PHILADELPHIA -- Years ago, it was LeBron James following Kobe Bryant by coming straight out of high school to the NBA. On Saturday, it was James passing Bryant for the No. 3 spot on the NBA's all-time scoring list.
James entered the Los Angeles Lakers' game against the Philadelphia 76ers needing 18 points to eclipse Bryant's career total of 33,643 points. It was a grind, as Los Angeles struggled to create offense most of the night, but James reached the milestone with a running layup in the third quarter.
The Lakers went on to lose 108-91 at the Wells Fargo Center in the team's lone trip this season to the city in which Bryant was born.
Philadelphia was prepared for the pomp and circumstance, with a sold-out crowd in attendance -- and a national, prime-time television audience -- to witness history as two star-laden teams from opposing conferences battled in late January. During a timeout following his big layup, James was saluted with a standing ovation.
After the game, James recalled meeting Bryant in Philadelphia during the 2002 NBA All-Star Weekend. Bryant gifted James with a special red, white and blue colorway of his signature sneakers. Even though Bryant wore a size 14 and James wore a size 15, James donned the sneakers in a matchup against a high school-aged Carmelo Anthony shortly thereafter.
"It's just too much. It's too much. The story is too much," James said of Bryant. "It doesn't make sense. Just to make a long story short, now I'm here in a Lakers uniform, in Philadelphia, where he's from. The first time I ever met him, gave me his shoes on All-Star Weekend. It's surreal. It doesn't make no sense, but the universe just puts things in your life. And I guess when you live in the right way, when you just give it everything to whatever you're doing, things happen organically.
"And it's not supposed to make sense, but it just happens. And I'm happy just to be in any conversation with Kobe Bean Bryant, one of the all-time greatest basketball players to ever play, one of the all-time greatest Lakers. The man has two jerseys hanging up in Staples Center. It's just crazy."
Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother 💪🏾 #33644— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 26, 2020
History or otherwise, the Sixers were motivated to defend not only James, but the entire Lakers arsenal. Philadelphia never relinquished the lead in the second half, as Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris combined for 57 points and 18 rebounds in the win. James and Los Angeles built up some momentum in the fourth quarter -- cutting the deficit to five with 5 minutes, 21 seconds remaining -- but the Sixers eventually pulled away for good.
James finished with 29 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds, and he gave the Philadelphia faithful one more lasting memory from the historical night with a breakaway, tomahawk slam dunk off a feed from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the 6:57 mark that forced a 76ers timeout. But James also had eight turnovers in the loss.
James inscribed his sneakers with "Mamba 4 Life" and "8/24 KB" in gold marker before the contest, showing respect for the former Lakers great. It didn't stop there. All week in the lead-up to the milestone, he was quick to laud Bryant.
"It's another guy that I looked up to when I was in grade school and high school," James said. "Seeing him come straight out of high school, he is someone that I used as inspiration. It was like, wow. Seeing a kid, 17 years old, come into the NBA and trying to make an impact on a franchise, I used it as motivation. He helped me before he even knew of me because of what he was able to do. So just to be able to, at this point of my career, to share the same jersey that he wore, be with this historical franchise and just represent the purple and gold, it's very humbling, and it's dope.
"Kobe's a legend, that's for damn sure."
James said the feat is meaningful to him because of the elite basketball company it puts him in, but he doesn't take any further satisfaction being saluted specifically for his scoring.
"To be linked with the greats, that means a lot to me," James said Thursday. "Because I grew up idolizing Michael [Jordan] and idolizing Kobe, idolizing these guys, gaining inspiration from their craft, gaining inspiration from their stories, being a kid that I am from Akron, Ohio. So, that's huge. Anytime I'm linked with the greats or I'm able to do something in my career where I'm mentioned with any of the greats, it's a pretty cool thing.
"But as far as looking at the scoring, I don't know. That doesn't mean much to me. Just the overall point in my game is what means more to me. Me being an overall, all-around player. Being able to be successful on the floor and being able to contribute to the franchises that I've played for -- the three franchises that I've played for so far in my career."
James surpassed Bryant's scoring total in 104 fewer games.
James has topped Bryant in career scoring average (27.1 to 25.0), field goal rate (50.4% to 44.7%) and 3-point rate (34.3% to 32.9%). Bryant edges James in free throw rate (83.7% to 73.5%) and really separated himself in binge scoring. James has more 30-plus-point games (459 to 431), but Bryant has more 40-plus-point games (122 to 64), 50-plus-point games (25 to 12) and 60-plus-point games (six to one, including Bryant's 81 points against the Toronto Raptors 14 years ago this week).
There was nothing Bryant couldn't do on the offensive end, according to James.
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"He had zero flaws offensively. Zero," James said Saturday. "You backed off of him, he could shoot the 3. You body him up a little bit, he can go around you. He shoots from midrange. He can post. He can make free throws. He has zero flaws offensively. That's something that I admired, as well, just being at [a] point where the defense will always be at bay, where they can't guard you at all offensively. You was just immortal offensively because of your skill level and your work ethic."
James was asked if he incorporated any aspects of Bryant's game into his own.
"No," he said. "I can't sit here and say that I did. Because we were just two totally different players. His willingness to do whatever it takes to win is something that you admired, and love his drive to get better and better every year; but as far as his game, we're different players. I'm more of a facilitator. He's a natural-born scorer. So, we would have worked well together, as you saw on the Olympic team."
James and Bryant teamed together for gold medals for Team USA in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.
James' Lakers teammates heaped on the praise.
"I'm happy I got the assist for him, and I'm just happy to be a part of the team," said Anthony Davis, who fed James on the historic bucket. "He's done great things. He's broken so many records this season. I'm happy for him, and he deserves everything he's getting."
Caldwell-Pope just so happened to wear a graphic T-shirt with a flaming skeleton cartoon depiction of Bryant popping his No. 24 Lakers uniform on the front, even though his fashion decision had nothing to do with James' impending record. Caldwell-Pope said he didn't know about James' achievement until it was announced on the video board afterward.
"I had no idea how close he was," Caldwell-Pope said. "Nobody mentioned it to me. [My teammates] had seen the shirt [when I was] walking in, but no one mentioned it to me."
It is a purple-and-gold affair atop the all-time scoring list. Each of the top four scorers in NBA history donned a Lakers uniform at some point in their careers. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points) at No. 1 and Karl Malone (36,928 points) at No. 2 remain ahead of James on the list.
James has said in the past he didn't hold up his end of the bargain by lifting the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals when Bryant was making his seemingly annual parade to the championship round with Pau Gasol.
"That is a big accomplishment," Howard said. "I think that is something that should be appreciated. We don't appreciate each other as much as we should as a humanity. And I think something like that should be appreciated. You should appreciate people while they're alive."
While the James-Bryant Finals showdown never happened, the pair did face off 22 times in the regular season from 2004 to 2016, and James' teams owned the matchups, going 16-6, including wins in 10 of the final 11 times they played each other.
"When LeBron came to Los Angeles, he is now a Laker, he is part of our brotherhood, part of our fraternity, and we should embrace him that way," Bryant told the Los Angeles Times when asked about James nearing his scoring mark. "You got to celebrate ... [and] appreciate what he is as an athlete while he is here.
"Appreciate this guy, celebrate what he's done, because it's truly remarkable."
Lakers officials stored the game ball and James' uniform and sneakers away for the 17-year veteran at the end of the night. And James fielded a FaceTime call from Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul before speaking to reporters.
While Bryant doesn't have the long-standing friendship with James that Paul does, James said Bryant has embraced him since he came to L.A., even sitting courtside for several games at Staples Center to see James play.
"It's cool to know that you have the support of one of the all-time greats that ever played this game and someone that you admired to be like on the floor," James said of Bryant. "You don't have that much time to play this game. If you're able to be remembered for the great things that you did, the positive things that you did, making people feel great about what you did, that's a pretty cool thing."