LeBron James moved past Magic Johnson on the NBA’s all-time assists list while wearing a Los Angeles Lakers uniform Friday, but he knows his place in the pecking order when it comes to Laker lore.
“To know that I’m in the conversation or about to get to a point that I’m breaking a record that he set for this franchise — and I’m not comparing myself to Magic with this franchise, what he did, sheesh.
“Him, [James] Worthy, Kobe [Bryant], Shaq [O’Neal], those guys are synonymous with this franchise. But it’s just pretty cool, always, when I’m able to see my name with some of the greats that have played this game,” James told ESPN this week when asked about the accomplishment he was approaching.
James set the mark with his ninth assist against the Milwaukee Bucks with 8:41 remaining in the fourth quarter, finding Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing that gave L.A. a 112-108 lead.
The Lakers held on to win 133-129, beating a Bucks team that came into the night 10 games over .500. James finished with 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. Davis had a season-high 44 points on 18-for-27 shooting, 10 rebounds and three blocks. And Russell Westbrook had 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting, 11 rebounds and zero turnovers off the bench.
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“I will say I feel like tonight is the most complementary and the best game with all three of us on the floor together that we’ve played on both sides of the floor,” James said of the Lakers’ Big Three that has failed to fit together for most of the time since L.A. traded for Westbrook. “We all felt in a rhythm. We all felt we was making impactful plays throughout the whole game.”
The pass to Davis was the 10,142nd assist of James’ career, taking over Johnson’s perch as No. 6 on the all-time list. The only players ahead of James are ESPN analyst Mark Jackson (10,334); Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash (10,335); Phoenix Suns point guard and James’ close friend, Chris Paul (11,071); Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd (12,091); and Utah Jazz great John Stockton (15,806).
James said that being associated with Johnson — long considered one of the game’s flashiest passers — in an assist category is special.
“Listen, when you talk about just one-name guys when you’re talking about sports, you got Ali, Jordan, Magic. Bird,” James told ESPN. “Those names are just synonymous with sports. Montana. Like, you know who we’re talking about.”
Johnson served as president of basketball operations for the Lakers when James signed with the team as a free agent in the summer of 2018. After a difficult 2018-19 season, in which the Lakers finished 10th in the Western Conference despite adding James to a group of young talent, Johnson abruptly resigned before the season finale.
James, on his barbershop-themed talk show, “The Shop,” later revealed how Johnson’s decision caught him off guard.
“It was just weird for him to just be like, ‘I’m out of here’ and not even have no like, ‘Hey Bron, kiss my ass. I’m out of here,’” James said on his show in May 2019. “I would’ve been OK with that. ‘Hey Bron, it’s Magic. Kiss my ass, I’m gone.’ Not even that.”
Johnson looked back at his Lakers exit as a guest on Shannon Sharpe’s show, “Club Shay Shay,” in October.
“I regret not calling LeBron to tell him I was stepping down,” Johnson said. “I really regretted that. I owed him that.”
Johnson, through a representative, declined an interview request for this story. James had no comment when asked by ESPN about the current state of his and Johnson’s relationship. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss also declined an interview request for this story, through a representative.
Johnson became the league’s all-time assists leader on April 15, 1991, passing Oscar Robertson’s leading mark at the time with his 9,888th career assist. Johnson did it in spectacular fashion — dishing out 19 assists on the record-smashing night in a win over the Dallas Mavericks. He held the record for nearly four years before Stockton passed him with his 9,922nd assist, appropriately, on a feed to Karl Malone.
James told ESPN that he learned the power of being a pass-first player from his very start in the sport.
“At the end of the day this is a team game,” James said. “I’ve always been brought up that way. Teams win. That’s how you have to play and guys have to feel comfortable, guys have to feel like they’re a part of something. So, when I was taught that way, I won my first year ever playing organized basketball. My second year, I won the championship my second year. And as I continued to grow, in AAU we won tournaments. And I got into high school, we won.
“So, I knew what it was. It was about guys coming together and playing together and playing for the cause of each other and not the individual.”
It was an appropriate theme for the Lakers on Friday. It was a total team effort, exemplified by a play from Westbrook late in the fourth quarter when he dove on the floor for a loose ball when Grayson Allen threw a pass to Khris Middleton that Middleton couldn’t handle. Westbrook’s effort allowed James to corral the steal and push the ball down the floor where he dumped it off to a trailing Davis for a dunk to put L.A. up by five with 1:07 remaining.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham said it was the one clip he showed his team in the locker room postgame.
“The play that says for us ‘Lakers Basketball’ is Russ diving on the floor,” Davis said.
For a night at least, the Lakers looked like the type of team they hoped to be when they traded for Westbrook. And James’ pass-first approach seemed to infuse a little “Showtime” magic to the purple and gold’s current-day group.
“The way Magic approached the game, it was very infectious,” James said afterward. “His teammates loved playing with him because the joy they played with literally to pass the ball and get other guys the ball. He always was excited about seeing his teammates be great, and I always kind of admired that.”
James added: “I think it’s even more humbling and super, duper cool that I’m doing it in a Laker uniform, and we know how much the name Magic means to the Laker franchise. It’s very humbling. Very honored to just be in the same breath and the same conversation with a guy like that.”
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