Whittling down the most indelible, audacious, singular moments from an unparalleled 20-year career is not easy. LeBron James might be the greatest basketball player ever, a totemic image of athleticism, poise, discipline, and durability all wrapped into one unfading 6-foot-9 body. He’s played more than 53,000 minutes and dunked it 2,438 times (including this one over another human being, this one through another, and this one for the art exhibits).
His on- and off-court decisions have changed and elevated the NBA in a way few others can claim to have done. And now that he’s broken a record that’s stood since eight months before he was born, it’s worth recollecting some of the most significant memories this legend has provided along the way. Here are my top eight.
8. The “U Bum” Tweet
U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!— LeBron James (@KingJames) September 23, 2017
It’s not every day that one of the most visible people on the planet roasts the president of the United States with an all-time social media burn. LeBron didn’t even give Donald Trump the dignity of using the first two letters in “you.” If there’s ever been a more succinct, economical use of the English language, I’d love to see it.
7. 25 Straight!
In 2007, making just his second playoff appearance, 22-year-old LeBron swept the Wizards, needed only six games to take down the Jason Kidd–Vince Carter Nets, and then, miraculously, wiped the floor with a proud Pistons team that was three years removed from raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
If anyone did what he did in Game 5 of that series in 2023, the 14 engineers who still work at Twitter would melt trying to keep feeds up and running. The Cavs held a one-point lead with 6:06 left in regulation, and LeBron had just 19 points. In the remaining 6:05, plus 10 minutes from two overtime periods, James would drop another 29 points, including 25 straight, and carry the Cavaliers to what was then easily one of their biggest wins in franchise history.
LeBron was destined for greatness, but even this felt unfathomable. Players that young don’t lead 50-win teams to the NBA Finals, nor do they shrug off battle-tested champions. They take their lumps, spend years getting knocked down, and then eventually climb the mountain. This night was a sign of just how different LeBron really was.
(I asked then–Pistons forward Chris Webber about LeBron’s historic performance a few years ago, and he was still shaking his head.)
6. Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals
LeBron’s second-best playoff game is forever handcuffed to a 10-point loss, endless memes, and a missed opportunity so frustrating it led him to punch a blackboard and injure his hand. So much of it represents a missed opportunity: JR Smith committed an all-time brain fart after George Hill missed what could’ve been a game-winning free throw with four seconds on the clock. James immediately labeled it one of the toughest losses of his entire career.
But this game, which featured his playoff career high of 51 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists in nearly 48 minutes of action, is still beyond impressive. James nearly took down the defending champs single-handedly. Golden State threw Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson at him—familiar foes who had ended two of his last three seasons with losses. After a particularly rough defeat against Golden State in the 2017 Finals, in Game 1 of this 2018 championship series, it felt like a dam that had held over a year’s worth of pent-up disappointment and determination had cracked.
LeBron made 60 percent of his shots, repeatedly hunted Steph Curry, dropped several pull-up bombs in transition, and lived at the rim. There was no answer for him, as there never really has been. Had he stolen that game, nobody can say for sure what would’ve happened next. This was a once-in-a-lifetime superstar at the absolute peak of his powers. Even if Cleveland was eventually swept and LeBron no longer had Kyrie Irving (a necessary supplement who had helped James lead the Cavs back from a 3-1 deficit two years prior) by his side, why couldn’t he do the impossible?
5. The Headband-less Masterpiece
Game 6 of the 2013 Finals contained what might be the most riveting possession in NBA history: Ray Allen’s backpedaling prayer from the corner forced overtime and is in the “Most Unforgettable Shots Ever” conversation. Everyone who saw it live still remembers where they were when it happened. (I was quietly jumping on a couch in a dim Santa Monica studio apartment while my wife slept 15 feet away.)
It’s rare for LeBron to be overshadowed in a game this meaningful, particularly one that featured one of his most pivotal stints. At the nine-minute mark in the fourth quarter, his headband came off, he didn’t put it back on, and then things really got serious. All this somehow happened a decade ago, and it’s jarring to go back and watch highlights of LeBron’s athletic prime. But it’s all on full display right here. He had a different gear back then, whether it was how he accelerated without a runway or got off the ground in a split second. (LeBron’s out-of-nowhere volleyball spike of Tim Duncan’s layup is epic.)
The Heat trailed by 10 after three quarters. James scored 14 points with no headband, including what, in my opinion, is the most important shot of his entire career: Down five with 20 seconds left, he canned a 3 from the left wing mere moments after badly bricking one straightaway. Allen would never have gotten a chance to hit the biggest shot of his life if that hadn’t gone in. LeBron was unconscious in that moment, and it capped off a stretch that pretty much defines how he evolved to become one of the great scorers of all time.
4. The Assassin Meme
Today in 2012.— Thomas Duffy (@TJDhoops) June 7, 2019
LEBRON GAME 6. pic.twitter.com/tafYNh6C5I
For my money, this is the most impressive and important night of LeBron’s career. Coming off a devastating loss in the 2011 Finals, nearly two years into his controversial move down to South Beach, James had yet to win a championship. It feels like a lifetime ago, but he was generally despised for leaving the team that drafted him to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Had James not won Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that I wouldn’t be sitting here waxing on about all these remarkable moments in what should go down as the greatest NBA career ever.
On Instagram eight years later, James explained what his mentality was heading into TD Garden that night, facing elimination after losing three straight games against Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and the franchise that pushed him to Miami in the first place. He was thinking about his legacy. He was thinking about potential trades Pat Riley might make that would break up a super-team that never was.
The pressure was immense. The knee-buckling stakes—in the home of a bitter rival—could not have been higher. James processed it all and then responded with a heartbeat that was flatter than a sheet of paper. Supernatural infallibility. He finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, and the most intimidating image of his career. It was surgical. After the first 12 minutes, James had 14 points and had missed only one shot. In the second quarter, he scored 16 points and fluffed only one more. That’s 12-for-14 in the first half, with nine of his field goals outside the restricted area.
A couple of weeks later, James finally won his first ring, downing the young Oklahoma City Thunder in a competitive five-game series that’s probably best known for Scott Brooks’s refusal to bench Kendrick Perkins and LeBron’s uncalled foul on Kevin Durant at the end of Game 2. He doesn’t get there without that night in Boston.
Statistically, there have been hundreds of individual performances that have topped this since it happened. (Its game score ranks 73rd in LeBron’s own career!) But nobody will ever walk into a harsher environment with more tension and historical weight on their shoulders and then execute like LeBron did. James overcame it all in a way only someone in the GOAT conversation could.
3. The Record
Before the Lakers played the Knicks last week, I went around L.A.’s locker room and asked a few players where breaking Kareem’s scoring record would rank on the long list of accomplishments James has amassed in his decorated career.
“I mean, that’s probably number one,” Austin Reaves said. “I don’t think many people thought that one would get touched.”
Lonnie Walker IV couldn’t put anything above winning a championship for his hometown team, but also knew it would be a special night. “I just hope that I’m in that atmosphere and I get to watch it,” he smiled. “That’s something that I can tell my future kids and my grandkids about.”
Along with their head coach, Darvin Ham, LeBron’s current teammates marveled at his longevity, the ability to sustain good health and awesome play like no one else. “There’s some big-time records but that one … I never thought anybody would walk down Kareem,” Ham said. “I don’t mind at all calling him the greatest.”
Heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Thunder, LeBron needed 36 points to pass Abdul-Jabbar and become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. With 10.9 seconds in the third quarter, he backed Kenrich Williams down and nailed a stepback from the left elbow. The game stopped. His family greeted him at midcourt. Commissioner Adam Silver congratulated him. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar posed for photos. Then LeBron fought back tears, took a microphone, and expressed gratitude. “Fuck, man,” James said. “Thank you, guys.”
For a few minutes, it was OK to ignore Los Angeles’s down year, the fact that they entered Tuesday’s game in 13th place in the West, were losing to the Thunder, probably won’t have their own draft pick in an absolutely loaded draft, bumbled their way through a trade negotiation for Kyrie Irving, etc. All despair left the building. This was a legitimate historical event worth celebrating.
“A lot of people get paid and they probably stay the same or they get worse,” Walker IV told me last week. “He has continuously not gotten content with his game. He’s in love with being the greatest.”
2. The Decision
You can picture it in your mind. The magenta gingham button-down. That black chinstrap beard. The children surrounding LeBron, who was seated in a director’s chair across from Jim Gray. For those who lived through this, LeBron’s decision transcended professional sports and became a pop cultural touchstone. As a televised spectacle, it was a disaster.
The backlash was swift, most contemptuously in the form of a Comic Sans letter written by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that, among other things, called LeBron’s endeavor a “shocking act of disloyalty.” But as a choice, “The Decision” was ahead of its time. It kicked off a player-empowerment era that thematically pervaded the NBA for a decade (before atrophying in recent months) and allowed other star free agents to look for greener grass whenever they felt like it.
LeBron understood his leverage and was able to see the bigger picture. Beyond his skill and talent and speed and strength, it’s this shrewd foresight and unparalleled self-belief that make him one of the most important figures in league history.
1. The Block
It feels odd to memorialize one of the greatest offensive players in NBA history—on the day he broke the league’s all-time scoring record—with a defensive play. But that’s why we’ll never see another LeBron James.
It’s impossible to top this, the defining sequence of his career, a swift, sensational display of athleticism and timing that will one day be immortalized in bronze in downtown Cleveland. You’ve seen it 1 million times because it deserves that level of attention. How he did it defies comprehension.
To race down the court as he did, physically exhausted, on the only path that would yield a favorable outcome, LeBron summoned the concentration of a monk and the momentum of an asteroid. He didn’t think he could get there. He took off knowing he would. And with a little help from JR Smith, he did.
LeBron would still be one of the greatest players ever even if he hadn’t brought Cleveland the trophy that had long felt preordained by his arrival back in 2003. But in his eyes, this third ring is what makes him the best basketball player who ever lived. And while it’s still possible that could’ve happened without this play, no other moment better symbolizes what it took for him to get there.