The Lakers played Tuesday night about as well as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrestles, which isn’t very good. So before counting the Denver Nuggets out of the Western Conference finals, first check what happened in the Forum.
Nuggets 136, Lakers 114.
Danny Schayes 1, Abdul-Jabbar 0.
In an unscheduled main event, Abdul-Jabbar threw himself on Schayes’ back and wrestled the Nuggets’ center to the floor to touch off a brief, wild fourth-quarter melee that Hulk Hogan would be proud of.
If it hadn’t been so unexpected, it might have been a little funny. The Lakers were well on their to a richly deserved loss, one that evened the series at a game apiece, when Abdul-Jabbar suddenly landed on Schayes’ back.
Why Abdul-Jabbar did that is not known, because he did not wait in the locker room to give any clues. He walked quickly out the door and departed the premises, looking straight ahead.
Magic Johnson shed a little light on a possible reason when he said Schayes had elbowed him in the chin only moments before.
“I went over to tell him about it and then it all broke loose,” Johnson said.
The rest of the play-by-play went like this: Abdul-Jabbar grabbed Schayes from behind and flopped on top of him when they both hit the floor, which was one of the few things Abdul-Jabbar was able to hit during the game.
In 33 minutes, during which time Coach Pat Riley said Abdul-Jabbar was subjected to a lot of pushing and shoving, he made only 4 of 16 shots.
“I can only think that he was very frustrated,” Schayes said. “I was certainly surprised. Him, of all people.”
Quickly, players and coaches spilled from both benches. Soon after officials Jake O’Donnell and Wally Rooney peeled Abdul-Jabbar from Schayes, the usually mild-mannered Laker captain had received his second technical foul and an automatic ejection, which will cost Abdul-Jabbar $250 at the very least.
O’Donnell also requested a videotape of the incident, which will be forwarded to the NBA office, in case any disciplinary action is deemed appropriate.
Riley defended Abdul-Jabbar and said his center had been the victim of foul play by the Nuggets the entire game.
“Some call it good defense and some call it karate,” Riley said.
And what does Riley call it?
“Typical karate,” he said.
While he admitted he might have clipped Johnson on the chin, Schayes said he certainly didn’t do it on purpose.
“He (Kareem) was under the assumption that I was elbowing him in the face every time,” Schayes said. “Magic said I hit him in the face, and then Kareem just came up and put a choke hold on me.”
That’s not all he did, either, according to Schayes, who had a red bruise beneath his left eye and another one on his left shoulder.
“He tried to gouge my eyes out,” Schayes said. “He said, ‘How does it feel to have your eyes gouged out?’ I don’t think he meant anything by it. He has a reputation as a very classy player, and I’m sure he is.”
Maybe so, but Abdul-Jabbar did little to enhance that reputation Tuesday night. Then again, the Lakers didn’t do much for their own reputation, either.
You might not think it easy to turn a 17-point victory into a 22-point defeat from one game to the next, but that’s what the Lakers accomplished.
Alex English got loose for 40 points and Dan Issel, a late addition to the Nuggets’ starting lineup at center, added 22. The Lakers had not lost at home since Jan. 30, a streak of 23 consecutive games, but that ended in a sea of 24 turnovers coupled with a very soft defense.
The Nuggets were hardly soft with their own defense, and that seems to be at the core of what got Abdul-Jabbar so upset. Denver’s defenders were very aggressive, especially Wayne Cooper and Schayes, which seemed to frustrate Abdul-Jabbar more as the Nuggets pulled further ahead in the fourth quarter.
Only minutes before he grabbed Schayes, Abdul-Jabbar had received his first technical foul after a brief struggle with Schayes beneath the Laker basket. Rooney was bumped when he stepped between Abdul-Jabbar and Schayes.
The odd thing is that Schayes wouldn’t even have been in the game if Issel hadn’t hurt his knee.
“I’m certainly not out there trying to injure anybody,” Schayes said. “I can’t figure anything I did would be worth it for Kareem to act like that. I think he was just frustrated, and I was the nearest guy. It was what I consider an unprovoked attack. I didn’t try to get him into a fight and get him thrown out of the game.”
For the first time in the playoffs, the Lakers trailed after every quarter. Byron Scott scored 22 points to lead the Lakers, whose once-firm headlock on the series was broken in a most unusual manner.
“Kareem has always been able to keep his emotions under control,” Riley said. “The thing with Schayes must have been just too much.”