You’ve seen him do it thousands of times over the last 16 seasons, yet the beauty of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook never diminishes. When he swings to his right and extends his arm, all anyone can do, including the player guarding him, is stand and watch.
The Boston Celtics were watching Thursday night in Game 2 of the National Basketball Assn. championship series. They watched as the Lakers’ dominating 7-2 center scored a game-high 30 points, 18 coming on those seemingly automatic sky hooks. They also watched as Abdul-Jabbar grabbed 17 rebounds, passed for 8 assists and blocked 3 shots.
In short, the Celtics and the 14,890 fans at the Boston Garden were witness to another classic Abdul-Jabbar performance as the Lakers evened the series with a 109-102 win.
Whatever the situation called for Thursday night, Abdul-Jabbar was there. In the first quarter alone, he had seven rebounds, equaling his playoff average. In the third quarter, he scored 12 points, including 10 of the Lakers’ first 13. And late in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics made a spirited run, Abdul-Jabbar had two crucial assists on Michael Cooper jump shots.
“He never ceases to amaze me,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said. “He was just determined out there for 42 minutes, shooting those hooks, running the floor, rebounding. That’s what makes him so great.”
If Abdul-Jabbar seemed overly determined or downright ornery, it was for a good reason. In the Lakers’ embarrassing 34-point loss Monday in Game 1, Abdul-Jabbar had to be one of the most embarrassed. Getting into foul trouble early, Abdul-Jabbar finished with 12 points and three rebounds in 22 agonizing minutes.
As expected and probably deserved, Abdul-Jabbar received much criticism the last few days. CBS analyst Tom Heinsohn made an on-air reference in Game 1 to Abdul-Jabbar’s age (38), which made the Laker center fume when it was later relayed to him. Interviews with Abdul-Jabbar were icy and curt. He acted angry, frustrated and embarrassed.
Thursday night, though, Abdul-Jabbar vented his anger on the Celtics. No doubt, the Celtics wish they wouldn’t have beaten the Lakers so handily in Game 1.
“We knew he was going to come out and act like that tonight,” Boston’s M.L. Carr said. “All he read in the papers was how old he was. That made him mad. If there had been a newspaper strike, we would have won tonight.”
An early indication that Abdul-Jabbar was ready for redemption Thursday occurred in the locker room shortly before the game. Abdul-Jabbar walked over to each player and gave them words of encouragement, a rare display of outward motivation.
The gesture did not go unrecognized by his teammates.
“I don’t think he likes to be called old,” Bob McAdoo said. “A lot of people said (after Game 1) he ought to retire. He showed his anger after the game and he showed it on the court, too.”
Perhaps Abdul-Jabbar was merely too exhausted after playing 42 intense minutes, but he was relaxed, even serene, when talking to the media afterward. He crossed his legs and put his hand to his chin like a man waiting for a bus.
“I wasn’t looking for vindication,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I was just looking for my own pride and to show myself I can play well. This is my job. That’s what they expect from me.
“If I didn’t have professional pride, I wouldn’t be a good player. And I certainly wouldn’t still be in the league.”
It must have been Abdul-Jabbar’s pride that enabled him to play 42 of the best minutes he has played in recent seasons. Not only were his sky hooks falling with regularity, but he also was rebounding with an aggressiveness not often seen.
What most impressed the Celtics was Abdul-Jabbar’s hustle. Instead of hovering near midcourt when the Lakers shifted to their running game, Abdul-Jabbar was never far behind the flow and twice finished off fast breaks with dunks.
Abdul-Jabbar said he had realized he was laying back too much in Game 1 after seeing the films. Many times, he couldn’t even be seen on the screen.
“I got caught down the court a lot in the first game,” he said. “I wanted to just get back early and play some defense and make them work for their shots. We didn’t really go for the rebounds, either, in the first game. I just wanted to make my presence felt.”
Abdul-Jabbar let the Celtics know in the first quarter that he wasn’t to be messed with. He inadvertently bloodied Larry Bird’s nose with a flying elbow on a rebound. Throughout the game, Abdul-Jabbar did much of the bumping in the low post instead of merely being the recipient.
And, of course, there were the sky hooks. When Boston pulled to within 10 points at the start of the fourth quarter, Abdul-Jabbar made the first four Laker baskets--all sky hooks.
“One-on-one, nobody can stop that,” McAdoo said. “When he is concentrating on the hook, he’s devastating. They’ve got to double or triple team him to stop that shot. Otherwise, forget it.”
The Lakers were adept at forcing Robert Parish to battle Abdul-Jabbar without help, which they couldn’t do in Game 1. This time, the Lakers spread their offense to neutralize the Celtics’ dense pack defense in which Bird, Kevin McHale and even Dennis Johnson converge on Kareem.
With room to maneuver, Abdul-Jabbar, in McAdoo’s words, is devastating. When the Celtics were able to surround Abdul-Jabbar, he simply passed the ball out to Cooper or Magic Johnson for open jump shots.
“When it became one-on-one in the middle in the second half,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “I just kept shooting. The hooks were there.”
The sky hook, it seems, is always there.