[Here’s a look back at Coach Pat Riley’s admittedly reluctant attempt to redefine the role of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, at age 35. Riley envisioned KAJ as the Lakers’ defensive stopper first and, for the first time in his career, just one of the team’s many offensive weapons. Of course, KAJ still averaged more than 20 points per game until the 1985-86 season and at the age of 38.
But in this article, KAJ seems to welcome sharing the offensive load with the likes of Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Michael Cooper, and Magic Johnson. Great scorers each. The article, penned by L.A. Times’ Randy Harvey, appeared in The Sporting News’ College and Pro 1982-83 Basketball Yearbook.]
Last year was the first year of the rest of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career. As Abdul-Jabbar turned 35, his role with Los Angeles Lakers began to change. From one of the game’s dominant scorers, he became the team’s dominant defensive player. That did not earn him Most Valuable Player honors in the playoffs, but there was no question in the Lakers’ minds that he was the most valuable to them.
The Lakers’ owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, made that clear when he decided not to join the bidding for Houston’s free-agent center, Moses Malone, the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player last season.
“We already have the most imposing center in the game,” Buss said.
While Abdul-Jabbar’s contract expires at the end of this season, Buss began last summer negotiating a deal that will keep the 11-time all-star in a Laker uniform for at least the next two years.
If Abdul-Jabbar plays through 1984, he likely will replace Wilt Chamberlain (31,419 points) as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He surpassed 28,000 points last season, moving into second place ahead of Oscar Robertson. But Abdul-Jabbar says scoring no longer is a motivating factor for him.
It was more important for him to win his third NBA championship last season, which gave him one more than Wilt Chamberlain. Although he never will catch Bill Russell, who played on 11 title teams, Abdul-Jabbar feels he has at least quieted the critics who say he is not a winner. The Lakers have won championships two of the last three years.
They did it last season, in part, because Abdul-Jabbar was willing to sacrifice his role on offense. He still was the Lakers’ leading scorer in the regular season, averaging 23.9 points a game, but it was obvious late in the season, especially during the playoffs, that the offense no longer depended on him. The Lakers weren’t certain how Abdul-Jabbar would adjust, but he was relieved that he wasn’t being counted on to carry the team on his shoulders.
“When I played for Larry Costello in Milwaukee, I was the first option,” he says. “If they couldn’t get me the ball from the left side or the right side or up the middle, then it was all right for somebody else to take the shot. All through my career, the emphasis has been on my scoring.
“But there was too much pressure on me. They (the Lakers) were asking me to be all things to all men. I couldn’t do that forever.”
The subject of Abdul-Jabbar’s role change was first broached after a loss at home in early February to the New York Knicks. For several weeks, the Lakers had seemed tentative on offense, relying so much on the 7-feet-2 Abdul-Jabbar that his teammates were passing up open opportunities. After the club’s third loss in four games, Buss summoned rookie coach Pat Riley to his office and told him not to be afraid to make bold moves, even if it meant tampering with Abdul-Jabbar’s game.
“There was a tremendous negativism toward Kareem’s game,” Riley says. “It was evident from the press and the fans and from some of the players, who believed they were better off without him. That whole time was a negative time. That negative energy was flowing right through the heart of the team.
“At times, some of the players were standing back, almost like they were telling Kareem, ‘Do it for us.’ At other times, there was a reluctance to go to him.”
Riley, still feeling his way, was hesitant at first about asking one of the game’s most-prolific scorers to put more emphasis on defense, but Abdul-Jabbar seemed receptive. Still, it was a failure at first. Abdul-Jabbar went into a slump and took the team with him.
“Forget it and just play,” Riley finally told him. Abdul-Jabbar forgot it. He scored 30 or more points in six straight games. This was the new Kareem?
But, by the end of the season, it again was obvious the Lakers needed Abdul-Jabbar more for his defense than his offense. They had Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Magic Johnson, and Bob McAdoo to score. They didn’t have anyone else to play the middle on defense, the most important position in their halfcourt trap. So, as a concession to his teammates’ talents and to his age, Abdul-Jabbar became the Lakers’ defensive intimidator.
“We’re not going to stop going to him,” Riley says, “especially when we’re playing teams he’s handled in the past. His skyhook is still the cruise missile of the NBA. But we need to shore up in the areas where we’re weakest, and they happen to be in areas where he can also dominate.”
Beginning his 14th season, Abdul-Jabbar never expected the show to last this long. He didn’t figure he would be able to sustain his enthusiasm. “I had no idea what my career was going to be like as far as longevity,” he says. “I guess I’ve been around longer than I had reasonable hopes to be.
“There was a guy from New York (Fred Crawford) that I played with in Milwaukee. He’s eight years older than I am. When I came into the league, he was going on 30. And I used to get on him for being 30 years old. And here I am 35 and still playing. So, I know how ridiculous I must have sounded to him.”
It has been a rewarding career. “I can say that,” he says. “I’ve managed to play 13 years, and I’ve been rewarded immensely financially. I’ve gotten a lot of esteem, and I’ve been able to travel, meet people.
“The average career for the NBA lasts less than four years. A lot of guys come through there in less than four years and are out before they realize what a unique situation it is. They end up out of the league. They end up having spent all the money that they were given so easily. It was easy come, easy go, and now there’s no more of it.
“That’s hard for a lot of people to deal with. That’s serious problems. I’ve been very fortunate not to have to deal with that.”
He has had to deal with criticism that wouldn’t be expected of a player who has been the NBA’s most valuable player six times. “I think it was mainly personal animosities,” he said. “The criticism of my play has always been minimal. My first year in Los Angeles, I was the MVP, but the Lakers finished at the bottom of the Pacific Division (fourth actually in the five-team division), and a local writer said that I should be traded because we didn’t win the world championship with me. You know, like I was supposed to be able to do it by myself. That was his idea of my contribution to the team.
“A lot of it has been unfair. But I’ve outlasted it. When we did get a good team here, people were able to see what the nature of the game is. It’s not a game for one person to take a team all the way. That doesn’t happen.”
How much has the game changed?
“It has changed in little subtle ways. But it hasn’t changed a whole lot. I think there are, overall, better athletes. The outstanding individuals come when they come. That’s chance.
“But the overall quality of the athletes playing professional basketball has definitely improved because, I think, the game is being taught very much at all levels. You have more younger players who got good coaching from point one. It used to be that you had a lot of athletes from the NBA who really didn’t get good coaching until they got to college.
“In the NBA, people are doing more and more to prepare themselves to play the game. I think preparation is becoming a lot more elaborate. When I first started playing, shooting the day of the game was unheard of. It just didn’t happen. It was like a very rare occasion. Now, it’s common practice.”
And perhaps not an all-together popular one.
“I just think we have too many games to play to go through all that,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “You know, we’re playing four times a week. That’s a rough pace.
“I think if we had fewer games, we could be better prepared. I think it would benefit everybody. It would benefit the fans because the games would have more meaning. The regular-season games would have more meaning. I think it would benefit the players because we’d be better prepared, more rested, and less of a risk to be injured. I think it would help everything overall. I think we could play 65 regular-season games and eliminate the exhibition season.
“But the only people who don’t feel that way right now are the owners. And they have the final say.”
Despite the pace, Abdul-Jabbar has maintained his excellent physical condition.
“I think my conditioning is more complete than it was when I first started,” he says. “I’ve always shown up in camp in good shape, but I’ve learned a lot more about physical conditioning, and my approach is a lot more complete than it was. I got stronger, and I always was able to beat the constant pushing with quickness.”
But opposing centers still push.
“There really haven’t been any changes in the way teams play against me,” he explains. “They try to get help. They try to deny me the middle, to get help from the little guys or whoever they can double with. The new rules have opened up the game a little bit more.
“Double-teaming is something teams have to resort to, something we have to resort to. But, in order to make it fair for everybody, you have to create a situation where it’s not just ridiculously one-sided, and I think that’s what they’ve tried to do.”
When the centers became too rough with Abdul-Jabbar, he used to respond angrily. He once was suspended and also broke his hand after punching Kent Benson. But he now has his temper under control. “I’ve had to mature to a point where I can take things in stride,” he says.
Does he have any thoughts of retiring?
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that,” he says. “There’s no telling . . . you know, I still feel motivated to play, still have my health.”
And after his career ends?
“Right now, I’m thinking about going to law school,” he says. “I’ll probably end up doing as little as possible.”
When it is over, Abdul-Jabbar will be remembered as one of the best centers ever to play the game, perhaps the best depending on his and the Lakers’ success in the next couple of years. But he refuses to compare himself to other centers.
“It’s hard to compare people who played in different eras,” he says. “George Mikan was great, but he was a long time ago. Wilt was great, dominated the game, but, you know, when he started playing, it was a 12-foot lane. There were eight teams in the league.
“The nature of the game has changed. When Ralph Sampson starts breaking records, the league will be a lot different then. The game, and the people who play the game, evolve.”