Like a record, LeBron James’ age is just a number
NEW ORLEANS — LeBron James headed into Saturday night’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans with 63 points to break the NBA career scoring record. It was a big number for anyone to reach in a single game, especially a 38-year-old player in his 20th NBA season.
And yet, spectators wearing purple and gold jerseys and t-shirts displaying James’ number 6 flooded Canal and Bourbon streets ahead of Saturday’s game, then crammed into the Smoothie King Center, most of between them hoping to witness NBA history.
Larry Unrein, a New York native who has traveled to three of the Lakers’ last four games, came to New Orleans a day after his 40th birthday, hoping for a belated gift.
“He could break it, man,” Unrein said before the game. “He’s 38 and he plays like he’s 24. I turned 40 yesterday and I aspire to take care of my body, drink tons of water and stretch.” Unrein, who skateboards in his spare time, said James inspired him to skate well into old age.
An arena worker named Anita, who wouldn’t give her last name but said she had worked there for 10 years, feared the record could be broken upstairs at the Pelicans’ home. “We can’t let it happen here,” she said. “It’s not about the king tonight.”
No one, really, should have thought that James, at this point in his career, would score 63 points on Saturday. (His career high is 61 points, in a game against Charlotte in 2014.) But James has provided plenty of miracles in his career. For him to compete at such a high level at 38 seems like just one more feat – one that alters perceptions of athletic limits and athletic bonuses.
James fell short of the scoring record on Saturday, finishing with 27 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists, and the Lakers (25-29) lost to the Pelicans (27-27), 131-126. James is now 36 points from passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 38,387 from 1969-89, and tickets for the Lakers’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night have soared in anticipation that James will then break the record.
On Saturday, James made plays that explained why many fans will still believe another miracle is on the way. He played 40 minutes, more than any of his teammates. It was the third time in his last four games that he had played at least 40 minutes, a figure he said was “catching up with him”.
“I’m extremely tired,” he said after the game. “But I will be ready to leave on Tuesday.”
“I think it’s historic on different levels,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. earlier this season. “For him to be at this point in his career and still able to produce at the level that he’s producing, I just think all of us, just really able to witness it, be a part of it – it shows his spirit of competition, his no-give-up mentality.
A moment of “How does LeBron do that at this age?” came in the third quarter, with the Lakers leading by 7 and forward Herbert Jones heading for the edge. James took a charge, flying off his back from the impact of Jones crashing into him. Many NBA players, especially stars and older players, are hesitant to take matters into their own hands, given the risk of injury or, more simply, wear and tear on the body over a long season. Even Kobe Bryant, who was known for his toughness and mentality while playing for the Lakers, was publicly against the takeover.
Bryant’s reasoning was that great players such as Scottie Pippen and Larry Bird were hurt after taking numerous charges throughout their careers, while others, including Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, didn’t take changes and avoided major long-term injuries.
But there was James, nearly 40, taking charge of a listed player at 6ft 7in and 206lbs.
With just under three minutes remaining in Saturday’s game and the Lakers losing by 4, James dove for a ball out of bounds, launching over the fans on the field. It was the second time he had done so in recent weeks. He didn’t save the ball, but players of his age and status would be excused for not even making the effort. James didn’t want to apologize: there he was, his blue and pink shoes among the faces of the fans in the crowd.
“I think it inspires them to do their job,” Ham said this season of the impact James’ play had on his teammates.
James aggressively attacked the basket throughout the night, bumping and battling fouls to make layups and sprinting past players for scores. On several occasions, younger teammates passed up lay-up opportunities to give the ball to their much older, but somehow much more explosive teammate, who threw dunks that fired up the fans, many of whom were carrying his jersey and some who wore the colors of New Orleans.
James wasn’t perfect. He often settled for 3-point shots, including a lopsided one late in the game, which he missed and felt foolish to take. He finished 1 of 7 from long range. Defensively, he, like his teammates, did little to stop the Pelicans’ 42-point third-quarter barrage that prompted their win.
As James headed for the free throw line with 18 seconds left and the Lakers were down by 6, he missed his first attempt. If the game wasn’t already over, it was effectively over after that.
But Anita, the stadium employee, didn’t believe it. She thought James was too good to miss a free throw. It had to be part of a script: “He just does that,” she said, “so he could get that record in LA”