When LeBron James was a kid, he and his friends would walk the streets of Akron, Ohio singing as they went. As they trekked through the rain or snow to play basketball on outdoor courts, they would often find themselves crooning a familiar jingle to anyone who watched the NBA during the Hall of Fame career of Michael Jordan.
Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
If I could Be Like Mike
Decades later, long after the first time James donned Jordan’s signature No. 23 jersey for the first time on his fifth grade AAU team, he passed Jordan in scoring, moving into fourth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 31 points in the Los Angeles Lakers’ loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.
When James was asked what that achievement meant by reporters in the locker room, he shook his head for around 10 seconds, somehow still in disbelief while collecting his thoughts.
“I don’t know man. A lot of stuff that I’ve done in my career, this ranks right up there at the top with winning a championship,” James said. “For a kid from Akron, Ohio that needed inspiration and needed some type of positive influence, MJ was that guy for me.
“I watched him from afar, wanted to be like MJ, wanted to shoot fadeaways like MJ, wanted to stick my tongue out on dunks like MJ, wanted to wear my sneakers like MJ. I wanted kids to look up to me at some point like MJ. It’s crazy to be honest. It’s beyond crazy.”
Making things crazier is that while James only needed 13 points to move past Jordan when the night began, he got off to an uncharacteristically tight start, missing his first four free throws as he tried to be aggressive and get the accomplishment out of the way early.
All of a sudden James was just that kid on the playground again, furiously trying to score like his idol.
“Obviously I didn’t handle my emotions very well in the beginning,” James said. “That ball was flying off my hand and I didn’t know how this was going to happen. I figured I could go out there and get 13 points at some point, but I didn’t know how it was going to happen.”
Then James hit a couple of threes before collecting himself, seemingly remembering that scoring has never been his primary skill as a player, which Lakers head coach Luke Walton said makes James’ achievement of passing Jordan all the more remarkable.
“To me the most incredible part about that is what an unselfish player he is. For someone that’s always looking pass-first to score that many points in his career just speaks to the greatness of his game,” Walton said. “It was pretty special and cool to be a part of.”
“It hits in a certain way because I’m a pass-first guy,” James added. “Since I started playing the game of basketball, I was taught by my little league coach and father-figure Walker, he always said ‘you’ll get a lot more thrill out of seeing your teammates succeed.’ And that’s how I was taught. I was taught to play the right way, get my guys the ball, get my teammates involved.”
James did that on Wednesday, even nearly helping a second-unit composed mostly of players who had spent the majority of this lost season in the G League with the South Bay Lakers nearly crawl all the way back and beat the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed.
They weren’t able to close things out, which James said “absolutely” made passing Jordan a little bittersweet, but ultimately the emotional impact the achievement made on James was obvious despite the loss, from the way he covered his face with a towel as the Lakers announced the achievement in the arena, to him nervously clicking a tape-cutter throughout his postgame interview in a tic he apologized for and said was just to help keep himself calm.
James talked about how meeting Jordan at a basketball camp felt like meeting God for the first time, and how watching Jordan play basketball — or watching cartoons featuring the NBA icon that no one else in the postgame media scrum seemed to remember — inspired James that he could make it out of difficult circumstances.
“When you’re an inner-city kid from Akron, Ohio like myself growing up, you look for any lighting in the bottle that can inspire you, because you’re always put up against the numbers of failing. The percentages of guys like myself, single-parent household, only child, underprivileged, making it out, it’s not high at all,” James said.
“MJ had a lot to do with me making it out. Along with my mother, along with the city itself, along with the little league coaches I had,” James continued. “Mike had no idea what he was doing for a kid growing up a 45-minute flight from Chicago when he was putting in that work.”
And as hard as he tried, James still said the impact Jordan made on him was nearly impossible to explain.
“I’m trying to give it to you guys, but you guys have no idea what MJ did for me and my friends growing up, just in the sense of some days you don’t even feel like you’re going to make it to the next day where I grew up because of everything that’s going on,” James said.
James paid homage to that inspiration with a simple message, writing “Thank You MJ” on the Jordan 3-inspired pair of LeBron 16s he wore against the Nuggets.
LeBron’s shoes from tonight. pic.twitter.com/mKiP4imN8Y— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) March 7, 2019
James couldn’t afford shoes like that when he was growing up, but he hopes that he can inspire another kid just like him to dream about getting their own signature shoe inspired by their idol, and that every other achievement James has had along with way is achievable, no matter the odds.
That’s what Jordan did for him, and James wants to pay it forward.
“I thank MJ more than he would ever know,” James said. “I’ve got to carry it on to the next kid. Hopefully I can inspire the next kid like myself.”
It will be for a lot more reasons than just passing Jordan on the all-time scoring list, but James seems to be well on his way to inspiring the next generation to want to be like LeBron.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.