When the record was finally broken, the game was stopped and a ceremony took place on the basketball court.
Some 39 years before LeBron James became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had arced a patented skyhook into the basket to pass Wilt Chamberlain for the No. 1 spot.
The Utah Jazz did everything they could to stop it from happening that night, but they were no match for Abdul-Jabbar or history.
The contest that night in Las Vegas, April 5, 1984, was technically a home game for the Jazz, who had opted to play a number of games at the newly built Thomas and Mack Center in hopes of building regional support for the franchise. But of the 18,359 listed in attendance, the vast majority were there for Kareem.
“I think that it was almost like an away game in terms of the fans, who must have numbered close to 12,000, who came to cheer for the Lakers and see the record broken,” Salt Lake Tribune reporter Lex Hemphill quoted Jazz head coach Frank Layden as saying that night.
Abdul-Jabbar needed 21 points that night to pass Wilt Chamberlain’s 31,419 — and the Jazz knew the Lakers would be looking for their star big man at every opportunity.
He got 12 points in the first 8:08 of game time. He’d scored six more by the time Utah’s Rich Kelley found himself guarding Abdul-Jabbar in the late third quarter.
“He needed three more points and I knew that,” Kelley said. “I got a couple of steals on it early to try to dissuade them from throwing it in to him.”
Abdul-Jabbar only scored two points in the third quarter and coach Pat Riley asked if he would like to rest for the remainder of the game with the team well ahead.
“Pat asked if I wanted to be taken out,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I told him no, I’d rather get it done.”
So Abdul-Jabbar kept inching closer to history. He tied the record on a dunk off a James Worthy pass with 10:52 to play.
“I played about five minutes and then decided to give Mark a chance to gain infamy,” Kelley joked. “So I picked up a foul — not on purpose, though.”
Mark would be Mark Eaton, the Jazz’s 7-foot-4 center, who would go on to become one of the league’s greatest shot-blockers and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Eaton got in early foul trouble that night trying to slow down Abdul-Jabbar, but he was back on the floor for that historic moment.
With 8:53 to play, Abdul-Jabbar got a pass from Magic Johnson on the baseline.
“When I got the ball I waved everybody out,” said Johnson, who wanted to get an assist on the record-breaker. “The first time, (Bob) McAdoo threw it to him but he got triple-teamed and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He threw it back out and McAdoo missed. I said ‘Okay, now’s my chance. I’m going to make sure I give it to him.’”
Abdul-Jabbar lofted a sky hook over Eaton that swished and gave him 31,421 career points.
“I knew they were going to throw it to him every time down the court, and it was just a matter of time before it went in,” Eaton said.
The Jazz center was then asked if he felt like Al Downing, the pitcher who threw the pitch that would become Hank Aaron’s record 715th career home run.
“He didn’t score 31,000 on me,” Eaton replied.
After the basket, officials stopped the game. Commissioner David Stern took a microphone at midcourt and congratulated Abdul-Jabbar.
“The NBA has the greatest athletes in the world, and you are one of the greatest athletes to ever play this game,” Stern said.
“I’ve always enjoyed being a scorer, I can’t deny that,” Abdul-Jabbar would say, but breaking the record was a relief for a different reason.
“It was a big burden off my shoulders and a big burden off the team’s shoulders,” he said. “Our goal is to win a world championship, we can focus on that now.”
He exited the game after that, the score 112-93 in favor of Los Angeles, and the Lakers went on to a 129-115 victory. John Drew had 24 for Utah and Adrian Dantley had 23.
But the night would only be about Abdul-Jabbar.
“I thought it was, yeah,” Layden said when asked if the thought the game was over after the record-breaking moment. “I thought we had no zip left.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.