Gainesville’s reaction to LeBron: Bigger than the number
A 21-foot shot in the third quarter by LeBron James against the Oklahoma City Thunder was heard around the world Tuesday night. In his 20th National Basketball Association (NBA) season, the Los Angeles Lakers star surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the most prolific scorer in NBA history with his 38,388th point.
Beyond the professional court, reactions from the Gainesville recreational basketball community were caught at the local courts of Cora P. Roberson Park.
A group of friends who share a love for basketball, and for James, laced their tennis shoes and set out to spend time together shooting hoops on a recent evening this week. Manoj Kambara, Sai Jampani and Stanley Moonjeli said they regularly do this in an effort to temporarily release stress and have fun.
“It was about damn time,” Moonjeli, 20, said. “He’s undeniably the greatest of all time, and I think this was the last nail in the coffin for people who try and say otherwise because no one else has been so dominant for so long.”
“It felt like someone I grew up with achieved something amazing,” said Kambara, 21.
Kambara has gone through life with James always being on his television and has been able to watch his NBA career progress throughout the years. “It felt surreal,” he said.
While the discussion of why James is the best in the game was happening, Jampani, 20, was quiet.
“Even as a fan of LeBron James, not enough people are talking about the moment that was for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” he said when he broke his silence.
Abdul-Jabbar honored James in a passing-the-torch instance Tuesday night. Abdul-Jabbar previously owned the title of the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. James was born the year Abdul-Jabbar set the record with his 38,387th point.
“I felt like Kareem during my high school tennis days keeping freshman and sophomores under my wing as a senior and encouraging them to practice hard, become leaders and be good teammates,” Jampani said.
Passing down a legacy and inspiring a younger generation to chase new heights is what both Jampani and Abdul-Jabbar have done in their lives. The feeling Jampani got when he would watch his younger teammates win matches and go above what he had ever done is what made him relate to Abdul-Jabbar rather than James in the wake of a new record being set.
“Though it can be a bittersweet time of essentially accepting that someone has surpassed you in something, someone’s win will never take away from another person’s win,” Jampani said.
Across town, recreational basketball players at the courts of the Westside Recreation Center also weighed in with their thoughts.
“Even if it was through a screen, I witnessed one of the biggest moments in sports history, but beyond that, I related to LeBron James at that moment with my own life experiences,” said Parker Hancock, 21.
An impressive NBA career accompanied by setting a new record was a testament to James’ leadership, athletic ability and desire to leave behind a legacy. However, James setting a new record was only a new basketball statistic to Hancock. He said he saw more to James than just his blockbuster moment.
“LeBron setting a record is impressive, but is such a surface-level observation because it is also a time where he can reflect and know that the work was worth it,” Hancock said.
In his senior year of high school at a new school, Hancock said he had a lot to prove as the new face on the lacrosse team. Even with an immense amount of pressure to perform well, he did not come up short. With clear possession of the ball, he won the face-off and immediately went down the field and scored in the first play of his first game with his latest team.
“All the parents were screaming and telling me how great I was,” Hancock said.
He not only proved himself to his new teammates but he felt heard and seen by his new high school lacrosse community -- much like James did when earning his achievement despite what critics have said or thought of him.
Like Jampani, Bobby Simon, a friend of Hancock at Westside, said he related more to Abdul-Jabbar. Simon, 18, recently graduated from high school in 2022 and left behind his water polo career. However, the career did not leave Simon behind. As a junior and senior in high school, Simon coached a younger athlete. The athlete, who is unnamed for privacy reasons, just received his first division 1 offer for water polo.
“Much like how Kareem is retired from the NBA, I was retired from water polo but the both of us are still continuously leaving our marks on our sports, specifically the sports community we were most intertwined with,” Simon said.
Sports have always had the power to be a unifying force. This was seen in the hearts of the Gainesville recreational basketball players. Whether it was to James or Abdul-Jabbar, the Gainesville community was able to relate.
“That’s what sports are all about,” Simon said.