From the start, LeBron James has loved Madison Square Garden as much as any NBA player, home or away, has ever loved it. He has publicly expressed his desire to play 82 games a year in the Garden.
He has called the building “my favorite playground.”
So in an ideal Hollywood script, James would have broken Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record 2,800 miles from Hollywood, right here in the Garden on Tuesday night. Abdul-Jabbar grew up in New York as Lew Alcindor, and surpassing his 38,387 point total in the big city would have made for a perfectly appropriate scene.
But that couldn’t happen, not with James 117 points away from history. The next best thing, of course, was firmly in his grasp, and that was hurdling another New Yorker, Mark Jackson, and Steve Nash on the career assists list while beating the Knicks in overtime, 129-123, with a triple-double to boot.
This was hardly the prettiest triple-double James has ever posted — 28 points on 11 of 25 shooting, 11 assists, 10 rebounds — and yet who the hell cares? He became the first NBA player to hit the trifecta in his 20th season or beyond. And hard as it might be to believe, the juggernaut who next week will become the league’s most prolific scorer ever left the building knowing that only three men — traditional point guards John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Chris Paul — have ever dished the ball better than he does.
“He’s just a kid who’s grown before our eyes the last 20 years at this level,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham, “and has done nothing but play the right way. … He’s just making the right plays, and you saw that again tonight. That’s what all-time greats do.”
James sank a 3-pointer with 1:41 left in regulation that gave the Lakers a six-point lead and felt enough like a dagger to inspire LeBron to defiantly stare at his teammate. After the Knicks rallied to tie, James bottled up Julius Randle’s vain attempt at a buzzer-beating win, then scored the Lakers’ first and last field goals of overtime.
No, he wasn’t losing this game. Never have Knicks fans been more entertained by a home defeat suffered at the hands of a 23-28 team.
New Yorkers have always appreciated the true greats, from Jordan to Kobe to LeBron. With James, it’s a bit more personal. Though Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant never seriously considered signing with the Knicks, LeBron represented a credible target way back when.
In the summer of 2010, when James stood in the middle of the most publicized free-agent chase in the history of American sports, the Knicks held the ultimate home-court advantage. They were among the six franchises granted in-person meetings with the Cavaliers megastar in his downtown Cleveland office, and all they had to do was present him a clear path to the one thing he coveted most:
Rings. Lots and lots of rings.
James was only 25, and yet he’d already figured out that his legacy would be shaped by the number of titles he won. He didn’t win any in his first seven years with the Cavs, so he was looking to leave for a team with a winning culture and a championship plan.
The Knicks already had the Garden. They had to convince James that they could field a team around him that was worthy of the stage.
And one man, James Dolan, was in charge of that pitch.
The Knicks owner had installed Donnie Walsh to run basketball operations, and Walsh had in turn hired coach Mike D’Antoni in 2008 to help stabilize a franchise that had all but collapsed in the post-Jeff Van Gundy era. D’Antoni wasn’t just hired because his high-speed offense was a smashing success in Phoenix. As a Team USA assistant, he was also hired for his relationship with LeBron James, who would call D’Antoni “an offensive mastermind.”
The Knicks spent two years clearing the decks and the cap space to sign James, who delivered a 50-point game at the Garden in 2008, and a 52-point game at the Garden in 2009. Some New Yorkers chanted “M-V-P” for James, and all witnesses appreciated exactly what they were watching.
“To get a standing ovation in the greatest basketball arena in the world is a dream come true for me,” James said. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
When the moment of truth finally arrived, former Garden president Dave Checketts offered his ex-employers some advice: “If I was them right now,” Checketts said, “I’d get A-Rod and Eli Manning and Derek Jeter in a room with LeBron on July 1.” Instead the Knicks’ delegation included Dolan, Walsh (who was in a wheelchair after surgery), D’Antoni, former star Allan Houston and MSG Sports president Scott O’Neil.
They struck out swinging in a meeting that lasted just over two hours. A week later, James signed with Miami and launched a second career defined by his four titles won for three teams.
Most New Yorkers of a certain generation did forgive and forget. So Tuesday night, they showed their appreciation for a living legend who loves the Garden as much as any Knick ever has.