Anthony Davis’ deep voice softened and trailed off as he repeated something so incomprehensible.
“Thirty-eight thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven,” he said like he was committing the number to memory. “Thirty-eight thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven.”
The NBA’s career scoring leader isn’t a mystery inside the Lakers’ locker room — everyone knows its owner is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and everyone knows that, provided he stays healthy, LeBron James will overtake him sometime this season.
The details of the NBA’s all-time scoring record were mostly a mystery to Davis and his teammates.
No one knew it happened against the Utah Jazz or that it happened in 1984 or that, strangely enough, occurred at a regular-season game being played in Las Vegas. And the actual number itself? The wild guesses made Davis and his teammates sound like a bunch of losing bidders on contestant’s row on “The Price Is Right.”
“Thirty-thousand something?” Davis asked.
The answer is something the NBA and the Lakers will make sure you hear about a lot this season, the league’s most famous player breaking its marquee record.
As he said it over and over, Davis’ eyes got wide. His voice got louder, his teammates started to listen and the most famous brow in the NBA shot up.
“Thirty-eight thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven,” he said one last time. “That’s a lot of f—— buckets!”
And then the room filled with disbelieving laughter.
James will enter the season, his 20th in the NBA when the Lakers open play at Golden State on Tuesday, with 37,062 points, 1,325 fewer than the record. If he matches his scoring average with the Lakers (27.0 points), he’ll pass Abdul-Jabbar‘s milestone 49 games into the season.
“It’s a huge thing, I believe,” James told The Times. “I think it’s one of the most sought-after records in sports. And me personally, I’ve never even like set a goal of doing it. It makes zero sense to me. But it’s something that’s bigger, and bigger than people think.”
James himself couldn’t pinpoint the exact number of points that Abdul-Jabbar scored.
It’s just not that kind of a record that’s burned into people’s minds as a factoid.
On April 8, 1974, Golden State coach Steve Kerr was in his older brother’s bedroom with his father watching Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron drive a pitch from Dodgers pitcher Al Downing over the left-center wall.
Years later, Kerr would laugh thinking about his former TNT colleague Craig Sager trying to work his way into the celebration as a young reporter in Atlanta.
More than 38 years later, Kerr can recall the details — what time of year it was, how a relief pitcher caught the historic ball and how two fans congratulated him as he ran the bases and teammates and the press mobbed Aaron at home plate.
It was his 715th career home run, one more than Babe Ruth, and it’s pretty base-level sports trivia.
“Records in basketball, statistical records, they’re just not nearly what they are in baseball,” Kerr said. “… For basketball, there aren’t a lot of statistical records that you sort of automatically record.”
There are probably good reasons for that.
Dr. Curtis Harris, a basketball historian who runs the @ProHoopsHistory Twitter and Substack accounts, said the lineage of the NBA’s scoring record combined with the sport’s place in society make it more analogous to passing or rushing records in the NFL than it does to baseball’s home run record.
“In the end, you have this singular moment. Like all eyes are on Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire when they hit their respective home run,” he said. “It’s like you’re isolated to baseball, you sit there and watch the ball and go back with all your focus on it and everything stops. Whereas in basketball, you score two points and the game keeps on moving. And even like, I mean, Kareem, like he scored the points in the middle of the game, and they kind of stopped it for a little bit to celebrate.
“But it was also like, alright, we got to finish this game.”
It’s inarguable that those moments are bigger. Videos of Aaron passing Ruth and Bonds passing Aaron on MLB’s official YouTube channel each have more than 1 million views.
The clip of Abdul-Jabbar passing Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA‘s YouTube page has fewer than 285,000 views.
Kerr, who grew up in Pacific Palisades, doesn’t have the same kind of relation to Abdul-Jabbar’s moment as he does to Aaron’s homer. He remembers the scoring highlight; he doesn’t remember the details.
Warriors communication ace Raymond Ridder had to tell Kerr that the historic bucket against the Jazz didn’t even happen in Salt Lake City. Instead, it occurred in Las Vegas, where the Jazz played 11 home games on the campus of UNLV in an effort to drum up more regional support.
“I had no idea,” Kerr said.
Neither did James, who said he’s never seen the highlight video of Abdul-Jabbar scoring over Mark Eaton.
“Was it a hook shot?” he said, before being told it indeed was. “What do they say, ‘anything else would be uncivilized?’ It better have been a hook shot.”
As Lakers players and opponents this preseason pondered why their sport’s biggest individual record isn’t widely known, they pitched all kinds of theories.
Austin Reaves said basketball is a team game and that means the team records for wins and championships are easier to know. Davis wondered if it’s simply too many digits.
Mostly everyone was surprised that they didn’t know — especially because 38,387 isn’t even that hard of a number to memorize.
Plenty wondered if points are simply too small a part of the way we discuss players and their legacies.
“It’s almost just another accomplishment,” Davis said, noting that James has done incredible things in different facets of the game.
If anyone is going to take the record fully mainstream, James has the best shot.
“People are going to know the number with LeBron, especially in this day and age. It’ll be everywhere. You’ll see it more. And the more you see it … the more people will remember it.”
As the Lakers open the season Tuesday, James isn’t focused on any of this. He knows it’s not going to happen until the second half of the season. But as he considered it longer and longer, you could see him get excited, starting to wonder when and where it could happen and what it all means when he passes Abdul-Jabbar.
“He scored a lot of … points, man,” James said with a mix of excitement and awe.
But it won’t be the record for much longer.