KAREEM AND MAGIC : It Wasn’t Always Match Made in Sports Heaven
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the 7-foot 2-inch center of the mighty Milwaukee Bucks, stood at his dressing stall in the visitors’ locker room at Cobo Arena in downtown Detroit.
The Bucks had just beaten the Pistons, and Abdul-Jabbar was slipping into his street clothes. For him it was just another locker room, another forgettable game in a long NBA season. But for one young man standing in a corner of the room, this was the opportunity of a lifetime.
The boy was 11 years old and tall for his age, but very shy. He and a friend had come all the way from Lansing, a three-hour round trip, to see Kareem play. Then they sneaked into the locker room when the guard wasn’t looking. Seeing Kareem this close was even more of a thrill than the game had been.
The two young basketball junkies were praying they wouldn’t get thrown out. They were trying to act cool and inconspicuous.
“Go ahead, go ask Kareem for his autograph,” whispered the tall boy’s friend.
“Yeah! Go on, he’s about ready to leave.”
“Go on, he won’t bite you.”
“No, I can’t .”
“You got to. When will you get a chance like this again?”
So Earvin Johnson screwed up his courage and very respectfully asked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s most valuable player, for his autograph. Without a word, Kareem signed.
“I was goin’ crazy ,” Magic Johnson says, smiling broadly as he recalls carrying the priceless scrap of paper to school the next day. “I was like the man of school that whole week! Yeah! Kar eeeem! Everybody’s saying, ‘Let me see it!’ It was great.”
Eight years later, Kareem and the tall kid met again, this time as teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers. Earvin had become Magic by then, the NBA’s No. 1 draft choice, the Lakers’ hope for the future, and for the present, too. Kareem was 33, and the Lakers were hoping to get one or two more productive seasons out of him.
It took about five minutes for Kareem and Magic to form a strong relationship on the court. It took about five years for them to establish a relationship off the court.
“It was hard to get through to Kareem,” Magic says of their first years together. “It was just hard to talk to him then. I guess it was just him, that’s the way he was. Certain times you just couldn’t talk to him, and we respected that. Now you can go up and say anything. It’s a lot different in the last couple years.
“Some mornings, some afternoons, you knew , don’t say nothing to him. You could just see the look on his face when he came in--'Don’t talk to me.’ So nobody would talk to him. It was just that way.
“Everybody could see that we wasn’t favorite pals or buddies the first three or four years. I think I wanted him to know I wasn’t trying to get into his territory; he was the man. But things came so fast for me that maybe he thought I was intruding. I don’t know.”
Kareem could see Magic holding back, but that was OK with Abdul-Jabbar. He wasn’t the type to rush into a deep friendship, either.
“Magic was very distant,” Kareem says. “Not unfriendly. He just didn’t really approach anybody (on the team) his first couple years. I didn’t really know him, other than superficially. He kept to himself. Oh, when we’d go to Michigan (to play the Pistons), we’d hang out, we’d go around places together, but I never really got to know him until recently.
“I held back because he had to make the adjustments coming into the league and dealin’ with all of this. I guess he held back because of my stature in the game, the whole aura around me. There was never any conflict or anything like that. It just took a while before we got to know each other.”
The distance between the two wasn’t lessened by the debate that raged during the early days of Magic’s third season, 1981-82.
Kareem suffered a foot injury and the Lakers, without him, ran off six straight victories and increased their scoring average. The question arose among players, and reporters: Are the Lakers a better team without Kareem?
With Abdul-Jabbar out, the other players had a great time. They respected Kareem, but loved the extra juice in their running game with a smaller, faster center, Jim Brewer. Publicly, they all talked about how the team needed Kareem. Privately, some Lakers believed that they could do without him. “Trade the big fella, God bless him, and get a younger, faster center. Let’s kick out the jams.”
Laker writers Mitch Chortkoff of the Santa Monica Evening Outlook and Rich Levin of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner gave voice in print to the dump-Kareem sentiment. Levin, as a joke, handed out matchbooks that read, “TRADE KAREEM.”
Says Pat Riley, who was a rookie head coach that season: “I think everybody was getting carried away with just how great Earvin Johnson was, and his impact on the team, and how it would be best to run for 48 minutes and not have to throw the ball into the center. We had just lost a couple games by dropping the ball down inside to Kareem at the end, by being too predictable. Players were actually doing some moaning about it in the press.”
One day during the controversy, Magic was having lunch in an Indianapolis coffee shop with two Laker writers. They asked him how he really felt about Kareem.
“When he leaves, you’ll be able to see the real Magic show,” Johnson said. “I’ve had to change my game because of the big fella. I’m just waiting my turn. My time will come.”
Those comments, or a reasonable facsimile, were printed in the Herald-Examiner. By now Kareem was well aware of the debate. In a TV interview he angrily said: “I’m not dead yet. The reports of my demise have been greatly overrated.”
Riley had been steaming since the controversy started. Now it was public, a clear violation of Riley’s policy of keeping team problems strictly behind locker room doors. He summoned the players to a meeting.
“You ‘unnamed player’ (as one player-critic had been referred to in a newspaper story), stand up,” Riley said in firm, angry tones.
“Who here thinks we can get along without Kareem? Whoever it is, maybe you’ll be the one to go. If you’ve got something to say, say it here and we’ll discuss it. If you’re gonna start giving information like that to the media, allowing them to use it against us, then we’re on our way down.”
Riley swept the room with his glare. Nobody spoke. Nobody stood up.
It was time to get back to business.