LOS ANGELES — Joe Burwick, a 40-year-old accountant, was standing outside Crypto.com Arena several hours before Tuesday night’s Los Angeles Lakers game and wearing a LeBron James jersey. He made the impulsive decision just days before to fly from Buffalo to attend the game. His ticket cost $1,000.
Standing inches from a statue of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Burwick said he had to be there “to see the king break the record.”
Not because he cares about the Lakers per se. But because he’s a LeBron guy. He used to be a Michael Jordan guy. But he’s a LeBron guy now — in his words, “a reformed Jordanite.”
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Burwick said. “I’m 40 years old, and the chances of this being broken before I die are slim to none.”
The gravitational pull of James, the N.B.A.’s biggest star, was on full display Tuesday, when he broke the N.B.A. career scoring record once held by Abdul-Jabbar. The record was thought for decades to be unbeatable. It turned an otherwise ho-hum regular-season game between the 12th- and 13th-place teams in the Western Conference into a spectacle comparable to the N.B.A. finals.
There were so many reporters who requested media credentials that news conferences were moved to a more cavernous room. Celebrities such as the actor Denzel Washington and the musicians Jay-Z and Bad Bunny milled around courtside.
In the N.B.A., some stars mean more to fans than the multibillion-dollar franchises, even the Lakers. Fandom in basketball, more so than any other American sport, can be ephemeral — supporters follow players from team to team like Phish fans follow the band during summer tours. While basketball does not rival football in popularity in the United States, its stars, like James and Jordan before him, loom the largest in American culture.
Yes, basketball is a team sport. When James takes the floor, he has four teammates there with him. But it was James’s name on the proverbial marquee that enticed some fans from all over the world to spend exorbitant sums of money just to be in his orbit. They included Maciej Paprocki, a 32-year-old chemist who flew in from Poland with his fiancée to be in attendance. He stood over an arena tunnel holding a cardboard sign that said, “We Flew 6000 Miles To See King Ascend The Throne.” Like Burwick, Paprocki didn’t grow up as a fan of any N.B.A. team. He grew up as “a LeBron fan.”
“LeBron changed my life through basketball,” Paprocki said. “He showed me the importance of hard work, perseverance and determination. Because of him, I started playing basketball.”
Poland was close compared to where Karey Takchi, a 40-year-old disc jockey and horticulturalist, flew from that morning: Sydney, Australia. He was wearing an Abdul-Jabbar jersey, having long idolized him because his grandfather was named Kareem. Takchi, a Kareem guy, said the decision to come was a “coin flip,” but being a longtime James fan pushed him to board a plane.
“For every little obstacle I’ve hit, I just think to myself: I know that he hasn’t had the hardest life or the easiest life, but I just know that he’s had a lot of opportunities to go left or right. And I know that guy has just constantly just led the path as far as just staying in the middle,” Takchi said.
Ana Carolina, 43, came from Brazil, with her husband, Heleno, 46, and young son, Leo. Ana Carolina is the basketball fan in the couple, and a vacation to Los Angeles happened to line up with a Lakers game that had a record on the line. They purchased tickets in advance and realized how close James was to the record only days before. It was an incredible stroke of luck, Ana Carolina said.
“As I followed the news, I was aware that he was very near to get the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mark. It was not so clear that it could be this week,” she said.
Her favorite teams are the Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks, because, she said, she’s a Giannis Antetokounmpo fan.
“I like him so much,” Carolina said.
For a franchise like the Lakers, star power — by design — has been an engine of success. For decades, dating back to the Showtime Lakers, the franchise has benefited from marketing star power in a way very few professional sports organizations have.
In the 1980s, the N.B.A. experienced a resurgence by capitalizing on the Showtime Lakers’ rivalry with the Boston Celtics. Then, many basketball fans had to pick between being a Magic Johnson person or a Larry Bird person. And then in the 2000s, Kobe Bryant became the face of the N.B.A., and soon enough Jordan people became Kobe people. Even now, Lakers fans are weighing whether they are Kobe people or LeBron people.
Patrick Concepcion, a 42-year-old graphic designer, was standing outside the arena on Tuesday afternoon with his 7-year-old son, Theo Magic. Theo’s middle name is indeed a tribute to Johnson, because Concepcion grew up as a Magic guy. They drove from the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the game after purchasing tickets three days beforehand and paying about $250 for each.
“I was 8 years old when Kareem retired and set the mark, and then he’s about to turn 8 and LeBron’s passing him,” Concepcion said, pointing toward Theo. “So it was like the perfect full-circle moment for us as father and son.”
Theo, asked what he liked about James, struggled to come up with an answer.
“I don’t know,” he paused and giggled. “All-around like Kobe.”
“Are you more of a Kobe guy or a LeBron guy?” he was asked.
Theo perked up. His answer was firm. There was no hesitation.
As it is for the Concepcions, sports can be a generational inheritance. Around game time, tickets on the resale market in the arena’s lower level were going for more than $1,000, a fact that was not lost on Jay Anderson, a 68-year-old anesthesiologist and season-ticket holder, who attended the game with his daughter, McKenna Anderson, a 38-year-old physical therapist. His fandom has long been more location based. He grew up in New York City, where he was a Knicks fan. After 30 years in Los Angeles, the Lakers now have his allegiance. He didn’t consider selling his ticket, which cost $175, though.
“It’s the only time I get to be with my daughter, which is worth a thousand dollars,” Jay Anderson said.
When James passed Abdul-Jabbar, he did so with a fadeaway jumper in the third quarter. The game stopped to celebrate the achievement, as James physically enveloped many of the people closest to him and those by his side throughout his entire life, including his family, friends, teammates and business associates. Thousands of strangers in the arena — people James will never meet or interact with — embraced him just as intensely from a distance, having been alongside him for the journey across multiple franchises, whether James knew it or not.
“I write ‘The Man in the Arena’ on my shoe every single night from Theodore Roosevelt,” James told reporters afterward. “And tonight, I actually felt like I was like sitting on top of the arena tonight when that shot went in and the roar from the crowd. But I’m not sure if I would be able to feel that feeling again.”
The next morning, Burwick, the accountant from Buffalo, reflected on seeing the record break. His father, Michael, a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan, died about a year and a half ago. He never got to see the Bills in any Super Bowl in person. For Burwick, his father’s missing out was significant enough motivation for him not to skip a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
“It was a lot of money, but to be able to have that experience and share it with him, even though he has no idea who I am, was worth the money because the memory will stick with me forever,” Burwick said.
He added: “I’m not going to regret the money that was spent. I would have regretted missing it.”