There are certain indelible moments in the history of the US National Basketball Association, whether you witnessed them first-hand or not. One such moment happened on April 5, 1984, during the match between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz in Las Vegas.
The Lakers called a time-out with just under nine minutes left in the game, knowing fully well that their next basket would set an NBA record.
At the resumption of the game, Lakers point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson received the ball and dribbled to the right side of the floor before throwing a quick pass to his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The then 36-year-old center only needed to shake off a double-team, spinning his 7’2″ frame on the baseline for his patented sky hook, making the 31,420th point in his career.
What ensued was a celebration by his teammates and the sell-out crowd of 18,359 fans as Abdul-Jabbar broke the then NBA all-time scoring record held by the Philadelphia Warriors’ Wilt Chamberlain.
Abdul-Jabbar would play five more years. By the time he suited up for the final regular season game of his incredible 20-year career (14 years with the Lakers, previously with the Milwaukee Bucks from 1969 to 1975), he would accumulate 38,387 career points—a feat that would not be matched for the next 39 years.
The inevitable occurred last Feb. 7, when Laker forward LeBron James made a fallaway 15-footer with 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter of the game with the Oklahoma Thunder in Los Angeles.
With that shot, James made his 38,388th point; just like what happened more than three decades ago, the game was paused to give way to a ceremony marking the basketball milestone.
Abdul-Jabbar, now 75, witnessed the moment. He later joined James on the court and handed the 38-year-old a ball symbolizing the passing of the all-time NBA scoring record to another great player.
Hours after that once-in-a-generation achievement, Abdul-Jabbar posted on his Substack platform a letter expressing his feelings about the latter’s feat: “It’s as if I won a billion dollars in a lottery and 39 years later someone won two billion dollars. How would I feel? Grateful that I won and happy that the next person also won. His winning in no way affects my winning.”
Last October, with James just 1,243 points behind Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time list, Magic Johnson was quoted in a podcast saying it would be a hard pill for Abdul-Jabbar to swallow if James broke his record.
Abdul-Jabbar refuted Johnson’s statement and explained that he might have been bothered by the record-breaking feat if he were as competitive as he used to be.
“But that ain’t me today,” he wrote. “I’m 75. The only time I ever think of the record is when someone brings it up. I retired from the NBA 34 years ago. For the past 20 years, I’ve occupied myself with social activism, my writing career, and my family—especially my three grandchildren. If I had a choice of having my scoring record remain intact for another hundred years or spend one afternoon with my grandchildren, I’d be on the floor in seconds stacking Legos and eating Uncrustables.”
This Zen mindset has contributed immensely to Abdul-Jabbar, who was able to not only survive the rigors of the game but also function at the highest level. He started practicing yoga when he was in high school.
“It takes unbelievable drive, dedication, and talent to survive in the NBA long enough to rack up that number of points when the average NBA career lasts only 4.5 years,” he wrote. “It’s not just about putting the ball through the hoop, it’s about staying healthy and skilled enough to climb the steep mountain in ever-thinning oxygen over many years when most other players have tapped out.”
Interestingly, James shares Abdul-Jabbar’s appreciation and practice of the ancient Hindu discipline, crediting it for his ability to overcome cramps in Game 2 of the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
But yoga is not the only factor that helped the two greats reach such a milestone. One crucial similarity is their lifelong passion for learning, having realized that their bodies would age but they could always sharpen their minds, evolving their skill sets as the seasons passed.
Abdul-Jabbar, a 6-time NBA champion, is into martial arts (he was a student and close friend of the legendary Bruce Lee), shuns tobacco products, and keeps his weight under control. James reportedly spends a whopping $1.5 million (that’s almost P82 million) a year in terms of training, recovery, a diet of healthy, nutritious food, and a 4-day-a-week workout routine. He even adheres to a strict nap schedule and is said to keep a pitch-black room with a humidifier near his bed.
Dedication to recovery has undoubtedly aided James’ longevity, as it did Abdul-Jabbar’s. The latter didn’t have the same luxuries and amenities that today’s players enjoy, but he logged an astounding 57,446 minutes played (first in ranking), and took part in 1,560 games (ranked second) for 20 straight years, playing against some of the best, most physical big men in hoops history.
James, now on his 20th year and seeking his fifth NBA championship ring, has logged 53,742 minutes (currently third) and played 1,410 games (currently ninth).
With these breath-taking records, comparisons between the two greats come naturally.
The young Lew Alcindor converted to Islam in 1971 and took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means “generous, powerful servant for Allah.” He is considered the greatest college player of all time and racked up records and accolades during his four years at the University of California Los Angeles: three NCAA championships, three NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player awards, and two AP Player of the Year honors (not to mention two Sporting News Player of the Year awards).
Under his leadership, the UCLA Bruins went undefeated in 1967, going 30-0 and winning the national championship, then 29-1 in 1968 and 1969 for each season.
On the other hand, James did not attend college. The world came to know him live on ESPN in 2002 when, as a 17-year-old phenom playing for St. Vincent-St. Mary, he helped trounce high school’s then No. 1-ranked Oak Hill Academy with a score of 65-45, after registering 31 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists.
He was dubbed “The Chosen One” while still in high school and has since been in the public eye, subject to intense hype and pressure. It’s said that Nike signed him to a $90 million contract even before he played his first NBA game.
It’s no wonder that whatever “King James” says is scrutinized by everyone, something that Abdul-Jabbar was spared from during his playing days. But then he was known to give curt answers during postgame interviews.
Eventually Abdul-Jabbar became more open, discussing his life, answering questions, writing best-selling books and newspaper commentaries, and talking about the mentors who helped him achieve his goals — civil rights heroes Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, his legendary college coach and lifelong friend John Wooden, and fellow superstar athletes Muhammad Ali and Chamberlain. In 2016 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2020, Abdul-Jabbar took exception to James’ support of the Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins who had expressed opposition to getting vaccinated against Covid-19, as well as for James’ sharing a meme on Instagram that likened the coronavirus infection to getting the flu or the common cold.
Wrote Abdul-Jabbar: “Those who claim they need to ‘do more research’ are simply announcing they have done no research… This position only perpetuates the stereotype of the dumb jock who’s only in sports for the money.” (He eventually apologized, saying that he had tremendous respect for James, and adding that if James could accept that, he would be happy.)
In his Substack post, Abdul-Jabbar said his good opinion of James had grown in the two years since, and observed that James’ “passion for social justice and bettering his community has only increased—and his athleticism has soared to a whole other level of performance.”
“Bottom line about LeBron and me: LeBron makes me love the game again,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “And he makes me proud to be part of an ever-widening group of athletes who actively care about their community.”
James, likely already thinking about what’s next, said he definitely would love to play way past the age of 42, when Abdul-Jabbar played his last NBA game, and when his eldest son, Bronny, would become eligible for the NBA draft.
He has expressed the desire to share the same playing floor as his son before retiring.
Of course, James is also driven to keep playing until 42 to be able to win another title. At that age, Abdul-Jabbar was able to win three more of his total six rings after surpassing Chamberlain’s scoring title.
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