As LeBron James makes history, his Lakers grapple with their horrific present

LOS ANGELES — Before every game, LeBron James takes a black Sharpie and writes “The Man in the Arena” on the side of his sneakers.

The Theodore Roosevelt-inspired phrase that defined James throughout his legendary 20-year career held no more than Tuesday night when James was the center of the sports universe as he passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time scoring -Leader.

“Tonight I actually felt like I was sitting on top of the arena tonight when that shot came and the roar of the crowd could be heard,” James said afterwards. “I’m not sure I would feel that feeling again.”

James’ historic top-of-the-world feel was in sharp contrast to the somber, awkward mood in his team’s dressing room after the game. As James got dressed and hung out with his sons Bryce and Bronny in front of a half-dozen cameras for his future documentary, several Los Angeles Lakers players refused to speak to reporters, including Russell Westbrook for the second straight day (he also at practice rejected on Monday). In the first half, Westbrook and Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy got into their second heated discussion on the bench in recent weeks.

Interestingly, James’ co-star Anthony Davis, who had a quiet performance of 13 points and 8 rebounds after looking more like his old self in the second half of the road trip, was one of the last players to clap and celebrate James’ performance, as revealed in a now viral video clip shared behind the Lakers bench. Davis spoke to the media afterwards and said all the right things about James breaking the record. But he was visibly crushed, whether by his production, another loss, or something else.

This was the backdrop to James’ performance: the 13th-ranked Lakers suffered a critical 133-130 loss to 12th-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder and missed another opportunity to overtake a team ahead of them in the standings. With just 27 games left in the season, the Lakers now sit two games ahead of the final play-in tournament slot and four games behind the No. 6 position that would guarantee a playoff spot.

At the time of James’ historic basket, the Lakers were five points behind. You had one more shot. But the Thunder, using momentum to their advantage, broke again in the fourth with their ball movement and 3-point shooting. Lakers coach Darvin Ham eventually decided to bench James and wave the proverbial white flag.

“Our offense is stagnant in my opinion and the guys wanted to see LeBron do what he did tonight,” Ham said. “Often times, I think the focus has been more on getting Bron to the record rather than just playing natural basketball.”

Since their 2020 championship, there have been few moments for the Lakers and their fans to truly look forward to. James’ record performance was one of those exceptions.

There was a stir in the Arena unlike any regular season game in recent memory. Lakers officials compared the anticipation and atmosphere to Kobe Bryant’s last game in 2016 and Bryant’s jersey retirement in 2017. There were over 200 media in attendance, a typical number for a Conference Finals or Finals game, forcing the Lakers to use a much larger resource press conference room for all.

In addition to James’ wife Savannah, children Bronny, Bryce and Zhuri and his mother Gloria, dozens of friends and family were in attendance. The list of courtside celebrities was impressive: Denzel Washington, Jay-Z, Bad Bunny, Floyd Mayweather, Usher, LL Cool J and Andy Garcia, among many others. Former teammates Dwyane Wade and Richard Jefferson sat in Lakers Gov. Jeanie Buss’ department. Abdul-Jabbar was seated next to the Lakers’ bench, and Laker legends James Worthy and Bob McAdoo were also in attendance.

The Arena crowd cheered with anticipation during the warm up. The arena went wild every time James scored. Every time he got up from the bench and went to the scorer’s desk to check in, they got excited. They chanted “MVP!” when he was the free throw line. They serenaded him after he broke the record with a 14-foot fadeaway jumper late in the third quarter.

“It was electric, man,” Ham said. “And that’s the first time – I have to think about it, but yeah, something of that magnitude outside of a Finals matchup or a Finals win, that’s definitely the electricity in the building hours before. He gave people what they wanted in true LeBron fashion.”

James, who arrived in a gleaming all-black suit, delivered what everyone wanted. He scored 20 points in the first and reached 36 points by 10.9 seconds in the third quarter. James looked emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted, stretching his arms out in triumph before running to the other side of the floor, leaning forward with his hands on his knees to catch his breath. James’ teammates took to the floor, clapping and cheering, celebrating the historic moment they witnessed.

A surreal scene then unfolded as a pre-planned game hiatus took place for about 10 minutes. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Abdul-Jabbar honored James during an emotional moment of passing the torch on Center Court. He was surrounded by friends and family, as well as photographers and select members of the media.

“I just want to say thank you to the Laker faithful,” James said over a microphone. “You are unique. To be in the presence of such a great legend as Kareem is very humbling.”

As with some of his recent milestones in a Lakers jersey — including passing Kobe Bryant for No. 3 and Karl Malone for No. 2 on the all-time scoring list — the game itself became something of an afterthought. After the crowd reached a euphoric high during James’ ceremony, it was silent for much of the final frame. The Lakers temporarily finished the game 9:34 from the end, but were otherwise down by double digits or close to double digits for much of the quarter.

Throughout the pursuit of James, he and Ham have maintained that winning games and reaching the postseason were their goals and that the goalscoring record was inevitably going to happen. But it’s been a talking point for weeks, with James, Ham and the rest of the team being asked about it whenever there is press availability.

On the one hand, the sacred record is so revered that it deserves the recognition it is given. This is a unique moment in a generation. With players increasingly taking regular-season games off for stress management, coupled with the increasing severity of lower-limb injuries due to the game’s spread, there’s a chance that James’ record – which he will continue to build on for at least two more seasons – will exist for several decades.

On the other hand, the chase certainly became something of a distraction. The focus of the last couple of games has been analyzing how far James was from Abdul-Jabbar and trying to calculate when he would break it. Every time James touched the ball on Tuesday, the crowd went into an uproar. His teammates picked this up and fed him the ball at every opportunity, sometimes at the expense of their offensive flow. The collective weight of James’ record may be lifted, but disappointment at another disheartening loss and uncertainty of the February 9th close still hung well over the group.

“Now we’re just going to keep going and trying to get into how we’re trying to get better and win games and win enough that we’re going to be able to be where we are in the postseason,” Ham said .

Tuesday’s loss summed up the tragic nature of James’ Laker career outside of the 2019-20 season. He continues to break records and achieve milestones that further cement his legacy as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, players of all time. He remains as dominant and brilliant as ever. He is a unique force capable of attracting the world’s biggest celebrities to watch him make history.

But the 13th-ranked Lakers are at an increased risk of missing the postseason for the third time in their five seasons. It’s difficult to separate the two, as the Lakers have shown in recent weeks. Now that James has achieved his goal, all that remains for this season is whether he and the Lakers can—possibly with the help of a trade before the deadline—achieve their common ground.

More LeBron James coverage from the athlete

Joe Vardon: LeBron James had every intention of breaking the NBA scoring record against the Thunder. He did

What the sports world is saying about NBA’s new top scorer LeBron James: ‘An icon’

John Hollinger: LeBron James’ record will not be unbreakable. But it’s going to be pretty tight

David Aldridge: Don’t forget Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s excellence as LeBron James leads the NBA’s scoring mountain

Eric Takem: Thunder’s Kenrich Williams agrees to be future quiz answer on LeBron James

Jovan Buha: Darvin Ham has a unique perspective on the GOAT debate between LeBron James and Michael Jordan

Joe Vardon: Up close and personal with LeBron James and the Lakers as he prepares to overtake Kareem to become NBA scoring king

Hunter Patterson: The top 10 moments of LeBron James’ career

NBA75: At No. 2, LeBron James has used his size, skill and determination to overcome the burden of expectations

Jeff Maillet: With LeBron James at the helm, where do The Athletic’s NBA 75 players rank as all-time all-time goal scorers?

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(Top Photo by LeBron James: Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images) As LeBron James makes history, his Lakers grapple with their horrific present

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