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11.26.2009

Jabbar was No Russell

1983-84 Boston Celtics
Record: 9-5
11/24/1983

Item: Kareem Abdul-kabbar passes the 30,000-point mark.

And some day he will surpass Wilt Chamberlain's record of 31,419 points to become the NBA's leading scorer. He is certain to be hailed in Los Angeles as the greatest player ever. We in Boston will say, "I beg your pardon. It's about this guy who used to wear No. 6 . . . " It has now been 14 years since Bill Russell played his last game for the Celtics. Millions have grown up without having seen him play, unable to understand how a man with a lifetime scoring average of 15.1 points per game could be viewed by their elders as the starting point for all pivotman discussions.

The average basketball player today shoots better, runs better and jumps better than the player of 15 years ago. But this does not mean anything when the topic of discussion is Bill Russell, the first "modern" center. His calling cards were defense, rebounding and just plain winning. Be assured that Bill Russell would dominate rival centers today, just as he did in his prime. They don't want to hear about this down in Philadelphia, because they had Wilt Chamberlain.

His individual feats border on the incomprehensible. You will see Michael Gelber elected mayor of Boston before you will see another NBA player average 50.4 points a game for one season (1961-62), average more than 27 rebounds a game (which he did twice) or score 55 or more points in one game 72 times. The numbers favor Wilt in any discussion against anybody; we all know that. But Wilt Chamberlain was no Bill Russell; we all know that, too.

Don't misunderstand. There is a lot to be said for Kareem. He truly was a franchise when he broke in with the Milwaukee Bucks, lifting them from 27 victories in their first season (1968-69) to 56 in his rookie year, then to 66 and an NBA title in his second season. He personally kept the Bucks afloat in the 1974 finals against the Celtics. In case your memory needs refreshing, the Bucks lost Lucius Allen with a knee injury before the Celtics series began and had to make do for much of the final series without Jon McGlocklin, as well. Larry Costello's starting lineup was Kareem, Bob Dandridge, Curtis Perry, a 34-year-old Oscar Robertson and Mickey Davis. Yet this team took the Celtics to a seventh game and the reason was Kareem.

But it is impossible to equate so indifferent a rebounder and so spotty a competitor with Russell, or even with Chamberlain. History will also record that two shorter, fiercer, more passionate men were able to neutralize him in his prime. I am speaking of Willis Reed and Dave Cowens, each of whom was not only able to score on Kareem by staying outside, but who also defended him well and certainly beat him to the boards more than could have been expected.

Indeed, the big beef with Kareem has to be his rebounding. If the first rule of rebounding is simply to go after the ball, Kareem must be marked as a failure. He is 7-3, or whatever. He has marvelous coordination. He is no 97-pound weakling. But the results have always been lacking. He ought to be ashamed of his career rebound accomplishments. Not wanting to rebound doesn't make him a bad person, but it surely disqualifies him from any discussion involving Russell and Chamberlain.

Kareem's legacy will be the hook shot, which he has elevated to an art form. It is the most fearsome offensive weapon in the history of the sport, and the wonder of it all is that Kareem has obviously failed to serve as the role model for all young centers following in his wake. The hook should be the basic shot of every center, at every level, and yet more big men coming out in the '70s and early '80s appear to have been inspired by Elvin Hayes and his turnaround jumper (Exhibit A: Darryl Dawkins) than by Kareem and his hook.

So rank Kareem third, at best, on the all-time list of centers. Then we come to the matter of Bill Walton, whose best game was better than anybody's, Russell included. But that's a discussion for another day. I've got to go polish up my hook shot, not to mention my jump hook.

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