Quite often, he says, especially when the "shadows chase me around the pool," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar climbs the hundred or so steps to the cement-and-stone deck that sits above his house in Bel Air, Calif., to catch the afternoon sun. And, no, at 41, Abdul-Jabbar doesn't require help to get to the top, thank you. From that lofty perch, he can look down on the houses of some of his equally rich and famous neighbors, like director Michael (The Bad News Bears) Ritchie. Or he can sprawl on his chaise longue and read; he just finished a book about Captain Kidd and lately has been engrossed in Arthur Ashe's A Hard Road to Glory, a three-volume history of the black athlete in America. Or he can just sit and think, something he has always done a lot of.
Many subjects cross his mind, but he wants to make this perfectly clear: He does not think, has not thought and will not be thinking about retiring before the end of the 1988-89 NBA season.
"Everybody else has been doing that for me." said Abdul-Jabbar last Thursday. "And they've done it before. Let them. I'm not retiring. The only thing that would change my mind would be some kind of serious injury, but that's always been the case. I'm going to play it out."
Many observers say that playing it out is all he's doing, anyway, even though the Los Angeles Lakers are paying him $3 million for his ride into the sunset. He has been the Lakers' starting center in name only—and may not even be that by next week—having averaged fewer minutes (23.1) than backup Mychal Thompson (27.2) this season. Laughable isn't the word to describe his averages in points (8.6 per game through Monday), rebounds (4.1) and blocked shots (0.8), or his .437 field goal percentage. Sad is the word. Where once he scored in double figures in 787 consecutive regular-season games, a 10-point outing for Abdul-Jabbar these days is cause for celebration; he has scored in double figures in only 12 of the 29 games he has played, with a high of 16 twice. (He missed eight games with elbow and knee injuries.) It is insufficient to say that he's a shadow of the man who averaged 25.3 points and 11.5 rebounds through the first 19 years of his career. He is a mere specter of that man. No wonder two columnists, Scott Ostler of the Los Angeles Times and Doug Krikorian of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, have urged Abdul-Jabbar in print to retire.
January 23, 1989
His woeful play would not have been so scrutinized, certainly, had not the Lakers suffered through an eight-game road losing streak that ended on Sunday with a 116-95 win over the cross-town Clippers at the Sports Arena. (Hey, the road is the road). But is there an easier scapegoat than a bald, begoggled, heavy-legged guy who turns 42 on April 16, no matter that he's the greatest scorer on Planet Earth? "If some of Kareem's teammates want to bash him for what's gone wrong, they'd better take a long look in the mirror," says Los Angeles general manager Jerry West.
Not that any Laker has publicly bashed Kareem, of course. And there are other players who obviously are not pulling their weight, either, notably guard Byron Scott, who has ceased being a slashing penetrator and has gone back to being merely an outside shooter, and supersub Michael Cooper, who these days is being recognized as much for his brickmanship (.414 from the floor this season, .392 for all of 1987-88) as for his celebrated flypaper defense. Then, too, the Lakers, for all their vulnerability on the road, had a 25-12 record and held first place in the Pacific Division on the strength of a 15-0 record at home, including a 124-113 win over Houston at the Forum on Monday.
Still, the dramatic decline in Abdul-Jabbar's play has both surprised and disappointed his teammates. "We knew Kareem would be down a little," says Magic Johnson. "We just didn't know it would be quite like this." That's about the most you'll get from the Los Angeles players. This comes from Laker coach Pat Riley: "Kareem is the ultimate professional, a bottom-line performer. No one knows better than he that he hasn't been playing well." And this from West: "Kareem has to face the fact that he can't shut up the critics unless he starts to play better."
And what does Abdul-Jabbar think? Last season, when his reduced role in the offense (14.6 points per game) first became a public issue, he was remarkably even-tempered, and he has been that way this season, even as the cry for his scalp (so to speak) has grown. "He's shown more class and dignity than any superstar I've seen," says Riley.
Maybe it's because of that class, but Abdul-Jabbar has been curiously passive about the criticism, and it's fair to wonder if that attitude has carried over to his play. Everybody ages, but not everybody goes gently into the good night. Has Kareem gone too gently?
He admitted as much two days after a dreadful performance last week (four points, three rebounds) in a 106-97 loss at Sacramento: "This past week or so I came to realize that for the first time in my career I had let burnout affect me," he said. "I didn't get mentally ready to play this season. I didn't do anything up to par in the off-season. Now it's telling on me. It could've been avoided. That's the part that annoys me."
But, at his age, would better mental preparation have made a difference?
"Absolutely," he said. "Mental preparation triggers what you do physically. I spent my summer thinking about the season in terms of it being my retirement year. The farewells [he has had 10 such ceremonies around the NBA so far] have been great." He flashes a smile. "But on the court has not been so great. I should've been concentrating on the season, but I wasn't.
"It's not like I didn't work out at all, but I just did a lot less of everything. I didn't train as long or as intensely. I was recovering, I guess, from collective burnout, not just from last season but from my whole career. And that sowed the seeds for my poor play to this point."
Abdul-Jabbar reported to training camp in October at what he calls a "soft" 274 pounds with 13% body fat. He compared that with the fall of 1986, when he weighed 268 pounds with 8% body fat. "Maybe 20 years ago, when I first came into the league, you could do that kind of thing in the summer and get away with it," he said. "But I definitely proved you can't do it now. We don't even have to speculate about that." So, with a softer body and a softer attitude, Abdul-Jabbar stuck his finger in the air and caught the direction of the prevailing wind in the Laker offense. Yep, still blowing away from me, he thought, and stronger than ever. "My desire to dominate the game, which is something I always had, was gone," he said. "The trend has been away from me anyway, and I let it get too far away. I wasn't interested in the offense, and the offense wasn't interested in me." He pondered that thought for a moment. "Funny, isn't it?" No, actually it's more like extraordinary.
The cynical view, of course, is that Abdul-Jabbar is playing just for the money, both to cover the $9 million he lost in bad business deals (SI, Oct. 19, 1987) and to fulfill his contractual obligations with the electronics company and athletic wear company that are paying him big bucks to endorse their products. But he's hardly indigent. "This isn't about dollars," he said. "None of those deals are that binding that I'd have to play to get the money, and, anyway, the Lakers would probably pay me even if I did retire." A well-placed Laker source says that's true.
It's clear that Abdul-Jabbar wouldn't have hung on so long if the Lakers were a losing team. "You've got to remember that the game was—still is—fun for me," he said. "We were winning. We were champions. You know the easiest year I ever had in basketball? The '86-87 season. My role was played down a little, but I was still an important part of the team. I came back in great shape, we played great most of the year, and we lost only three games in the playoffs. And that was only two years ago. Yes, last season was hard, very hard, mentally and physically. But we won again. It was still fun."
So back he came for this season. And though the young and strong may wonder why he perseveres—"If I were him, I would have retired a few years ago," says the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan—what law is he breaking by lacing on his sneakers every night?
"One school of thought is that you go out while you're on top," says Jordan's teammate Dave Corzine, another "old" center at 32. "But why should he? If he's having a good time, making a good living and winning championships, who's to say he shouldn't do it anymore?"
Then, too, Abdul-Jabbar has had the rare opportunity to sample what his existence could be like after basketball, and, to date, there's no evidence it will be as peachy-creamy as his life in the NBA. He spent what he calls "a very informative year" with MCA Records, as head of his own jazz label, Cranberry Records, in 1986 and '87. No records have been released under the label. "It showed me I'm not going to be able to pursue the music thing, at least not to the ambitious lengths that I thought," said Abdul-Jabbar. He would not elaborate. He also had been excited a few months ago about his possible participation as a producer in getting Wallace Terry's book Bloods, an oral history based on the experiences of black Vietnam combat veterans, to either the motion picture or TV screen. But the handshake deal fell through, and Kareem is a little bitter about it.
So, this is Abdul-Jabbar at this the midpoint of his 20th and final—no, there won't be another—season: starting center for the two-time defending NBA champions, bent but not bowed, sometimes weary of leg but still strong of heart, sometimes short of breath but newly resolute. "I can make an immediate impact here," said Abdul-Jabbar. "I can get back to doing the things I used to do, anchoring the defense and giving consistent offensive play in the pivot. I can still get it done." That's the substance of what he told his teammates in a prepractice meeting last Thursday morning, too.
One wonders, though, if he's deluding himself. In the three games after his pronouncement to his teammates, he averaged just 10 points and 5 rebounds. Riley, meanwhile, will evaluate Abdul-Jabbar's performance through next week and decide if he would be better used as—take a deep breath—a reserve. "Right now, I'm playing Kareem "substitute minutes' as a starter." said Riley last Friday. "Perhaps with Kareem coming off the bench, he'd be a focal point against other reserves, and I'd have a more normal substitution pattern."
Abdul-Jabbar has gone along with the plan, at least publicly. The other Laker with a prepaid ticket to the Hall of Fame, however, has his doubts. "Frankly, I don't know if bringing him off the bench is the answer," said Magic. "I'd rather see him out there."
Most opponents speak warily, if at all, about Abdul-Jabbar's decline, a reticence that comes from having had skyhook after skyhook rained upon their heads year after year. Says Seattle point guard John Lucas, "When the playoffs come around, he'll be the central figure of the last five minutes of the game. He always has been and always will be."
And, really, that's the crux of the matter for the Lakers. Reduced role or not, there was Abdul-Jabbar on the floor with 14 seconds left in a do-or-die Game 6 of the championship series against the Detroit Pistons last season. And there he was drawing a crucial foul call on Piston center Bill Laimbeer, and there he was making both shots to save the game, and perhaps the series, for the Lakers, who would win in seven. Does young Brad Daugherty draw that call if the Cleveland Cavaliers make the Finals? Does Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks? Heck, does Mychal Thompson? And do any of them make the free throws?
"He's been going downhill for the last few years," says Denver coach Doug Moe. "but he can help them in spots. What Kareem still has is presence. He adds to the Lakers' aura."
Aura, presence, maybe it's just simply experience, that extra swagger that comes from having been to the mountaintop. Whatever it is, it can help any team that wants to win a championship, and the Lakers know that no one, besides Magic, provides that dimension as Abdul-Jabbar does. That's why every Laker from owner Jerry Buss ("My message is simple: 'Don't retire. Kareem,' " he says) down wants Abdul-Jabbar to stay. Or, more to the point, that's why they're afraid to have him go.
But this season isn't last season. Abdul-Jabbar is in danger of getting himself so far out of the offensive and defensive flow that he'll need a ship-to-shore radio to be called back in. Whether he's a starter with limited playing time or a reserve for Thompson. Kareem must start lifting his game a notch or two so that he'll be in position to make some sort of statement, however brief, during the playoffs.
"Sure, there has to be confusion in his own mind about whether or not he can still get it done," says West. "But Kareem is about meeting challenges. And the one facing him now is the ultimate career challenge."