Ralph E. Moore Jr.

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.,
Special to the AFRO

It was on April 5, 1984, that Kareem Abdul Jabbar scored point number  31,420 of his career, breaking the NBA’s all-time scoring record.  The record had been held by Wilt Chamberlain before Jabbar broke it in front of 18,000 fans gathered at the University of Nevada’s gym in Las Vegas, Nev. Fans were enthused to watch the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Lakers go against one another in what would become one of the most memorable games in basketball history.

On Dec. 30th of that same year, Lebron James, the next all-time NBA top scorer was born.

Did anyone hear a sound a couple of months ago when the record broke?

“The only time I ever think of the record is when someone brings it up. …because anytime a sports record is broken is a time for celebration.” 

The quote is from Kareem Abdul Jabbar who was speaking of the National Basketball Association’s top scoring record, which he broke in 1984, and his record of being top scorer shattered by LeBron in 2023 after 38 years.

Records are made to be broken, as the saying goes, but apparently it can be complicated.  Two great sports heroes– Jabbar and James– secured their records in Los Angeles Lakers uniforms.  They are both extremely popular, both are civic- minded and both are stereo-typically tall ball players James at 6 feet 9 inches and Jabbar at 7 feet 2 inches. But they are different.

Jabbar, born in New York, went to college at UCLA before being drafted into the NBA. Whereas James, a native of Akron, Ohio, became a basketball professional right after high school.  Jabbar played center exclusively and LeBron dominated at small forward, power forward, point guard and shooting guard. 

Jabbar grew up in the Motown music era and James had hip hop music as the soundtrack of his game. Both men were conductors on the court (just to clumsily mix a metaphor).

Jabbar had scored 38,387 points when he retired in 1,560 games which amounted to 57,446 minutes of playing time.

It was a fadeaway jumper with 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter on the home court of the Lakers, the Cryto.com Arena, when James proved his royalty. His team was dueling the Oklahoma City Thunder the night that James broke the almost two generations old record.

The meaningfulness of the magical moment in sports was captured in a photograph of Jabbar handing off a basketball to Lebron James right after the Feb. 7 record shattering moment occurred.  It reminds one of what 42 year old President John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address, about himself and his predecessor, 70-year-old Dwight D. Eisenhower, “…the torch has been passed to a new generation.” 

There are some assertions that comparing James’ career to Jabbar’s is like comparing apples to oranges.  By phone, I consulted William Wells, former basketball coach at St. Frances Academy, a 195 year old Catholic high school sponsored by the Oblate Sisters of Providence.  The Oblates are the first religious order founded for women of African descent.  Wells coached basketball at the school for many years including as the Boys Varsity Basketball coach from 1989 to 2010. His record at SFA was 517 wins and 231 losses.

“I think it was good, but Lebron couldn’t have done it in the old days. In those days, Jabbar was one of the better players.  LeBron as a guard and a forward, he was a combination player. So, he had the ball much of the time during the game. Lebron had the ball in his hands 80 percent of the game.  He had more opportunities to score,” said Wells.

“Kareem played one position (center),” said Wells. “Also, LeBron is the star of [the] team. He had to score. And throughout much of Jabbar’s career you could only score 2 pointers, LeBron poled his record breaking with twos and threes.”  

If anyone knows basketball, Wells knows the game. 

“I’ll give LeBron all his credits. But could he play [so well] back in the day?  That’s the difference,” he said. 

You can hear the generational preference in Coach Wells’ voice. But you must respect his longtime experience and knowledge.  

Personally, I am a big fan of LeBron James and the educational opportunities he provides for Cleveland’s children.  As for who has the better all-time scoring record, I admire them both as creatures of their times (for better or worse) and as men forever giving back to their communities.  That is the best measure of their greatness.