[While looking through my files this morning, I stumbled onto this article from the New York Post’s Leonard Lewin. It marks the return of KAJ, then in Milwaukee, after he busted his right hand seven weeks earlier in a stanchion-smashing preseason rage following a stiff poke in the eye. KAJ’s return to action on November 23, 1974 also brought a then-surprising four-eyed aviator look to guard against ocular injury. The original black-rimmed goggles thankfully didn’t last long. A cooler pair of designer goggles, of course, were in his future. But here is Lewin’s classic account of KAJ’s first four-eyed foray.]
It was the best fastbreak of the night, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar read it. All seven feet of him streaked down the hallway toward the dressing room, where his chirping and laughing could be heard over the voices of the bubbling Bucks once the door was shut.
They had beaten the Knicks in the Garden for the first time since March 8, 1971 (nine games), and nothing else in the troubled world existed. Kareem had played for the first time this season, and everything was just wonderful. They had seen his weird aviator goggles for the first time, and they were rose-colored to them.
Milwaukee coach Larry Costello came out to explain how pleased he was to have his meal ticket back. How wearing goggles was Kareem’s idea to prevent someone from scratching his eyeball again. “Ho! Ho!” sounded Kareem’s voice from behind the coach.
Abdul-Jabbar was enjoying the 90-72 destruction of the Knicks’ five-game winning streak in front of fans whom he despises for good reason. They have made it obvious that they do not like him and reminded him of it as soon as Costello sent him to the scorer’s desk with only 3:23 gone. “Cos” really did not expect to use Kareem that early. But he didn’t expect Knick center John Gianelli to get five quicks points on Cornell Warner either.
So, when the Knicks got in front, 9-2, Costello remembered how often the Bucks have lost in New York. He sent Kareem to the rescue.
Kareem got off the bench, and the boos began. He was booed every time he put an elbow near Gianelli’s throat in the pivot, did anything the fans didn’t like, and when he entered and left the game. He pretended not to notice and answered by contributing 29 productive minutes, in which he blocked four shots and intimidated Knick shooters, bad enough on their own.
Milwaukee’s George Thompson, an NBA rookie guard after five ABA seasons, collected 19 points; Bob Dandridge, free and easy with no Dave DeBusschere in the building, finished with 25 markers; and an aggressive Milwaukee defense limited the Knicks to no more than 21 points in any quarter.
But it was Kareem who triggered the victory and made his teammates grateful for his return. “We began playing real well anyway,” said Jon McGlocklin, referring to two wins in a row after a 1-13 start.
“But his coming back now is like cream on top of the cake. Get it? Kareem on top of the cake.” He laughed at his little funny.
Just then Kareem walked out of the shower, and there was a rush of reporters. He was more talkative than anyone had ever heard. “I’ve got to conserve my eyeballs,” was his explanation for the goggles. “I’m down to my last pair.”
Don Nelson had scratched one, and Kareem had broken his right hand smashing the basket support in anger. That kept him out seven weeks and left him a frightened young man. The scratched eyeball turned out to be superficial, but he’ll remember it for a long time after the broken hand, which has a nice lump on the back. “It’s calcium,” he explained, indicating it might take a year to clear that up.
The eye was something else, and this is why Kareem will wear protective glasses from now on. “It’s the type of injury I keep getting,” he said, recalling five since 1968, “so, it’s necessary for me to have something to protect myself.”
He is going to get rid of the aviator goggles, which made him look like actor John Gilbert or Clark Gable in one of those old-time movies with the biplanes. “I’ve got to get me another pair,” he said. “Wraparounds. I can’t see people sneaking around near the hoop.”
Too bad Gianelli and Tom Riker didn’t know that. They might have breathed on the goggles and made it tougher for him to see. He did enough damage under the circumstances, though. He was not on the floor when Thompson finished up an 18-2 burst with 12 straight points.
That established a 43-29 lead that the Knicks never overcame. “My hand’s still stiff, and my wind’s not good,” said Kareem, “but my legs are great. At the end, I asked to be taken out. I was tired.”
Tired but happy the way he survived a crisis in his life. He had been worried. “I played scared,” he confessed. “I was hoping to get through the game without incident. Actually, you try and compensate. Thank the Lord nothing happened.”
Not even the Knicks customary late comeback. “I thought about that going into the fourth quarter,” acknowledged Dandridge, referring to Milwaukee’s 17-point lead. “It always seemed to happen in the Garden.”
That is why the dressing room was so noisy. Kareem was back, and the Garden was gone.