10.26.2009

Larry v. Magic: 32-Year-Old Kareem Still a Formidable Foe

Game 2: Lakers 100, Celtics 98

Larry v. Magic: Game-by-Game Summary
Larry v. Magic: Game-by-Game Media Coverage

January 13, 1980


He's no longer the basketball phenom, a teenaged Mt. Everest who left New York City and found fame in the Golden West. He's 32 years old now, in his 11th NBA season, and if you sit in the balcony and look down, the bald spot on top of his head stands out like runway 4R at Logan. He has played more than 800 pro games, taken a million elbows in the ribs and perhaps dished out two million.

But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is still The Force. This graceful 7-foot-2 athlete is still the most intimidating player in the NBA. You don't hear as much about him as you did when he was the scoring machine of the Milwaukee Bucks of the early and middle '70s. Like automobiles, kitchen stoves and women's fashions, sport in America feeds on planned obsolescence. The new and shiny is always more attractive than the old and familiar.

"Hey,take a test ride in the new twin-carburetor, 100-miles-per-gallon, smooth-as-silk, custom-made Flymobile. Just arrived in the show room last week. "Hey, step right up and inspect our latest models. Come see The Bird and The Magic Man." But anybody who saw Jabbar at work in the Lakers' 100-98 victory over the Celtics yesterday afternoon at the Garden knows that though the old model has some mileage on it, it is far from ready for the used-car cemetery.

Jabbar is surrounded by talent, perhaps the most talent on his side since he was Lew Alcindor and played for UCLA, but he is still the one indispensable Laker. If his current teammates have made him a better all-round player, the cliche works double in reverse. Despite his enormous ability, Jabbar has never been a crowd-pleaser. He rarely betrayed emotions on a court, except for an occasional grimace of disgust when a
foul call went against him. He has never been a big hand-slapper or thruster of fists to the sky in jubilation. This, coupled with a tendency to hang back occasionally on defense - something Bill Russell also did but was seldom criticized for - made Jabbar seem a player who didn't care a lot.

And as the years clicked past, he became taken for granted, a marvelous player but lacking the grand passion you'd like to see in such a great performer. Jabbar intimidated reporters as much as he did opponents. He was not the one you ran to for an analysis of a game, even though he might have been the one who had the most to do with winning it. But a mellower Jabbar seems to be afloat these days. He sees a chance, perhaps a last chance, for another championship and doesn't want to see it flutter away.

And just being older often does something for an athlete, makes him look past his little finger toward tomorrow and even the day after. "I've seen the maturation," said Laker teammate Jamaal Wilkes. "Maybe it was the change in ownership, or the fact that for the first time he's captain of the Lakers. He can still be moody, but he has mellowed." Pat Riley, once a player with and against Jabbar, is now a Lakers' assistant coach. "I never thought he was as into the game as he is now. He's more inspired," Riley said yesterday after Jabbar had splintered the Celtics with 33 points, 12 rebounds and about 100 intimidations around the basket.

Riley thinks it has also helped to have others around to attract the media. "He's relieved to see the writers flock to (Magic) Johnson and the others. He's never liked being the focal point." Jabbar feels he's a more complete player now because he understands the game more. "You never swim the same river twice," he said. "When I played for Larry Costello (in Milwaukee), I was under strict orders to shoot the ball. But I'm not playing with the same people now, so I'm not the same. When you see your teammates diving for the ball, you feel kind of bad about laying back."

Nate Archibald has known Jabbar since they played against each other in high school - Archibald for DeWitt Clinton and Jabbar for Power Memorial - and worked with kids in an organization called Sports Rescue. "He was the biggest thing in New York, next to the Empire State Building," said Archibald. "He always seemed into the game to me. If I drove into the middle, I always knew he was in there somewhere, waitin'. But you can't carry a team on your back all the time."

It is difficult for a crowd to relate to a basketball player who is 7 feet 2. It seems such an obvious advantage. And so the crowds go for the flash of a Julius Erving, the guts of an Archibald driving through the forest, the ebullience of a Magic Johnson, the gutsiness of a Dave Cowens. Jabbar's sky hook, his ability to find the open man when double-teamed and his mere presence in the middle on defense are fearsome to opponents, but taken for granted by fans. But Archibald has it right. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, aging gracefully at 32, is still the single most dominating player in pro basketball.


Magic Johnson seems to enjoy talking more about teammate Kareem Abdul- Jabbar than he does about himself. "Playing with Kareem is everything I thought it would be," Johnson said after yesterday's game. "He can pass, shoot, rebound and block shots. He can do everything. Everything I expect. He's more." The Lakers are for real, and their 100-98 victory over the Celtics showed they can win without a major contribution from their outstanding rookie guard.

"People like to talk about me," said Johnson. "But the team we took to Detroit the other night and won by 23 points (123-100) with me hurt was awesome. The team you saw in the third quarter today, that ran off 21 points, was awesome. And I wasn't playing much during that stretch, either. "We're a team and that is what makes it fun. That is why so many guys are having good seasons. Guys like Spencer Haywood and Jim Chones are great players, but they're sacrificing to fit into our team concept. Jamaal Wilkes has done the same thing," said Johnson.

"But the thing that makes it best about playing with Los Angeles is playing with Kareem. He knows so much. He's been practically through everything. If ever I need advice, I know I can go to him. He's helped me in so many ways." Only in television land will it be said that the Lakers' triumph showed a team with Johnson is better than one with Larry Bird. The final verdict must wait until the playoffs, since Los Angeles and Boston will not meet again during the regular season.

Yesterday's classic battle was decided by the warfare in the trenches, not by torrid shooting or fast breaking. The Lakers had the edge because of their 7-foot-2 center, who, at 32 years old, is playing as if he were a rookie phenom. Johnson will have his years of glory. But right now he must take a back seat to Abdul-Jabbar, who hit l4 of 29 shots on his way to 33 points, hauled in l2 rebounds and blocked two shots. The irony is that the former UCLA star has had many nights like this against the Celtics and still lost.

"He was unstoppable," said Nate Archibald of Jabbar. "I mean, Dave Cowens did a hell of a job, but he's a 6-8 guy trying to stop a guy who is 7-2. And when he's throwing that sky hook, he's 10 feet tall. In the past, we've concentrated on stopping everybody else, and letting him get his points. But the way he was going, Dave needed some help and we just didn't give it to him." The Celtics' biggest surprise was Abdul-Jabbar, who did things in the second half that haven't been seen in recent years. And the Lakers, who also are experienced and deep at forward, are extremely versatile.

"Kareem is playing so well inside," said Wilkes, "and Haywood and Chones are helping out so much on the boards that teams aren't quite sure what to do. I'm back to playing against smaller forwards. That allows me to return to my natural game." Abdul-Jabbar still uses the Sky Hook as a major weapon. He tossed in several over Cowens, but in Los Angeles' 21-point surge in the third quarter that carried it back from a 14-point deficit, Abdul-Jabbar scored two of his three field goals on short jumpers. He also turned passer to aid Wilkes and Chones, the major leaders of the surge. And he became an intimidator inside, even if by no more than his mere presence.

"That's what I find is the beauty of the man," said Johnson. "Even when he is not having a good night, he can help this club by his presence. He can carry a club, but he doesn't have to with this team." Abdul-Jabbar said no one should be surprised that he has become an outstanding all-around player. "Maybe people have forgotten that I've made a few all-defensive teams in the NBA," he said. "I can block shots. I can rebound. I can do a lot of things, but I don't have to because we have a lot of talent on this team. We can do more than stuff the ball ball inside now. Larry Costello isn't coaching this team."

And yes, it has not escaped Abdul-Jabbar's attention that much of the Lakers' new-found enthusiasm has coincided with Johnson's arrival in Los Angeles. "To me, it is a great situation to be in," said Abdul-Jabbar. "A center has to get the ball to be effective. I've played on a championship team (1970-71) in Milwaukee with Oscar Robertson and we got to the finals again 1974. "In 1977, I thought we had an outstanding team in Los Angeles, good enough to win, until both Lucius Allen and Kermit Washington got hurt. It's no coincidence that having guards like Magic and Norm Nixon creates a similar situation.

"Once in a while in the NBA, a player with a unique talent comes along as a rookie. Magic is a unique talent. I had a good rookie years, but it is different for a center than it is for a guard. All I had to do was score and play defense. It is something for a rookie to run a club and he's done a nice job of it. I haven't had to say much to him. Once in awhile I'll speak up, but like I said, he is a unique talent." Laker coach Paul Westhead said the end of the game proved how far his team has progressed this season. Nixon sank two free throws with three seconds left to break a 98-98 tie.

"The idea is still the same," said Laker coach Paul Westhead. "We want to get the ball to Kareem. But at the same time, we allow our guards to be creative and set up something. We're not a one-man team anymore." I knew where Kareem was," said Nixon of his game-winning play with three seconds left. "And I still don't know why they called it a passing foul. I beat my man. I was shooting."

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