In 1965, Lew Alcindor – before he was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – finished a brilliant high school basketball career in New York that made him the most famous prep star.
He chose to play college ball at UCLA, a school at the time with yearly expectations to win a national championship.
He won three titles with the Bruins, was named the NCAA tournament’s MVP three times and was a two-time Associated Press Player of the Year.
He met expectations and entered the NBA with expectations. They seemed impossible to meet, yet Abdul-Jabbar won six titles, six MVPs, two Finals MVPs and finished his career as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points.
And when Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James passed Abdul-Jabbar and became the league’s scoring leader, I thought about expectations.
The expectations placed on James were unrealistic and unfair. And yet 21 years after Sports Illustrated put him on the cover with the headline “The Chosen One” and 20 years after USA TODAY named James its boys high school player of the year for the second consecutive season, James surpassed expectations.
The odds were not in James’ favor. By his own admission, he fell into the category called at-risk children. He missed 83 days of school in fourth grade, and if you understand that part of James’ life, you understand his LeBron James Family Foundation and his I Promise School – designed to help kids similar to him.
Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley has called James the greatest story in sports.
It doesn’t happen often that a 16-year-old projected to be one of the all-time greats ends up as one of the all-time greats, if not the GOAT.
But that’s what James did. He has four MVPs, four Finals MVPs, 19 All-Star selections and 18 All-NBA selections, two Olympics gold medals, is No. 4 on the all-time assists list, the all-time playoff points leader, No. 2 all-time in playoff assists, No. 2 all-time in Finals points and No. 2 all-time in Finals assists.
And now, he is atop the all-time scoring list.
James and Abdul-Jabbar are not particularly close. Abdul-Jabbar has been critical of James’ stances on social issues. Asked before the season about his relationship with the former Lakers great, James said, “No relationship.”
But on Tuesday night, there was respect and appreciation and maybe the beginning of a better relationship.
Abdul-Jabbar sat courtside and presented James with the game ball after James broke the record. The two embraced, and whatever differences they have had melted. Abdul-Jabbar was gracious after the game.
“What LeBron has done off the court is more important than what he’s done on the court,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He’s keeping kids in school. He’s provided leadership and an example on how to live.”
James called Abdul-Jabbar by his nickname, “Cap” (for captain) during the in-game ceremony.
“To be able to be in the presence of such a legend as great as Kareem, it’s very humbling,” James said.
From different places and eras and with different perspectives, they stood at center court as the top two scorers in NBA history – players who exceeded expectations to become two of the greatest players in basketball history.
Follow NBA columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took different paths to become icons