History was made Wednesday night in Los Angeles, but it didn’t really feel like it. LeBron James began the night fifth in all-time scoring and ended it in fourth, surpassing the great Michael Jordan. It should have felt really special, a significant milestone for the player of this generation. He got a decent ovation from the crowd and some congratulations from his teammates, but it all rang hollow. The moment came and went in a blink, unfitting for the lifetime of work it took for LeBron to achieve it.
For contrast, look at what happened when Kobe passed Jordan. It wasn’t even a home game for the Lakers, but he was showered with cheers and embraces from teammates and opponents alike. Maybe it felt different because Kobe was a Laker-lifer and more of a pleasant memory than an actual star at that point, while Lebron is still a mercenary and only just starting to decline. But it’s more likely that the lackluster celebration of LeBron’s big moment was the culmination of the current NBA fan climate, where achievements are just ammunition fired off in petty online legacy debates.
Debating is crucial to sports fandom and should be celebrated as such, but we could all use a little less of the tired “GOAT” discussion. Instead of sponsoring veneration for LeBron and Jordan, it’s produced an angry, zero-sum game, where one can’t be great unless the other is proven not to be. For LeBron specifically, it’s generated an unprecedented amount of nonbelievers, especially among the Laker die-hards. And there were certainly a large number of those skeptics present Wednesday night, and even more on social media ripping off “yeah, but…” comments. Perhaps even worse are the LeBron stans who are so concerned with defending their opinions that incredible accomplishments like this one are reduced to checkpoints used to make their case.
Not helping either is the rollercoaster season the Lakers have endured. As recently as Christmas Day, they were sporting an impressive 20-14 record and walloping the Golden State Warriors. Now they’re all but eliminated from the playoffs, with rampant injuries and a team chemistry so acidic it might dissolve your face if you get too close to it. While the Lakers missing the playoffs is nothing new, it will be the first time in 13 years we don’t see LeBron playing postseason basketball—a truly depressing realization for hoops fans. We’ve come to think of James as the great equalizer for team success in the NBA, dragging his comrades to the finals year after year despite their talent. Now that he’s missing the playoffs altogether it may be a sign that Father Time is tightening his grip on yet another NBA legend (it’s also a sign that this young Lakers core isn’t nearly as good as their fans like to think they are, but that’s another conversation).
Even still, LeBron’s anticipated feat seemed worth celebrating heading into the Lakers’ game against the Nuggets. It was perfectly fitting for a city with such a rich and storied basketball history to host yet another monumental accomplishment (fun fact: the top four scorers in NBA history have all donned the Purple and Gold at some point). This is what made the apathetic response so deeply disappointing.
Given the circumstance, it’s easy to see how a night like Wednesday could end up so remarkably unremarkable. In a budding era of player empowerment against a backdrop of hot-take sports media and nuclear twitter debates, I think we all are prone to forget that basketball isn’t always about one guy cementing his legacy over another’s ashes—sometimes basketball is just really fun things like a LeBron James scoring more career points than his childhood idol. Basketball can still be fun, right?