Over the course of the recent past (and near future), the two of them have encroached upon cherished records, one on distant, snowy mountainsides, often while America sleeps; the other in domestic basketball arenas, occasionally while the Eastern time zone tries to stay awake. They are both international superstars, undeniably, but in a way that requires qualification to avoid false equivalence. LeBron James’s fame (if not his popularity, another issue altogether) is universal; Mikaela Shiffrin’s is vertical. Both are on a microscopic list of the best to perform their respective sports. Ever. But their sports exist in very different realms, and that has shaped the records they might soon own.
Early Tuesday morning in the U.S., Shiffrin won her 83rd career World Cup ski race, a giant slalom in Italy, passing retired fellow U.S. racer Lindsey Vonn for the most career victories by a woman (or American of either gender). That number could grow quickly: Shiffrin will race another giant slalom Wednesday in Italy and two slaloms over the weekend in the Czech Republic. Beyond 83 lies 86, the overall record established by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden in a career that ended in 1989. Because the Alpine World Championships interrupt the World Cup schedule, Shiffrin can’t mathematically pass Stenmark until late February. But: No hurry. Shiffrin won’t turn 28 until March 13, and told me last month she plans to keep racing at least until the 2026 Olympics.
LeBron enters Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers 223 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA career record of 38,387, also established, like Stenmark’s – although with vastly more attention in the U.S. – in the spring of 1989. Basketball is also a punishing sport, and LeBron is 38 years old and hauling around two decades of hard fouls given and taken, but you have to very much like his chances of soon supplanting Kareem, likely sometime before the All-Star break commences on Feb. 15.
The two of them share little: A white woman raised on skis in New England and Colorado and a Black man raised in sneakers in Akron, Ohio. But there is an important commonality to their career paths that has shaped their experiences, and ours. Both were prodigies: LeBron famously appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old high school junior, with the cover line THE CHOSEN ONE, and a prescient story famously written by my late friend and colleague, Grant Wahl. Shiffrin’s future greatness was no less projected, but in a smaller world. From her early teens, her skill was transcendent. In the winter of 2007, Shiffrin was 11 years old and training at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont; one of her instructors was Chip Knight, a three-time Olympic ski racer. “I’m watching her train,” Knight told me in 2014, “and she’s just incredible. She’s doing things, fundamentally, that I was still working on at the end of my professional career.”
This projected greatness is the small slice where their Venn Diagram circles overlap – that and the towering records they are both likely about to hold. Beyond that, much of their existence is defined by the culture and economics of their games. For instance: Shiffrin has earned millions; LeBron earns millions every week. (This is neither an endorsement of professional basketball nor a criticism of professional ski racing: Athletes are paid what the market will bear).
Something else will happen – and has been happening – as Shiffrin and LeBron reach and surpass their records (*presumably). The NBA, according to commissioner Adam Silver, is preparing a ceremony to accompany James’s record, and Kareem is expected to be in attendance. It will be a big moment, especially for the increasingly distant generation (mine) that witnessed all or most of Kareem’s career, and consumed a seemingly endless succession of majestic sky hooks, one of most inventive and original moves in the history of the game, and arguably the single most productive.
But neither the ceremony nor the achievement will be used to prove LeBron’s greatness. To be sure, LeBron is a polarizing persona both as a modern-day performer and historical figure. (Aside: Three years ago I did a talk at a maximum security correctional facility; during the Q&A, an inmate allowed that Jordan was the best player in history, but who is No. 2? “LeBron?” I offered. I was booed and catcalled. Their consensus was Kobe Bryant, but LeBron was not a popular alternative). Nevertheless: LeBron has won NBA titles with three different teams (only Robert Horry, John Salley and Danny Green have done likewise, and none carried the load that LeBron did on those teams). His combination of size, speed and power was unmatched, and remains rare. He is generous with his money and his time. He did once say, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” and the shrillness – however harmless – of that declaration has stuck. He will never be viewed as benevolently as Steph Curry.
But his place in NBA and cultural history is secure, if not unanimous. The points are just a punctuation.
Meanwhile, Shiffrin’s steady overtaking of Vonn and Stenmark has been cast as proof of her excellence – the cake itself, not just the icing. Content – from both Team Shiffrin and media — describing Shiffrin’s recent wins, and non-wins (some of which have been excellent performances despite not being victories) has breathlessly tried to explain the power of what Shiffrin is accomplishing. And you know what? That’s fine. Alpine ski racing has a modest audience compared to the big U.S. professional sports, and Shiffrin’s record pursuit can potentially grow that audience, and Shiffrin’s brand. All good. On the other hand, when you’re explaining to a sports fan why a record is meaningful, you’ve already lost some of the fight. Passing Kareem needs no framing; nor does Alex Ovechkin’s pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record.
It comes down to this: LeBron’s record is a coronation, and Shiffrin’s, at least in part, is a validation. That’s not fair, it just is. But Shiffrin deserves better.
But this is often the plight of the Olympic sport, where athletes, coaches and publicists spend endless megabytes convincing the public and media that 20 feet is a very good pole vault from Mondo Duplantis or that even though Katie Ledecky appears to win easily, it’s not easy, or hey, you try doing a flip on the balance beam. In these sports, success mandates context, and context subsumes purity. Athletic performance is best on its own merits, absent explanation. Greatness that speaks for itself.
Shiffrin participates in a very difficult and perilous sport, in which changing conditions – melting snow, encroaching shadows, a gust of wind – make consistency especially difficult. Yet she was for a long time, stunningly consistent: At the end of the 2019 season, just past her 24th birthday, she had 60 World Cup wins and seemed likely to obliterate all the career records in short order. Life intervened: Shiffrin lost her grandmother and her father four months apart; Covid happened. She climbed back, and at one point this year – a few days after she told me, “In one way, I know I’ll win another World Cup race, but I also know you can’t be certain” – won five in a row in three different disciplines, which is preposterous. (There I go framing the achievement again, lessening its raw power).
Shiffrin was a prodigy who quickly made good on her promise – she had more World Cups than any U.S. woman other than Vonn by the age of 21 – and burnout was widely predicted. In late 2017 for an SI story previewing the 2018 Olympics, one of Shiffrin’s former coaches, Brandon Dyksterhouse, told me, ‘”Mikaela is doing a huge volume of training, at least two times any other skier in the world, the majority of it on injected surfaces with ultra-aggressive equipment, unforgiving skis and boots. The wear and tear is phenomenal. You look at the women’s ranks: Lindsey [Vonn] has been rebuilt multiple times. Lara Gut (Switzerland) has been rebuilt. Anna Veith (nee: Fenninger, Austria), has been rebuilt. It’s not a question of if you will get injured, it’s a question of when. Mikaela has defied the odds to this point, and you wonder when or if it will catch up to her.’’ More than five years later, Shiffrin has still not had a major surgical injury; it has not caught up to her. She has fulfilled her promise, and then fulfilled some more.
There’s little doubt that Shiffrin’s American profile was damaged by her performance at the Beijing Olympics, where she skied out in slalom, giant slalom, and the slalom portion of the combined, and did not win any medals. Ski afficionados will explain that the months-long grind of the World Cup is the true test of greatness, and that would not be wrong. But the U.S. is a Big Event nation, and therefore an Olympic nation. Shiffrin knows it, too. When we spoke in December, she said this about the 2026 Olympics ahead: “Cortina is a place that I love. I’d like to experience an Olympics there.” Pause. “And of course if I’m racing, I’m going to want to be a medal contender, and there’s all that goes along with that.” All that goes along with that. Despite efforts to cushion her Olympic experience for her, she understands her world – and ours – better than we imagined. (Also, Shiffrin won a combined three Olympic medals — two gold — at the 2014 and ’18 Games; the only American woman with more is Julia Mancuso, who won four).
This combination of factors – ski racing’s low profile in the U.S., American fans’ obsession with major sports, Shiffrin’s quiet Olympics – left her playing catch up with respect in a year that might have otherwise cemented her place in skiing history with several years left ahead. It’s unfortunate. In reality, the truth is simple: Shiffrin is one of best ski racers in history (not going to mention any farm animals here, that’s just too tired and reductive), and there is a very good chance that soon she will have won more World Cup races – each like a playoff game in another sport — than any skier in history. That is a towering legacy of dominance over time.
The numbers attained and ahead – 83, 86, 87 – should be celebrated vigorously. But they tell us a story we should already know.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.