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Why Lebron James has excelled for so long

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There are many ways to have an impact in a basketball game, but scoring is the most celebrated skill, which is why Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James is about to do something special. James is closing in fast on the all-time NBA points record held by Hall of Fame Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. James has never made the record a priority, but he is scoring at a startling clip that seemingly belies his age. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Oh, impetuous youth. Last month, 19-year-old Jabari Smith Jr. of the NBA's Houston Rockets approached 38-year-old LeBron James during Houston's game against the Lakers and said this, captured by NBA TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBA TV")

JABARI SMITH JR: Hey. You played against my dad first - your first NBA game ever.

LEBRON JAMES: Really?

SMITH: Sacramento.

JAMES: Why you do that to me?

SMITH: You feel old, don't you (laughter)?

GOLDMAN: Smith Jr.'s history was right. In October 2003, James made his NBA debut against Smith Sr.'s Sacramento Kings. James scored 25 points. In January 2023, he erupted for 48 against the Rockets.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBA TV")

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: It's a new season high for LeBron James.

GOLDMAN: Did Jr. willfully poke the NBA's most famous bear? James did acknowledge the sting after the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBA TV")

JAMES: Made me feel old as crap, too, man. He even said - he said, that make you feel old, don't it? I said, absolutely man.

GOLDMAN: The thing is, James has been punishing opponents this season without provocation. He's scoring on average just over 30 points a game - three points higher than his career average. Indeed, James is approaching the scoring milestone the way he takes the ball from one end of the court to the other, lowering his shoulder as he surges to the basket, a 6'9, 250-pound freight train.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: That's what it sounded like when James scored the first points in a recent game in Portland, Ore. Fans have been cheering him wherever he plays. Thirty-four-year-old Manpreet Singh (ph) had never seen James in person nor been to an NBA game until he drove 5 hours from Vancouver, Canada, to Portland. And the trip paid off. Wearing a maroon throwback Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James jersey, Singh marveled as James scored 37 points and led the Lakers to an improbable win after they trailed by 25.

MANPREET SINGH: Awesome. He looks like a 28-year-old, takes care of his body. He'll pass that. He'll get over 40,000.

GOLDMAN: Passing that - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38,387 points - has never been a goal, James says. If anything, he likes to think of breaking the record organically, scoring, as he told ESPN, when his team needs it...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES: I mean, I know how to put the ball in the hole, that's for sure.

GOLDMAN: ...But also rebounding and involving others - actually, his preference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES: I've always been a pass-first guy. I've always loved the excitement of my - seeing the success of my teammates, of playing the game. And that's just the way I was brought up.

GOLDMAN: In fact, James was criticized early in his career for passing to open teammates at key moments. But the criticism is moot as James zeroes in on the scoring record. Instead, there's fascination with how James is playing at such a high level. He was the first one picked in the 2003 NBA draft and the only one from then still playing in the league. His self-care is legendary - endless workouts, strict diet, cutting-edge recovery techniques. His former coach when he played for the Miami Heat, Erik Spoelstra, says James' diligence with everything - the body maintenance, developing new basketball skills, never being late for a meeting or a flight - it's all a bit obsessive, which Spoelstra sensed the first time he saw James in the Heat locker room.

ERIK SPOELSTRA: He was folding up his clothes and putting it, like, you know, perfectly in a pile. And then he didn't want anybody else's stuff spilling over into his workspace. How you do anything is how you do everything. And he's a perfect example of that.

GOLDMAN: Everything has gotten the four-time NBA champion and four-time league MVP to the cusp of this record - and four years ahead of Abdul-Jabbar, who sank his last shot at 42. James has had some advantages in piling up the points. He entered the NBA out of high school. Abdul-Jabbar couldn't and went four years to UCLA. And James has taken full advantage of the three-point shot, which started in the NBA in 1979, halfway through Abdul-Jabbar's career. James has made more than 2,000 three-pointers. Abdul-Jabbar made, well, this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Cooper misses from 18. Kareem hustles, gets it. Shoot a three-pointer, Kareem.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Oh, he's going to.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Three - there it goes. There's the first one of his life.

GOLDMAN: And it was the only three-pointer he made in his career. Abdul-Jabbar doesn't appear to begrudge James' advantages, noting on ESPN the natural progression of records.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: It's always about passing it on to the next guy in line.

GOLDMAN: Last year at a Lakers game, a fan sitting courtside asked James if he'll cry when he breaks the record. James shook his head and said he'll cry if LA wins another championship. The fan said, but the record has stood for nearly 40 years. James shrugged and said he didn't try to do it. Turns out you can do some big things you don't set your mind to. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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