On the team bus in Dallas last week, the Los Angeles Lakers passed two laborers repairing concrete in a driving rain. Some of the players marveled at the pair's work ethic; others wondered aloud about their sanity. Then from a soft voice in the front of the bus came a statement, as if handed down from on high: "They only get paid for doing the job." And those words from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar closed the subject.
Abdul-Jabbar knows about doing the job. He did his last week against the Dallas Mavericks. At the absurd age of 41, he weathered a hailstorm of elbows, armlocks and jolts from James Donaldson, a center 10 years younger, to help put the Lakers in the NBA finals—the ninth time in his 19-year career (twice with Milwaukee, seven times with L.A.) he has accompanied his team into the championship round. Abdul-Jabbar leads L.A. not by goggle-popping production—through the Dallas series he was averaging 14.5 points on .484 shooting and 6.0 rebounds in the postseason—but by professionally doing his part. "I can't get any more accolades," says the 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar, the league's alltime leading scorer. "But it's nice to have a chance to repeat. If we can do that, it really would be a crowning achievement."
Abdul-Jabbar never envisioned he would still be in the league. "I thought I'd play 10, 11 years, make a million dollars, retire," he says. "The classic scenario." Now, contributing to a championship is all-important to him. "If I weren't considered among the best, the Lakers wouldn't need me, and I wouldn't feel good about being in the game," he says. Abdul-Jabbar has toiled to compensate for lost quickness by adding bulk for greater strength and endurance. "My dad was a cop," he says. "Friday night, after getting paid, he'd get a little sauced up. The next morning he'd play handball. He said he wanted to be in shape in case he had to chase a guy or come up on a guy and it got physical. He wanted to be prepared for anything he might encounter as a police officer. I've taken the same attitude to my job that he did to his. I learned it from him."
During L.A.'s quarterfinal series against Utah, Jazz center Mark Eaton, the Biggest E, must have had Abdul-Jabbar wondering about his pension. Kareem attributes his troubles against the Jazz to Utah's team defense and to Eaton's ability to block shots. "I saw a film last year when Akeem Olajuwon punched Eaton out of frustration," he says. "It's hard to deal with." Against the 7'2", 277-pound Donaldson, Abdul-Jabbar had more success, though Donaldson outperformed him in Game 7. "He's not the dominant player he used to be," says Donaldson. "You can feel him start to weaken as the game wears on."
June 12, 1988
Abdul-Jabbar must pace himself more than he once did. Says L.A. coach Pat Riley, "I think Kareem gives everything he has that night." Says Abdul-Jabbar, "There are times it doesn't work now. You struggle. But you have to keep your effort constant."