PURE KAREEM : With the Big Fella Churning, It Was Easy for Lakers to Rise to the Top
To capture the moment forever in his mind, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar raised both arms in exultation and took a long, sweeping look around the Boston Garden. He looked up at all those championship banners, down at the creaky parquet floor and over at the opposite bench, where the Boston Celtics were slumped in defeat.
If Abdul-Jabbar hadn’t removed his goggles at that point, they might have gotten misty.
On Sunday afternoon in Game 6 of the NBA championship series, Abdul-Jabbar accomplished more than simply winning the fourth championship of his 16-year career. He helped the Lakers end 25 years of frustration at the hands of the Celtics, and that made it special.
Years from now, when Abdul-Jabbar recalls this series, he probably won’t remember the score (111-100) or how many points he scored (29). And the fact that he won the Most Valuable Player award for his sustained brilliance throughout the series probably will be secondary.
No, it was the historical significance of the Lakers’ 0-8 streak against the Celtics in final series that made it memorable. Not usually given to outward displays of emotion, even when the situation calls for it, Abdul-Jabbar was overcome with feelings of joy Sunday.
This championship, he said, was more satisfying than any of his previous three NBA titles--1971 with Milwaukee and 1980 and 1982 with the Lakers--or the three NCAA titles he won at UCLA.
“Because it was the Celtics,” he said. “Boston has never lost the championship in the Garden. They never lost one to the Lakers. And they never lost one to a team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on it.”
About the only thing Abdul-Jabbar could compare this to was the 1955 World Series, when the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the New York Yankees for the first time after years of frustration.
“I guess I feel like Johnny Podres in 1955,” said Abdul-Jabbar, referring to the Dodgers’ pitcher who won the seventh game of that series. “This has got to be real satisfying because of the history of it. This is something I’ll never forget, ever. It reminds me so much of that ’55 series.”
In 1955, 8-year-old Lew Alcindor sat in the family living room in Manhattan and watched his beloved Dodgers. On Sunday, he rewound his memory and played it all back as if it had just happened.
“I walked in the living room and Yogi (Berra) was up and Gil McDougald was on second base,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Yogi hits it down the line and (Dodger outfielder) Sandy Amaros catches it. I jumped up and ran and yelled out my window.”
Abdul-Jabbar, now 38, had a similar display of emotion after he had fouled out with 14 seconds to play in Sunday’s game. Knowing that the Lakers were assured of winning the title, Abdul-Jabbar raised his right index finger in the air and screamed. In an instant, he was swarmed by teammates.
If Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t 7-2 and 235 pounds, his teammates probably would have carried him off the court and into the locker room when it was finally over. After all, it was Abdul-Jabbar who mostly carried the Lakers in the championship series.
After the Lakers’ 34-point embarrassment here in Game 1, in which Abdul-Jabbar scored only 12 points, he simply took over. He scored 30 points and had 17 rebounds in the Lakers’ 109-102 win in Game 2, 26 points in the Lakers’ Game 3 blowout, 21 points in a two-point loss in Game 4 and a magnificent 36 points in Game 5 Friday. All he did Sunday in Game 6 was make 12 of 21 shots for a team-high 29 points.
“MVP?” Laker Coach Pat Riley asked. “There’s got to be a better word.”
There are certain aspects of Abdul-Jabbar’s play in the series that are utterly indescribable. For a two-week span, Abdul-Jabbar was 24 instead of 38. People used terms such as “spry” and “rejuvenated,” but even those didn’t seem to fit.
In addition to sinking dozens of sky hooks, his specialty shot, Abdul-Jabbar was doing things he rarely did even when he was a young Buck in Milwaukee.
He dove on the floor once for a loose ball. He once grabbed a long rebound, dribbled the ball the length of the court and swished a sky hook. He took the wing on fast breaks. And, in perhaps his boldest move of the series that no one outside the locker room saw, Abdul-Jabbar walked to each players’ stall before Game 2 and gave pep talks.
“He picked us up,” Laker forward James Worthy said. “You think I can’t let a 38-year-old outdo me? All us young guys get pumped up by that. This is the way I look at it: If he can be that committed, I can too.”
Clearly, Abdul-Jabbar was especially inspired in this series. He admitted as much after Sunday’s game, saying that he wanted to be assured of at least one more championship before retiring after next season.
If Abdul-Jabbar hadn’t changed his mind in December and agreed to a one-year contract extension, this would have been the closing curtain of his career. But now, he’s coming back for another season at the top of his profession.
Holding the Most Valuable Player trophy in his massive hands, Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t stop smiling as he answered questions at a formal press conference.
Asked if he turned back the clock in this series, Abdul-Jabbar said: “I feel like I’m not any age.”
Asked if perhaps he even surprised himself with his excellence, he smiled and said: “I’ve lived with me all my life. I know what I can do.”
Others, however, weren’t so sure Abdul-Jabbar still could play this well. At 38, nearly all professional basketball players are well into retirement, either coaching or selling insurance. But Abdul-Jabbar plays on, endures and even thrives on occasion.
Certainly, Abdul-Jabbar rose to the occasion against the Celtics. Actually, Kareem didn’t rise until after he and the Lakers had hit bottom in Game 1. But, as Riley said afterward, that 34-point loss may have been a blessing.
“Personally, Game 1 was embarrassing,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It was terrible. I knew I could do better. I wanted to prove it to myself that I could do better.”
When the Lakers held a meeting the morning after Game 1, Abdul-Jabbar stood up in front of the entire team and took responsibility for the loss. It was at that point, Riley said, that he noticed drastic changes in Abdul-Jabbar’s game and attitude.
“It brought us together,” Riley said. “Ever since Game 1, he had that look about him, a certain air about him. I’ve known Kareem well for 10 years, and I’ve never seen him like this. In practice, he was focused on one thing. No frivolity. He directed his total attention at what we were trying to do. He was more responsive to me than ever. And when the other players see that Cap (he’s the team captain) is paying attention, they will, too.”
Said teammate Kurt Rambis: “Kareem wanted it really bad. You could see it in his eyes. He’s always been a leader by his actions, and he signaled to us that he wanted it. He put us on his back and carried us.”
It is quite a burden Abdul-Jabbar carries with him. He truly is the most valuable player. The Lakers’ raucous post-game celebration served as a vehicle for Abdul-Jabbar to release all the tension and pressure that had built up.
Although usually shying away from such things, Abdul-Jababr joined in Sunday, pouring champagne over players’ heads.
Also, he was extremely accommodating to photographers who wanted him to pose with the championship trophy, and he talked to the press for more than an hour.
But when a short, bald man in his 60s walked in the locker room, Abdul-Jabbar dropped everything.
“Dad,” Kareem screamed. “Dad. I feel wonderful, dad. Where’s mom?”
Ferdinand Alcindor, eyes red and voiced choked, shook his head.
“Your mother’s outside and she’s very proud of you.”
Abdul-Jabbar is a proud man, which is why he will retire after next season. He will be 39 and he said he just feels it’s time.
“There is a time for everything,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I feel that time is running out on me. Time is on my back and I don’t want it to run over me.”
Time, at least for a two-week span, was on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s side.