Bill Sharman does not need another assistant coach to help him run the Los Angeles Lakers. Nor do his problems have to do with things like Gail Goodrich playing out his option or Don Ford's injured right thigh or Corky Calhoun's reluctance to shoot. His big headache is finding the proper new words after each game to describe the play of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. What Bill Sharman needs is an adjective coach.
Already this season he has described his prize acquisition as "amazing," "consistently outstanding," "beautiful," "devastating," "a leader" and "a great passer." The Los Angeles press has added "awesome," and "sensational." "Super" is sure to follow. And "towering"—we must not forget towering. Perhaps Sharman should keep a copy of Roget's Thesaurus in his office alongside his NBA rule book—do you like "ineffable"?—but even so, the English language (not to mention Kareem's opponents) may be exhausted before the season is half over, and we'll be hearing "magnifico" and "extraordinaire."
Reporters and coaches and teammates and opponents have been struggling to find words for Abdul-Jabbar for a long time now, but this year it has been especially tough. Through Saturday night he was leading the Lakers in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, steals, shooting percentage and playing time and was second in assists. Against Phoenix one night in the Forum he blocked a shot, grabbed the ball, dribbled the length of the court, put in a fancy layup and was fouled. He missed the free throw, so the adjective "perfect" was shelved temporarily.
The trade that brought Kareem and Walt Wesley (since waived) to Los Angeles from Milwaukee in exchange for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman is looking awfully good. Optimists are sure of playoffs; super optimists are thinking NBA title.
December 1, 1975
Now, Milwaukee General Manager Wayne Embry, who traded the big center away, is not an imbecile. He knew that Abdul-Jabbar is the most effective player in the sport, maybe the most effective in the history of the sport. But Abdul-Jabbar did not like living in Milwaukee and had made clear his intention of playing out his option, meaning he would have played for the Bucks two more seasons and then been free to deal himself to New York, his first choice, or L.A., where he starred for UCLA on three NCAA championship teams.
Bothered by injuries and dissatisfied both with the city and with Coach Larry Costello's elaborate system, Abdul-Jabbar did not play his best in '74-'75, and the Bucks finished last in the Midwest Division. For the first time since he was a rookie, he did not make the NBA All-Star team, and Embry decided that it would be "unfair to our team and our fans to prolong the situation."
The Lakers, in the dumps after having missed the playoffs and figuring that they could not take the time to rebuild slowly in a city that demands championship contenders, had the youthful goods to satisfy the Bucks: Smith, a 7-foot center; Winters, a good second-year shooting guard from the University of South Carolina; Meyers, a 6'9" rookie forward from UCLA who could become one of the NBA's finest cornermen; and 6'5" swingman Bridgeman, a rookie from Louisville. Considering his dilemma, it is hard to see how Embry could have done better.
But it was L.A. that ended up with the human franchise, the "Kareem of the crop" as Buck broadcaster Eddie Doucette had named him, the 7'2" superstar who could pack the Forum and maybe mean the championship. Sharman, who played with Bill Russell and coached Wilt Chamberlain, has come to appreciate Abdul-Jabbar as he never did when coaching against him.
"The way he blocked six, seven, eight shots and got 20 rebounds most every game, I felt he was playing terrific defense," says Sharman. "And I thought to myself, 'That was a good night,' and 'That was another good night.'
"But now it's every night. And it hit me. He has the things Russell had: the timing, the jumping, the reactions to be able to block two, three or four shots in a row, the quick outlet pass to the first guard or the baseball pass downcourt.
"He's just doing everything: picking up all the players who drive, switching from one side of the court to the other, covering all kinds of ground, reacting exactly the way Russell reacted."
On the other end of the floor, Sharman says, he never had any doubts: "Let's face it, Kareem can do things offensively that Wilt and Russell never could. The point I'm trying to make is that he's definitely in their class defensively, too."
Abdul-Jabbar does other things. Sharman loves to see his teams run, but there can be no fast break without the big man who gets the defensive rebound. And Abdul-Jabbar continues to play unselfishly, nearly always looking for the Laker cutting toward the hoop rather than seeking a shooting opportunity for himself. If a teammate pops free, he gets the pass, and Goodrich is one of the league's best at getting open without the ball. If the man with the ball is in trouble, Abdul-Jabbar sprints out from the key to where he can take a rescue pass.
"I think I'm playing really well," he says. He has become much more friendly and articulate than in his "uh, you know" days. "I think my experience is really starting to count for a lot. Plus, I have a green light as far as innovating. It's more open, more free lance here. I don't mean to knock Larry [Costello], but here you don't get yelled at if you don't run the play perfectly."
Abdul-Jabbar cannot win any championships by himself, of course, any more than Russell, Chamberlain or George Mikan could. But he has talented help. Though Goodrich is reportedly several fortunes apart from Laker management in his salary demands, he complements his big center well with his quickness and outside shooting. Lucius Allen, the other starting guard, has won championships with Abdul-Jabbar at two previous stops, UCLA and Milwaukee. Ford, a 6'9" rookie forward with speed, has already picked up the Rick Barry knack of knowing just when to zoom off on the break. Cazzie Russell and ABA refugee Donnie Freeman have mastered the art of coming off the bench and getting into the flow of the game right away, or maybe even stepping up the tempo.
The combination has been successful so far, especially at home in the Forum, where the Lakers had won seven straight going into last Friday night's game against their old friends from Milwaukee. The Bucks had just come in from Phoenix, where with the aid of some nice plays by Meyers they beat the Suns 96-94. Winters had scored 20 points and gotten a team-high nine rebounds.
The Bucks managed to play the Lakers even for a half, though Abdul-Jabbar was his usual dominating self in the middle, but in the third and fourth quarters two L.A. substitutes made the difference. Calhoun, a defensive specialist, put the clamps on Milwaukee's hot shooter, Bob Dandridge. And Freeman, who played with the San Antonio Spurs last season, supplied both defense and a jump shot he drilled through the hoop for 18 second-half points.
L.A. won 116-104, increased its home winning streak to eight and became the first team in the NBA to win 11 games.
And Abdul-Jabbar? A run-of-the-mill working night for him: 48 minutes, 12 of 15 shots and six of 20 free throws for 30 points, 19 rebounds, three steals, three blocked shots, six assists. When asked about this, Sharman just grinned and shrugged and shook his head—three adjectives in mime that were as good as any.
Embry was on hand, too, with compliments for the big guy, but he was not in mourning.
"You'll hear from us," he promised. "You'll hear from us."