A couple of National Basketball Association scouts had stopped in Cleveland last week to get an early look at both the Los Angeles Lakers, who were in town, and the Cavaliers. The Lakers had lost their first two games and were in the process of losing the third, 113-111, when Press Maravich (New Orleans) turned to Pete Newell (Golden State) and asked:
"Why isn't Kareem playing?"
Newell relayed the question to a Los Angeles reporter.
"His season hasn't started yet," was the reply.
From all appearances, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had been off flying on a magic carpet somewhere. He was on the court for the Lakers' opening-night 110-102 loss at Philadelphia, but he took only 10 shots, made only three, scored just 14 points, and controlled but two offensive rebounds. At New Jersey the next night, he was 5 for 14, scored 12 points, had one offensive rebound, and the Lakers lost 102-100. It could have been worse. The Nets led 100-84 with 4:59 left, which was when Abdul-Jabbar was benched. With Dave Robisch in the pivot the rest of the game, the Lakers ran off 12 straight points and lost by only two. While in the game, Kareem had been held scoreless for a six-minute period by a rookie named Bob Elliott who shrugged off the feat, saying that "playing Kareem was just like playing myself."
If NBA centers intend to prepare for Kareem by chasing their own shadows around a gym, Laker Coach Jerry West might suggest the same for the swarms of reporters now hounding the club on the Abdul-Jabbar watch. "If you guys would write your stories about what makes a team win or lose instead of worrying about what one man is doing, we'd all be better off," he steamed in Cleveland. "Why we're losing doesn't have a thing to do with Kareem. Don't you watch the game? We don't pass. We don't rebound. We're playing poor defense. If you don't see Kareem score 30 points, you just assume the problem's with him."
The heat comes not in response to Abdul-Jabbar's performance so much as from the way he looks on the court. Even last season, when he averaged 25.8 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots and shot 55%—all close to his career marks—he usually looked disinterested and Bill Walton suddenly replaced Kareem in many eyes as the NBA's consummate center.
"Have I lost any enjoyment for the game?" Abdul-Jabbar took a long pull of orange juice and thought for several seconds as he sat at an outdoor restaurant in Los Angeles following a Laker practice. "I don't think so," he finally answered.
But he has changed, and the agent of change was the frightening incident with Kent Benson in last year's opener when Jabbar fractured his hand on Benson's face. "That moment will always be with me," says Kareem. "I see it over and over in slow motion. The really big thing is that I could have killed him. We were totally out of the play when he hit me in the stomach with an elbow. I immediately reverted to a primal state of mind, which is no mind at all. How many years am I out of Harlem, and that is still with me?"
"You have to know Kareem to understand what an experience like that would do to him," says West. "He's grown quieter. He's gone inside himself again. It's a tremendous change. When you've accomplished what he's accomplished, you don't need something like that to happen to your life. He gets beat up all the time, and when he retaliates he's a bad guy. He can't win either way. It's completely unfair."
Is West protecting Jabbar or is he intimidated by him? There are no easy answers. West, who played the backcourt to perfection, has been angry with his guards—Norm Nixon, Ron Boone, Brad Davis, Lou Hudson and rookie Ron Carter. "All I want to know," says playmaker Nixon, "is if Kareem's to blame for our losing, how come Jerry's always picking on me?"
In the Philadelphia loss, 76er rookie Maurice Cheeks and Ralph Simpson—guards—scored the key points. At New Jersey, Net rookie Winford Boynes scored 20. At Cleveland, 5'11" Foots Walker, a career six-point scorer, burned the Lakers with a career-high 26.
The main problem is that Boone, the bruising 18.4 career scorer acquired from Kansas City during the off-season, broke his nose in an exhibition game against Seattle and has been wearing a modified hockey goalkeeper's mask, and playing like a hockey goalkeeper—allowing opposing guards to double up on Nixon while scoring a meager nine points a game on 43% shooting. Davis, a first-round draft choice from Maryland a year ago, has not come anywhere close to his promise; the 34-year-old Hudson's career is behind him; and the 6'5" Carter, out of VMI, is all rough edges. "It's very difficult to run an offense when you can't pass the ball to the right man at the right time. Kareem isn't taking only 13 shots a game because he's lazy," West says.
West's understandable desire to get the ball to Abdul-Jabbar early and often has caused disharmony among the Lakers in the past, not to mention the fact that it's like giving the opposition all the answers before the exam. Still, in last year's nightmare of a season that began with Abdul-Jabbar fracturing his hand and missing 20 games, the Lakers managed to come in at 45-37. But then they went down to Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. Charlie Scott, acquired from Boston at midseason, frequently rebelled against West's philosophy. Now with Denver, Scott says, "In L.A. we had 22 seconds to get Kareem his skyhook. If we couldn't, we had two seconds to try something else."
This year West is trying something else, since he has a difficult array of talent to mix. In Abdul-Jabbar's four seasons in Los Angeles, he has had 37 teammates. Though West claims that "this is the most talented group I've had here," it includes two disconcertingly similar small starting forwards—Adrian Dantley and Jamaal Wilkes—and second-year man Kenny Carr, at 6'7" the only power-forward hope, who has been hampered with injuries in both his seasons. Dantley and Wilkes both like to back in to the basket and each is a strong offensive rebounder. But with Kareem operating down low, there is just not enough room for them and their defenders. So West occasionally moves Abdul-Jabbar to the high post, where he becomes less of a threat. Otherwise, Dantley shoots from the 20-foot range, and Wilkes takes what he can get in the corners. At the defensive end, the Lakers have been beaten by eight rebounds per game—against Cleveland they lost the boards by 57-33—which all but nullifies their fast break.
All of which spells trouble for West in the last year of his three-year contract. "And I mean my last," he said while airplane trouble in Cleveland made it seem as though the Lakers would never get off the ground.
"How long do they say we'll be here?" Ron Carter asked the coach.
"Two more weeks," said West. "When I get home I'm going to run 50 miles. I hope I have a coronary."
That turned the discussion to King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, who had been staying in the Lakers' Cleveland hotel after heart surgery. "Shoot, Jerry," said Assistant Coach Stan Albeck. "How would you like to make $15 million a day? You could buy the Pacific Ocean."
"Nah," said West. "I'd buy the Lakers. And disband them."
The Lakers' road trip invited comparisons with the Dodgers' fateful three-game stay in New York. For Abdul-Jabbar, there was a welcome home tainted by newspaper raps that he no longer cared about playing basketball and that collecting his $625,000 salary, renewable at his option for the rest of his career, was his only concern. He had seemed sluggish in the three games, but practicing back in Los Angeles he looked spirited and ran hard.
"Look at him," said Don Ford. "I'm not Freud, but does he look like he doesn't care? It doesn't matter what people outside the team think. Most of them don't know anything, anyway. Kareem is no prima donna. He's like the rest of us. He's working as hard as anybody to turn this thing around."
"Some people make it sound like I do nothing to contribute to our team," Abdul-Jabbar said. "That's absurd. But that's the way they want it to look. It looks good in the papers. Obviously if we were in a winning situation all that negativity would turn around. The thing that makes it tolerable is that as long as I do what the coaches want me to do, I can put up with all the heat. Jerry and I have had it both ways. Obviously, it's best when we're winning."
If the Benson incident caused Abdul-Jabbar to be less intense in his play, it redoubled his determined crusade to stop violence in the NBA, which is tolerated, he feels, in direct proportion to the size of the victim. "Throw an elbow at a man who's 6'3" and it's called a foul," he says. "Throw an elbow at a man over 6'9" and it's called 'boxing out.' I remember as a kid seeing a picture in the New York Daily News of Wilt Chamberlain with four teeth knocked out. I felt very sorry for him. And I bet I was the only person in New York City who did."
While his broken hand was healing last fall, Abdul-Jabbar wrote a script for a documentary film on basketball violence. "It was produced entirely without the cooperation of the NBA," he said. He is now trying to sell the show to television, and, predictably enough, getting nowhere.
He has no intention of quitting basketball, pointing out that he is at his physical peak, yet he admits that after 22 years of playing the game and being regarded on and off the court as a freak, he toys with thoughts of other ways of life. "I definitely find myself thinking at times of different things I could be doing that would not be so oppressive to me," he says.
He long ago learned to cope with his size. "I've always considered my height a blessing," he says. "The last time I felt self-conscious about it was when I was 16 and Chock Full O' Nuts, the New York coffee-shop chain, wouldn't hire me because I was too tall. Too tall to wipe counters and mop floors!" He giggles. "And Jackie Robinson was a vice-president of the company! They were going to give black kids a chance. I was crushed.
"Privacy?" he says. "That's not a problem in L.A. People are used to seeing celebrities around town."
One day last week Kareem dropped into a sign shop to have a pet poem printed and mounted on canvas. The petite woman proprietor gaped in disbelief at his colossal presence.
"Hi, I'm Kareem," he said. They spent 30 minutes discussing the specifications for the job, the woman stealing up-and-down glances at every opportunity. "Here's my card," he said. "Give me a call when it's finished."
"Okay," she said. "And it was so nice to meet you. What was the name again? Chris?"