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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James used different methods to set NBA points records

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

LeBron James has made thousands and thousands of shots in his NBA career - layups, dunks, three pointers, free throws. Last night, it was a fadeaway jump shot that made history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN ANDERSON: LeBron James, a shot at history - and there it is.

(CHEERING)

ANDERSON: LeBron...

SUMMERS: The previous NBA leader in total points scored was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He held the record for 34 years, and he was courtside to congratulate his successor. As NPR's Jason Fuller explains, James and Abdul-Jabbar took different paths to making history.

JASON FULLER, BYLINE: It's hard to imagine what 38,387 points looks or sounds like. But for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it's safe to say it involved a lot of sky hooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRENT MUSBERGER: Forward - sends it to Kareem. Sky hook up - in - good. Lakers win. Score it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar...

FULLER: He estimated in an interview with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson that three-quarters of his points came from his signature shot. He had the sky hook down to a science.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: Everything I learned, you know, had to do with learning the mechanics of the shot. You don't have to know where the ball is. You got to keep your eye on the basket, but you don't have to have your eye on the ball.

FULLER: Combine an unstoppable shot with a distinct size advantage - he's over seven feet tall - you get a long way to understanding Kareem's dominance and his all-time scoring record - the one LeBron James just broke.

BRIAN WINDHORST: So we're talking about one of the more hallowed records. However, in LeBron's case, it's not really a scoring record. It's a longevity record.

FULLER: Brian Windhorst is a basketball journalist and has written three books about LeBron. He remembered watching LeBron at a camp for top high school players, along with coaches from major college programs and NBA executives.

WINDHORST: LeBron didn't just play well. He was far and away the best player, and it wasn't debatable. Literally every top basketball evaluator in the country had made up their mind that he would have been the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft as a 16-year-old.

FULLER: The talent, size, explosiveness and acumen was and remains apparent. But what's propelled LeBron to today's record is endurance.

WINDHORST: This is a record that is masquerading as about being the greatest scorer, but he's not really the greatest scorer. He's not the best shooter in NBA history. He's not the best free-throw shooter. What LeBron has done basically better than everybody is no one has been this great for this long.

FULLER: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar himself logged over 20 full seasons in the NBA. And LeBron James, now 38 years old, is also now in his 20th season. But LeBron broke the record in roughly 150 fewer games than Kareem played. He's just scored more per game.

SEAN DEVENEY: What we're witnessing now is incredible, in that LeBron James is putting up the kind of numbers that you would have expected to see from him when he was 21, 22 years old - only he's doing it at age 38.

FULLER: Sean Deveney is a writer for the Heavy and is the author of "The History Of The NBA In 12 Games: From 24 Seconds To 30,000 3-Pointers." Deveney remembered covering the 2003 NBA Finals - the year before LeBron entered the league. The games were low-scoring.

DEVENEY: And I remember Gregg Popovich after the game. The Spurs were in it. Gregg Popovich, after the game, said we just set NBA basketball back 15 years.

FULLER: Actually, the opposite happened. Deveney said that the NBA game changed, due in part to teams doing data analysis. They started playing faster, which suited LeBron's explosiveness and his ability to draw fouls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Here comes James in the open floor. James grabbed from behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BEING BLOWN)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Count it. And one.

FULLER: He's taken 1,600 more free-throw attempts than Kareem. And teams also encourage players to pass up midrange, two-point jump shots and try to make more three-pointers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And Howard. Lebron James cans a three.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: LeBron James lines it up...

(SOUNDBITE OF NET SWOOSHING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: And he buries it.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: James - heat check. Oh, yeah.

FULLER: Throughout his career, LeBron worked to improve his outside shooting. Kareem, on the other hand, only made one 3-point shot - ever. The 3-point line didn't even exist until midway through his career. What's truly scary is that LeBron has hinted at sticking around long enough to play with his son, Bronny...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEBRON JAMES: I need to be on the floor with my boy. I got to be on the floor with Bronny. That would be the icing on the cake.

FULLER: ...Meaning we could be looking at around 45,000 total career points - an awfully high bar for anyone trying to grab the crown from King James.

Jason Fuller, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.