8:57 left in first quarter
Career point total: 2
Everything was ready. The players were on the court, the referees had the ball, and the fans were in their seats. But the start of James’ first game was halted because the earlier nationally televised game on ESPN had run long. In those moments of limbo, James sat on the scorer’s table and chewed his nails, every eye in Arco Arena on him.
The Cavs were in Sacramento for two days before the game, and James had been antsy. That afternoon he had lunch with Moses Malone, who told him stories about his rookie season to help pass the time. “A year ago I was watching this at the start of the season. Now I’m finally here. It’s a dream,” James said that night. “This will never get old. When it does, that’s when I’ll stop playing.”
The nerves never showed. James was under control from the start, moving smoothly. He grabbed a rebound 90 seconds in and ran the offense to set up Ricky Davis for a layup. Then three minutes in, he came off a screen set by Carlos Boozer and had a sliver of an opening along the baseline. Boozer was open rolling away from the screen, but James wanted the shot. He leaned back to create room and took it from a tough angle. The ball ripped through the net. The Cavs’ bench roared as James ran past. The rookie would make his first three shots and finish the quarter, his first, with 12 points, two rebounds, two assists and three steals.
Two seconds left in fourth quarter
Career point total: 1,441
“His reputation certainly preceded him,” Kerry Kittles told ESPN of a young LeBron James, who was playing just the 69th game of his career. The Nets had faced James twice earlier in his rookie season, winning those two games by a combined 35 points. So when it came time for the third meeting, they thought they were prepared.
After getting off to a slow start with only two points in the first quarter, James caught fire, dropping 11 in the second, 12 in the third and 16 in the fourth — the final two coming on a breakaway dunk with 1.9 seconds left to make him the youngest player in NBA history to score at least 40 points in a game.
“He is a force that moves in, around and through you with such lightning speed and physical dominance that there is little you can do to stop him,” Kittles said. “I remember a convo with team president Rod Thorn about the final play. When asked if I could have fouled him to prevent the inevitable, I answered with full confidence, ‘Not a chance. Not a chance.'”
2:08 left in third quarter
Career point total: 2,726
Just a few months after this game, Damon Jones would end up on the Cavaliers, where he eventually made the winning basket to clinch LeBron James’ first playoff series win. Later, after retiring, he served as an assistant coach on James’ 2016 title-winning team in Cleveland. But when the names LeBron James and Damon Jones are mentioned, this will always be the first play that comes to mind.
“I’m sitting there in the defensive stance by our bench and he tries to throw a lob pass over the top — a skip pass over the top — and I intercept it and I give it up to Jeff McInnis in transition and all I’m hoping is that he throws it back to me,” James told ESPN recently of the play. “And once he throws it back to me, I’m telling myself, ‘I hope this guy don’t jump. I hope he don’t.’ Because I’m a nice guy. But I’m going to punish him if he jumps. And he jumped and that’s probably one of the best plays I had made up until that point of my career.”
Even though the game was played in Miami, the dunk ignited the crowd, which included a young Beyoncé.
“Destiny’s Child was sitting courtside at the scorer’s table when that happened,” James said. “I don’t know if they had an album coming out or whatever, but they was sitting courtside at the scorer’s table and I looked over and saw their reaction. And for a 19-year-old kid at that point and time and to look at Destiny’s Child and see their reaction at that dunk, I was like, ‘Oh, s—!’ I took [my facemask] off and smiled. Smiled at the crowd. It was in their direction too, that’s for sure.”
Plays in first NBA All-Star Game
0.3 seconds left in fourth quarter
Career point total: 9,614
“That was a great game. A big-time game, actually,” James said. “That’s when B-Roy was one of the best 2-guards in the league at the time.”
Roy, who made the first of three straight All-Star teams later that season, missed a 3-pointer that would’ve put the Blazers up four with five seconds left, giving James one last chance to give the Cavs the win.
“I looped up to the top, we just ran one of our loop plays — our ‘loop ice’ is what we called it at the time,” he said. “I got it on the right wing, and I was able to drive and get all the way to the left side. I was kind of shocked that they allowed me to get all the way to the left side of the rim to make the game-winner. But that was a big moment for me, obviously, but a big win for our team too.”
Becomes youngest player to score 10,000 career points
Long 2-point jumper from left wing over Rony Turiaf
0:00 left in fourth quarter
Career point total: 11,833
James had made a few game-winners in the final seconds by this point, but this was his first true buzzer-beater. On the play, Warriors coach Don Nelson had put his best defender, Stephen Jackson, on Cavs center Anderson Varejao, and Rony Turiaf on James. Nelson expected Varejao to set a screen for James, as was typical in those situations, and the defenders could switch. When James saw the alignment, he altered the play and went a different direction, resulting in an isolation shot over Turiaf for the win.
9:29 left in third quarter
Career point total: 12,203
For the first six seasons of his career, LeBron James was a below-average 3-point shooter (32.8 percent on 4.1 attempts per game). But every once in a while, he’d get hot from beyond the arc — and this was a prime example. After scoring 25 points in the first half, James came out on fire in the third, making four consecutive 3-point shots — each one deeper than the last — the last in the face of then-Bucks guard Ramon Sessions.
“I was thinking he was going to shoot and playing for that and he still hit it,” Sessions told ESPN recently. “I don’t know how much he finished with that game, but you could definitely tell he had it going from deep. For him to settle in transition like that is not like LeBron. I thought I was in the right spot. He shot that deep. And 3s wasn’t a big deal back then like that either, so for somebody to come down and shoot four in a row. Now you look at it like, ‘Oh that’s just the NBA.’ But back then, nah, that wasn’t the NBA. It’s one of those things where he was in the zone and everybody was watching.”
8:36 left in first quarter
Career point total: 15,760
Truth be told, this would be one of many routine Wade-to-James dunks from their four-plus years as teammates if not for Wade’s reaction shortly after dropping the pass, which led to the photo that defined what Joakim Noah called the “Hollywood as Hell” Heat.
“That’s an iconic photo in sports. Forever,” James said. “I mean, listen, we’re two of the most explosive guys out in the open court ever seen in the NBA. And that was just one of those times and one of those plays where I was running the floor and him having court vision, when he dropped it off to me he already knew what was going to happen before it happened. It was just like, ‘We here. And we’re here to do something special.'”
5:02 left in first quarter
Career point total: 17,896
In the final year of Brian Scalabrine’s playing career, James, then with the Heat, caught a first-quarter lob while leaping over 5-foot-11 Bulls guard John Lucas and finished the dunk.
“He jumped over John Lucas’ head. I’m not kidding,” Scalabrine said while searching YouTube on his phone for visual evidence. “John Lucas was right there, and LeBron jumped over him and just dunked it. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Was Scalabrine able to contain himself on the Chicago bench?
“No, I went crazy,” Scalabrine said. “Like, his feet went over his head. Not like Vince Carter when he spread eagles. LeBron’s feet were higher than John Lucas’ head. It was incredible.”
Becomes youngest player to score 20,000 career points
5:22 left in second quarter
Career point total: 20,780
The pair had a rivalry dating to 2003, when Terry hit James with a flagrant foul when Terry played for the Hawks. It reached a new level in 2011 during the NBA Finals, when Terry trash-talked James throughout the series and confidently predicted James would wear out when the Mavericks were down 2-1 to James’ Heat. Terry, who was great in the series as James was a primary defender, proved to be right.
But on this play, Terry had no chance. It was a three-on-one break after a turnover, and Terry never saw James coming as he slammed home a perfect lob pass from Norris Cole. James was given a technical foul for lording over Terry, who had fallen to the floor. But James’ reaction got even better. The next day, James verbally dunked on Terry again when he said: “I reviewed [the dunk], and it was one of my best. The fact that it happened to J.T. made it that much sweeter because we all know J.T., and he talks too much sometimes. I’m glad it happened to him.”
3:49 left in first quarter
Career point total: 21,775
“First of all, it’s always great playing at Staples Center,” James said. “And then you add on the fact that it’s Christmas, that was just a great moment.”
James has faced the Lakers on Christmas Day three times in his career, all at Staples Center, and all in a winning effort, so it’s no surprise he remembers those games fondly. In this particular meeting, Kobe Bryant was out because of an injury, putting Nick Young in the Lakers’ starting lineup — and directly in the path of James on this highlight-reel effort.
“From the time me and D-Wade got together, I just told him: ‘Just throw it anywhere, I’ll go get it. Anywhere you throw it, I’ll go get it.’ And that’s what it was,” James said. “He just started throwing things places that it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’m going to catch this one,’ and then I ended up going to get it and that was another instance where he just flicked it over his head, and I like Swaggy P, too. I hated that he had to be at the end of that.”
Scores career-high 61 points vs. Bobcats
Announces return to Cleveland in first-person letter in Sports Illustrated
One second left in fourth quarter
Career point total: 25,349
With Kyrie Irving out while recovering from knee surgery, there was no question whose hands the ball would be in for the final possession of this surprisingly competitive game against a Nets team that would go on to win only 21 games that season.
“We fought them tooth and nail and it was a game we should have won,” Jarrett Jack told ESPN recently. “It was a tie ballgame and [James] went to this rocking, Magic Johnson-like hook shot and won the game for them. It was cool for them, it was a great shot for him.”
Jack, who was on the far side of the lane to cut off the pass to the corner as James floated up the game-winner, said the Nets actually defended the four-time MVP well on the play, but he just came up with a better shot.
“He’s a load regardless, but when he gets into the paint, he’s like really, really difficult to deal with,” Jack said. “I thought we forced him into a good shot but obviously (laughs), he made it so it was something that he probably had practiced before, a shot that he was comfortable with and he was able to knock it down.”
0.3 seconds left in fourth quarter
Career point total: 28,052
Even James acknowledges that this shot — which was so instantly iconic that the NBA immediately started using it in an ad campaign — wouldn’t have happened if not for his own compounded mistakes seconds earlier.
“The banked 3 wouldn’t have happened if I would have made the layup that I traveled on,” he said. “I got all the way to the lane, I made the right move against John Wall and my feet just got caught up. And because I traveled is why I missed it, because it threw me out of my rhythm.”
Thankfully for NBA fans, James did miss that layup, because it gave him a chance to put up a shot that looked a lot like pure luck, but was in fact the work of extensive practice.
“We had worked on that play weekly. All the time,” James said. “Kevin always being the trigger man, because of his ability to throw that outlet pass full court and I’m always working on different angles and different shots in practices. The most difficult shots you can take. And that was the best way for me to get that ball up there was for me to turn and go glass. So, I was just hoping I didn’t step on the sideline because I was right there and I was hoping I didn’t step on the sideline and I was hoping I didn’t tiptoe the 3-point line and his pass led me right where I needed to go.”
52 seconds left in fourth quarter
Career point total: 29,048
James had scored 56 points to set the Cavs’ record for a single game in only his third season in the league. He topped that effort by a single point on this night, scoring his final field goal with less than a minute left, then adding the ensuing free throw to match Kyrie Irving’s team record of 57 points. The final basket came on a post-up in the lane, the kind of play James didn’t make often early in his career.
“Well, I mean, it’s just the evolution of my game,” he said. “You go from seeing me getting a dunk over Damon Jones in transition to me going all the way to my 15th season and making a turnaround fadeaway in the post, that’s just the whole transformation of my game. How I improved over the course of my career. So, there’s never been a ceiling too high or I’ve never put a ceiling on what I can accomplish.”
01.20.18 at Thunder
LeBron enters Saturday’s game against the Thunder (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) just 25 points shy of becoming the youngest player to score 30,000 career regular-season points. James is averaging 27.1 PPG in his career, 27.0 PPG this season, and 28.9 PPG against OKC, so there’s a good chance we’ll see history made soon.
Illustration by Flore Maquin
IAN BEGLEY, CHRIS FORSBERG, BAXTER HOLMES, BOBBY MARKS, DAVE McMENAMIN, ADAM REISINGER, BRIAN WINDHORST AND MICHAEL C. WRIGHT contributed to this report