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Gary Washburn | Commentary

Appreciate LeBron James because you might not see his talents ever again

LeBron James (right) passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Tuesday to become the league’s all-time leading scorer.Ronald Martinez/Getty

LeBron James accomplished the most difficult individual feat in the history of the NBA under a microscope that has become more intense the past 20 years.

As to whether he is the greatest player of all time truly is a debate because of James’s excellence over the past half-decade. Even the most dedicated Michael Jordan fan has to acknowledge that James is on the cusp of being the best ever.

James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Tuesday night to become the league’s all-time leading scorer with 38,390 points, a record that lasted nearly 39 years, back to that April night in 1984 in Las Vegas when Abdul-Jabbar launched a sky hook over Mark Eaton to break Wilt Chamberlain’s record.


That mark survived generations. Karl Malone couldn’t catch Kareem, nor could Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or Dirk Nowitzki. James did, not only because of his longevity — many players have played into their late 30s — but because of his remarkable production at such an advanced age.

In Boston, sports fans witnessed this greatness with Tom Brady. A man who claimed — to the disbelief of many in the media — he would play until age 45 did exactly that, retiring last week. It was his decision. The game did not push Brady out — he would have been a marquee free agent — he left on his own.

For James, he continues to be a top-five player in the NBA in his 20th season. Abdul-Jabbar also was the model of longevity. He played at a high level into his late 30s, but the decline had begun by the time he was LeBron’s age.

The only signs of decline with LeBron are the lack of durability he once possessed and his decision to play more from the perimeter, which is common for aging greats.


Whether you like LeBron James, whether you are still angry that he helped end the Big Three Era or you believe Jordan is just plain better, you have to respect James’s dedication to his craft, his versatility, and basketball acumen.

He made making the right pass cool. He not only is the league’s all-time leading scorer, he’s fourth in assists, ninth in steals, ninth in 3-pointers, and 32nd in rebounding.

The debate about who is the greatest is fascinating considering those don’t occur as often in other sports. Baseball fans don’t berate each other as to whether Mantle, Mays or Aaron were better. They appreciate the accomplishments of all three.

And while Brady is considered the greatest quarterback of all time, those who believe Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana are best don’t get pelted with insults on social media.

It’s really unfair to compare LeBron and Jordan. Jordan singlehandedly carried the NBA to worldwide prominence in the late 1980s after Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the league in the early 1980s. Jordan was and still is a brand. If you’re the Michael Jordan of engineering, it means you’re the best. That’s not going to change.

James and Jordan, seen here at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game, will always be compared.Ron Schwane/Associated Press

James arose at a time in which the NBA was unsure if it would flourish after Jordan retired. James catapulted the NBA into unprecedented heights along with Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant and James entered the league out of high school.


In 1996, Bryant was considered a high school prodigy out of the Philadelphia area but fell to 13th in the draft because many NBA teams had no idea how he would fare as a professional. By the time James was in high school, many Division 1 programs didn’t bother to recruit him because he was destined for the NBA. Several of his high school games were nationally televised. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

In the 19 years since Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls and James was taken first by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the American sports landscape increased exponentially. Sports moved from America’s hobby to America’s fascination.

NBA fans were ready for the next Jordan in 2003. They were prepared for the next coming, and LeBron James flourished despite those lofty expectations. He has become the model for how athletes should carry themselves on and off the floor. He’s a proud family man, owner of a school in his native Akron, Ohio that has sent kids to college.

Nitpickers can criticize “The Decision” and lament his desire to play general manager at times with his teams in Cleveland, Miami, and Los Angeles. But he’s never walked onto the floor ill-prepared. He has never cheated the game. He has never embarrassed himself or his family with off-court misdoings.

LeBron James has established his own legacy, different from that of Michael Jordan. And instead of comparing them, we should appreciate both because both can exist in our basketball stratosphere. The generation that says, “one’s gotta go” or “only one can be the greatest” is absurd.


You can be a Jordan guy and still commend LeBron, and vice versa. The one thing basketball fans need to do is appreciate LeBron while he’s here because as we finally found out with Tom Brady, he won’t be around forever, and that’s a shame.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.