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Friday, March 24, 2023

Smith: Long live the king

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He finally did it. He broke a record that many people thought would never (or should never) be broken. Those people, and there are plenty of them, must be pretty disappointed right now. On Feb. 7, LeBron “King” James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record of 38,387 points. James ended that game, which was a 133-130 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with a total of 38,390 career points — to date.

Comparisons are inevitable in the rarefied air of sports icons. James topped Abdul-Jabbar’s total in 150 fewer games (and more than 3,700 fewer minutes). And while James’ field goal percentage is lower than Abdul-Jabbar’s (50.5% vs. 55.9%), the latter’s “sky hook” was arguably the most automatic shot ever. (Only layups and dunks are more reliable scoring mechanisms.) Plus, Abdul-Jabbar made exactly one 3-pointer in his illustrious career (out of just 18 attempts), as opposed to James’ 34.4% success rate on 6,494 attempts. In short, James broke the record in substantially fewer games with substantially more difficult shots.

As I referenced above, not everyone is happy with James’ historic feat. Some “old school” sports fans will simply object to James being “allowed” to break the record, which they believe should have stood in perpetuity. (There is a story that legendary former Lakers coach Phil Jackson kept Kobe Bryant from breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s still-standing record of scoring 100 points in a single game. Jackson pulled Bryant from a game after he scored 81 points because he — Jackson — allegedly felt that no one should exceed Chamberlain’s awe-inspiring total.)

Others did not want James to break the record simply because they don’t like him. Indeed, “hate” is not too strong a word to characterize the feelings that some people have toward “The King.” Many of those basketball fans believe that James is a whiner, a “flopper,” a prima donna and, worst of all, a pretender to the throne in the never-ending “Greatest of All Time” debate. (Here’s a hint: The so-called G.O.A.T. is whoever one believes it to be. Wasn’t that easy?)

From my perspective, there are legitimate reasons to criticize James. For example, he has a troubling relationship with the Chinese government. To be sure, this is true of several other athletes, entertainers and companies, including the NBA itself. Still, the fact that China is the world’s most populous country, and has the world’s second largest economy, means that there is a substantial economic incentive to overlook their human rights abuses, their anti-democratic stances and their bullying of their neighbors, especially Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Sadly, there are many people who can’t stand James because of his staunch support of racial equity, including his outspokenness on topics such as police brutality, his spearheading the wearing of “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts and his embracing of the movement for Black lives. Unlike transcendent NBA stars like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, James has been at the forefront of the fight against racial discrimination during his playing career. In that regard, he is more akin to legends like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Abdul-Jabbar than he is to more recent NBA superstars.

For the record, I am a big fan of LeBron James, especially because of his leadership regarding racial equity. While my support is irrespective of his phenomenal on-court achievements, those achievements have afforded him a superhuman platform that he has used to support poor people of color. Rather than choosing to “shut up and dribble,” he has used his fame and his fortune to effect substantial change in the lives of thousands of those who are underprivileged. Fortunately, he has not adopted the voluntary amnesia of other African American megastars.

I tip my hat to the one who wears the NBA crown.

Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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