16-year-old kid when I met MJ.” So imagine how a 10-year-old LeBron felt about Mike. Imagine how he felt as a high school freshman. Imagine how robbed he felt as he entered the league only months after Jordan retired for good in 2003.
Yet, James is the rare talent who grew up not only to make a name for himself in the culture of basketball but also to be the unicorn who looks Jordan in the eye. This week, James will surpass Jordan on the career scoring list. It’s one of the most relevant individual titles in all of sports — in the rarefied air of career home runs in baseball and career Grand Slams in tennis.
The James-Jordan debate is the debate. It dominates sports talk radio, podcasts and television sports talk shows. The arguments — who is the greatest of all time, aka “the GOAT?” — takes over movies, barbershops and beauty salons, bars and churches, dinner tables and courtrooms. Ivy League debates have gotten heated as well. Yet, even as James prepares to rise even higher in the annals of basketball immortality, the honor coincides with the hysteria of James potentially missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
In the 70 days since Christmas Day, when James injured his groin, which caused him to miss a month of action, the Lakers have won only nine games. They haven’t won back-to-back games in more than six weeks.
On March 2, the Lakers suffered an embarrassing loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns. James had 27 points, 9 rebounds and 16 assists but did miss a pair of late free throws. So continued a trend of pathetic losses to some of the league’s most inept teams: the New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers. Without James, the Lakers fell from fourth in the Western Conference to ninth. The chronology of this chaos is already loud in the public vernacular.
James and New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis have been tight for a good while. The two met for a postgame dinner days before Christmas that sent league officials into a tizzy that included a charge of tampering. “People get caught up in bunches, sometimes when they wish you can control what they say, but they can’t control me at all,” James said then of the allegations levied against him. “And I play by the rules.” But it wasn’t until Davis made his trade demand public in late January that the Lakers drama took center stage.
On a weekend that was supposed to feature the NFL and the Super Bowl as the unrivaled sports story in America, a supposed megatrade between the Lakers and Pelicans dominated headlines. It was a trade that involved parts, if not all, of the Lakers’ young core — including Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Brandon Ingram, who is currently playing his best basketball of the season — and several veterans. James and longtime agent and close friend Rich Paul (who also represents Davis via Klutch Sports Group) were seen as the ringleaders in this trade scenario.
And now, with an unsuccessful trade deadline having passed, reports, rumors and sports talk shows are hot on the topic of a fractured Lakers locker room. James, fairly or not, sits in the crosshairs of a very public debacle. A season that began with pageantry and fanfare, with (vandalized) murals depicting James as the franchise’s savior, is suddenly primed for an epic collapse.
Without James, the Lakers fell from fourth in the Western Conference to ninth.
More than even the Celtics, the Lakers are this season’s train wreck. But limping, crawling or walking backward, the Celtics at least appear to be playoff-bound. Lakers controlling owner and team president Jeanie Buss attempted to quell the narrative of a blockbuster trade for Davis ever being on the table, calling the assertion “fake news.” But even if what Buss says is true, the organization allowed the angle to live far too long. There’s blood on the hands of every power player within the Lakers these days. No one, not Magic Johnson or anyone, is exempt. And with an impending free agency that will dictate both the immediate future of the Lakers and the sunset glimmer of James’ prime, this is the reality of what a marriage looks like between basketball’s biggest star and its most storied franchise.
The Lakers now sit at 10th in the Western Conference and are 4.5 games out of the eighth seed with 19 games left in the season. And the eighth seed essentially plays for the right to get embalmed by Golden State in the first round. While James’ offensive production on his way to breaking Jordan’s record remains at an elite level, his defense has been lambasted as everything from lethargic to noncommittal. James, of course, refutes all of this as his off-court activity remains in the fast lane.
He recently announced the 2021 launch of Space Jam 2 — the sequel to Jordan’s 1996 animated blockbuster. James has also A&R’d 2 Chainz’s soulfully stellar new project Rap or Go to the League, an album Complex has already dubbed 2 Chainz’s definitive body of work. James also recently dropped the third episode of his HBO talk series The Shop, which featured Davis. This flurry of activity off the court has spurred questions.
"It was not like he spent his whole time doing that rather than doing what he loves to do, which is obviously basketball."
2 Chainz claps back at those claiming LeBron James hasn’t been focusing on basketball to A&R his album, “Rap or Go to the League.” pic.twitter.com/2yElpcNbxf
— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) March 3, 2019
But it’s hard to interrogate the work ethic of a man who has gone to eight consecutive NBA Finals, a player who admits to chasing Jordan’s ghost and who has logged more minutes than anyone over the past decade.
That being said, the last time a James-led team missed the playoffs was 2005, the same year Steve Nash won his first MVP with the Phoenix Suns. Bryant, in his first post-Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson campaign, missed the postseason too. Kevin Durant was finishing his junior year of high school. James was but an NBA infant. A postseason without James isn’t just unfathomable. It’s unnatural.
After the crippling loss in Phoenix on March 2, head coach Luke Walton said, “We need to be a lot better.” Pockets of the Lakers’ fan base, including Snoop Dogg, have all but turned on the team. Bryant isn’t even paying attention to them these days.
James passing Jordan in scoring this week is a milestone — an achievement James will take with him for the rest of his career, and certainly the rest of his life. Flash back to that kid from Akron, Ohio, who found peace and inspiration watching Jordan play basketball. See now the icon standing in a class all his own. The connection, the symbolism, is far deeper than the jersey number they share, or the fictional yet coveted title of GOAT that neither will never solely possess. If only James’ ultimate moment with Jordan came under far sweeter circumstances. If only.
Georgia, the elder barber, would know how to put it.