Basketball has never seen anything like LeBron James' dominant tenure

There are numerous factors that make it difficult to appreciate that which is special in real time. For starters, valuing the finite nature of anything brings into sharper focus the fleetingness of our own existence, and for obvious reasons, that's something we'd generally rather not dwell upon. Beyond that, life passes by at a frenetic pace, and most days are spent just trying to weather the storm. Most special, resonant, or important people or events, for that reason, are more easily appreciated in retrospect: the rose-colored glass of the rear-view mirror highlighting everything that was once muddled by the chaos of life.

But it's a worthy exercise in mindfulness to take stock of that which is here now. Such an opportunity arises this week after LeBron James broke a record on Tuesday night that was long believed to be unbreakable: passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the league's all-time leading scorer.

James has referenced the recently "retired for good" Tom Brady as inspiration for what his decades-plus career may 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. James isn't knocking on the door of retirement just yet - he has said that he wants to continue playing long enough to share the court with his eldest son Bronny, who won't be eligible for the draft until 2024 - which makes the celebration of this achievement feel unique. It's not often that athletes are still active, let alone still dominant, while receiving their flowers.

"He's 38!" is a refrain that's become almost a cliche to NBA viewers in this, James's 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's tenure. He's been one of the best (and for many seasons, 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, James managed to exceed expectations. 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 James
LeBron James  

Most 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 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. James's game, in many ways, more closely mirrors that of a creator like Magic Johnson than a scorer's scorer like his biggest GOAT title rival, Michael Jordan. James currently sits at fourth on the all-time assists list for that very reason.

When asked about the impact James has had on the game, his teammate Anthony Davis highlighted what a span of time like 20 years really means in the NBA.

"Watching him since I was younger, he's been like a role model, idol type, for me," said Davis in the days leading up to Tuesday's game. "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 in James's very first NBA game, jabbing at him, "You feel old, don't you?"

The reality is, though, that breaking the scoring record is indelibly tied to the passing of time. As impressive (shockingly so, at times) as James has been in his 20th season, and as convincingly as he impresses upon us that ageing doesn't (both by his play and in those pervasive commercials with Jason Momoa) matter, it does eventually come for us all. Because of this, the joy of passing Abdul-Jabbar comes as a package deal with the melancholy the feat is inextricably tied to: this "rollercoaster ride", as James called it after the record was broken, will end at some point. And that day grows ever nearer.

The energy in Arena on Tuesday night 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 business. It called to mind Johnny Cash when someone told him he was dressed for a funeral. Cash replied: "Maybe I am."

The funeral this time would be for any doubts about his greatness. He accessorized with a 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 advice for the audience, who were witnessing history.

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

I remember one moment in particular when I was able to fully stay present and revel in James' greatness. It was the Lakers v 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 James fast break, and the entire arena held their breath for the 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 blinding clarity. I'd be telling my kids about this.

James, it seems, had such a moment of his own on the record-breaking fadeaway (one of his signature shots) on Tuesday.

"I write 'the man in the arena' on my shoe every night … Tonight I actually felt like I was sitting on top of the arena," he told ESPN after the game. 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. 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 value what we witness 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, James'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.


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