He is still hounded because he is just about the biggest, and for so many years he was unquestionably the best. And now, a few days past his 32nd birthday, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is still haunted by the perception of fans and media people that he can do whatever he pleases on a basketball court—score, rebound, defend—and, by extension, win or lose.
Thus when Abdul-Jabbar's Los Angeles Lakers opened their best-of-three-game mini-series in Denver last week, none of the questions that normally precede a playoff series seemed to be of consequence, at least not in Los Angeles. How the Nuggets would fare with Tom Boswell replacing the injured George McGinnis; how the Lakers' small back-court would cope with Charlie Scott and David Thompson; how their frontcourt would deal with the outside game of Center Dan Issel; and whether the Lakers could break the mile-high jinx and win for the first time ever in Denver—all seemed trivial. What really counted was: Does Kareem want it?
So in Game 1, which the Lakers lost 110-105, the lingering memories were those of Abdul-Jabbar being outscored by Issel—who is five inches shorter—30-23, the Lakers being outrebounded 45-37, Abdul-Jabbar at times not bothering to run upcourt, and the Nuggets scoring 17 layups off their set offense, rudely penetrating the basket area that Abdul-Jabbar is supposed to keep as secure as Fort Knox.
After this opening performance, Abdul-Jabbar was excoriated in the Los Angeles press. Few other players in the game are treated so badly in their home cities. In Houston, for instance, few want to have Moses Malone's uniform repossessed just because the Rockets were swept by Atlanta in their mini-series. But in Los Angeles they expect Kareem to do it all every game, as though none of the other 10 Lakers ever had a hand in a defeat. Much attention was drawn to the recent remarks of Wilt Chamberlain who, of all people, lashed out at Abdul-Jabbar for being lax in defending what Wilt calls the "office," the 15-by-16-foot lane in front of the opponents' basket.
"Is it fair?" said Kareem between Games 1 and 2. "Of course not. But I'm a target. Always have been. Too big to miss."
He responded to the acid attack by scoring 32 points and pulling down 12 rebounds—despite playing with five fouls most of the second half—as Los Angeles won Game 2, 121-109. Although many thought it was his finest game as a Laker, coming as it did in the face of elimination, others felt this was simply what Kareem should be doing all the time. But by the time the Lakers came back to finish Denver in Game 3 on Sunday, 112-111, Abdul-Jabbar was again being hailed as the best player in the game. And when was the last time anyone heard that? His numbers were sensational: 29 points on 13-for-19 shooting, 16 rebounds, eight assists and six blocked shots in 48 minutes. Not for a second did he sit, nor did he loaf for a moment on the floor, or gulp oxygen during timeouts as he had in Game 1 to combat Denver's altitude.
"I was very, very tired down the stretch," Kareem said, "but I figured I'd give my all because if we lost there would be no season left anyway." Despite his fatigue, when Norm Nixon passed him the ball with 12 seconds left and the Lakers down 111-110, he determinedly drove across on Issel from the left side of the lane and launched his classic sky-hook. As Thompson described it, "Automatic. Right down the bottom of the basket. Wow!"
But Denver still had a chance when Thompson, who scored 84 points in the series—28 in Game 3—put up a 15-foot jump shot in the final seconds that clanked off the rim. "I followed it and thought I had a shot by tipping it in," he said, "but out of nowhere Kareem came and swatted it away."
After the final buzzer Abdul-Jabbar was jumping up and down and thrusting his fists into the air. "It feels real good to show some people that they're not right," he said.
Kareem's performance in Games 2 and 3 showed clearly the resolution of what Laker Coach Jerry West had called the special problem that Issel created for Abdul-Jabbar. Issel is the best outside-shooting center in the NBA, and he was at his best Tuesday night in Game 1, hitting 12 of 23 shots outside and inside and taunting Kareem as if he were a chained bull. Issel would hit a couple of unchallenged 20-footers, forcing Abdul-Jabbar a little farther from the basket, at which point—whoosh!—with a lightning first step he would blow by Kareem for a layup. Or Issel would lure the defense to him by driving, then dish off to Boswell who, lounging like a tenant in Kareem's office all night, wound up hitting eight of 10 shots, mostly layups.
It was a game in which all the Laker soft spots were fully exploited, a tribute to Denver's interim coach, Donnie Walsh. None of L.A.'s guards, not Ron Boone, Lou Hudson or Jim Price, could match Thompson, who flew over the Lakers for 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting, even dunking over Abdul-Jabbar. The 6'2" Nixon could do little with the 6'6" Charlie Scott, and the Laker forwards, Don Ford, Adrian Dantley and Jamaal Wilkes, were so obsessed with releasing for the fast break every time a Denver shot went up that their rebounding contributions were negligible.
At the other end, West's decision to start the defensive-minded Ford instead of offensive-minded Dantley only gave Denver the luxury of double-and triple-teaming Abdul-Jabbar every time he touched the ball, and he made only two of six shots in the first half.
Scott crowed that the Nuggets had humiliated a team that "is so much better than us on paper, it's ridiculous."
But West was not laying all the blame, or even most of it, on his center. "We've got to do something else with Issel," he said. "If Kareem plays a normal defensive position, layups just don't happen."
After practice on Thursday in Los Angeles, Abdul-Jabbar looked almost pitiful, nervously and timidly sidestepping people two-thirds his size if they held a notebook or a microphone. "I'm not allowed to have my say around here," he said when finally cornered. "What would it matter anyway? You know, I could have gone outside and played Issel a lot tougher the other night. Is that what they wanted? Good. Then we would have lost by a lot more points. I've got to try to do what Jerry wants. As long as I have to play Issel, I try to stay somewhere in the middle and split the difference. What else can I do?"
The fact of the matter is that this Laker team, assembled by their reclusive and baronial owner, Jack Kent Cooke, not West, is terribly ill-suited to Abdul-Jabbar's game. There is no power forward, the guards can't rebound, and most of the players are either less than competent or overmatched on defense. And their rebounding! During the regular season the five Laker playoff starters together had 32 fewer offensive rebounds than Houston's Malone.
"Jamaal plays his heart out," says Abdul-Jabbar, "but he weighs 190 pounds. A.D. [Dantley] is 6'5". He can't guard someone 6'8". I've got to rebound and I've got to guard Issel and I've got to score and I've got to...you see? It's impossible to do everything. A radio guy said, 'Kareem, if you played 100% every night you'd be unbeatable.' I said, 'One hundred percent of what?' I fully believe that accomplishing 100% of what people expect of me is absolutely impossible. That's why when I see those adolescent comments by Wilt Chamberlain I have to say it's very easy to talk like that when you don't have to play every night."
Though West is prone to let candor get the best of him, Kareem is usually the last player to drive West to throw up his hands in disgust. "Believe me," he says. "If every player understood and cooperated like Kareem we'd have far fewer problems. Him you only have to tell once. We're not a super team. We have glaring weaknesses. People blame Kareem for everything, if they're not blaming me. This team has averaged 48 wins over the past three seasons, and I'll tell you what. I don't care if he's at the top of his game, past it or underneath it—without Kareem we don't beat anybody. This team just doesn't complement him at all."
Which is why West probably won't be coaching the Lakers next season. "I don't need this," he says. "I can't take it. Sometimes I think I'm a hell of a coach. But sometimes I think I stink."
On Friday night he was a genius. He made the expected move of switching Abdul-Jabbar's defensive assignment from Issel to Boswell, and put Ford on Issel. Kareem scored six of the first eight Laker points, but in defending his office, he picked up three fouls in the first 4½ minutes. Still, by the end of the first quarter the Lakers led 29-22, Kareem was 5 for 5, and Issel and Thompson, who was being guarded by Boone, had one field goal each.
When Ford's shift as Issel's personal mugger ended, Wilkes moved onto him, and off the bench came Dantley. In six minutes A.D. scored 16 of 17 Laker points. But when Dantley cooled off, so did Los Angeles, because Abdul-Jabbar was trying to avoid foul trouble. A 43-32 lead dipped to 49-47 at halftime as Thompson finally shook Boone for three late baskets.
Thompson was fired up because he was taking a beating—a first-period collision with Boone opened up a gash over his right eye—yet he had not once been to the foul line. He hit two more quick baskets in the third quarter to put Denver ahead 51-49. But the game seemed to reach a turning point when Issel picked up his fourth foul and left the game for Kim Hughes with 1:27 gone in the third quarter.
Before West could exhale in relief—within nine seconds to be exact—Abdul-Jabbar had been whistled for his fourth and fifth fouls. Another turning point? Absolutely, but only because West had no intention of removing Kareem from the game. "I knew it was a big gamble," said West, "but at this time of the year you have to go with your best players. Kareem's so smart I knew I could count on him to make the right moves."
"I didn't know how long I could last," said Abdul-Jabbar, "but on this team I have to stay in the game."
In the ensuing 3½ minutes the Lakers ran a 12-2 spurt, and the enraged Kareem had a hand in every Laker point. Twice he made ferocious drives to draw fouls; he grabbed three rebounds; he assisted Ford on a short jumper; he stole the ball from Anthony Roberts to trigger a fast break.
"I wish he didn't have the five fouls," said Denver Assistant Coach George Irvine. "They let him do anything he wanted after that."
The Lakers had a 68-58 lead when Abdul-Jabbar finally sat down. But Thompson promptly hit three straight long jumpers and Issel scored twice to bring Denver to within three, 76-73. Shots went up at a dizzying rate in the fourth quarter and, with Kareem back in his office but staying out of harm's way, the Nuggets ran five layups right at him. The Lakers managed to stay on top, 104-101.
Although Dantley and Wilkes would finish with 25 and 26 points respectively—up from 15 and 17 in Game 1—and Nixon would chip in 16 assists, Abdul-Jabbar scored enough points in the final 3:22—eight—to win the game, well, all by himself.
Denver's locker-room sentiments naturally centered on the officiating. "Look at David," said Walsh. "He's bleeding from the mouth and eye, he scored 29 points and makes one trip to the foul line all night. It's a joke."
"All I know," said Thompson, "is that I got more stitches than free throws."
In the Los Angeles locker room a rare guest, Jack Kent Cooke, greeted Abdul-Jabbar. "Oh," said Cooke as Kareem looked at him oddly, "did you already know who I was? You played with such skill and consummate adroitness with those five bloody fouls on you. Really and truly I'm wonderfully proud of you today."
Across the room, Boone watched the scene. "Now there's a man who just doesn't get enough credit. Ever."
"Cooke?" he was asked.
Back in Denver on Sunday, Abdul-Jabbar got all the credit he deserved. He combined his deadly hook-shooting with crosscourt scoring passes to Wilkes (23 points), who was left alone time and again when the Nuggets doubled up on Kareem. As in Game 2, West shuttled Dantley and Ford superbly—Dantley for offense (26 points) and Ford for defense. Next to Abdul-Jabbar's domination of the final two games, Ford's defensive job on Issel was the key to the series. (Issel, of course, still had to guard Abdul-Jabbar.)
Said Issel, "Kareem's the best center in the NBA today. What he did tonight only proved it again."
The Lakers and Abdul-Jabbar take their act to Seattle this week, where they will face one of the strongest front lines in basketball. Abdul-Jabbar certainly knows how tough the Sonics can be.
"Maybe I've silenced some people who were not satisfied with my game," he said. "But only for the moment. It only goes moment to moment."