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For Now, Kareem Is Simply Enjoying Filling His Own Shoes

The Lakers, one of the most famous and successful athletic teams in all of Los Angeles, came home Wednesday night to show the home folks what they’re featuring this season.

Enthusiasm, for one thing. In a pregame ceremony, Commissioner David Stern handed out National Basketball Assn. championship rings to the Lakers. When it was Magic Johnson’s turn to trot out for his reward, he almost ripped Stern’s arm off with a handshake that would put Magic in the life insurance salesman’s hall of fame.

Stern is said to be resting comfortably today, and doctors think they can save the arm.

The Forum crowd loved it, and accorded Magic and his teammates the home-opener welcome they deserved.

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But the biggest hand was reserved for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who took the arena microphone and said a few words, including: “We love you, we thank you; let’s get it on.”

Up in the Denver Nuggets’ broadcast booth, Denver play-by-play man Eddie Doucette shook his head in admiration and told his audience, “Kareem is still the king.”

Of course, so is Elvis Presley.

And there will be accusations this season that Kareem’s career, like Elvis’, has outlasted his talents.

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It’s going to be that kind of season for Kareem, a season under the microscope. Every game will be a test.

The Lakers players have been saying how they know they can’t expect as much out of him as they once did, and they will have to adjust.

Not that they don’t respect the Big Fella. But sometimes you get the feeling that if Kareem, God bless him, should pass away during the season, the Lakers would keep him in the starting lineup, out of respect.

“Sure, his rebounding has tailed off lately,” Pat Riley would say, “but just his presence out there means a lot to the ballclub. What he lacks in liveliness, he makes up for in experience.”

Kareem, of course, is still very much alive. Keeps in shape, eats good, does yoga. He probably doesn’t have a speck of cholesterol in his bloodstream.

But geez, he is old. Forty-one, an age that makes him an oddity in the NBA. All Kareem’s contemporaries are gone. Dan Issel, who retired a couple of years ago, is in the Denver broadcast booth now. Issel’s front teeth, miraculously, have grown back. But the legs, once they go, they don’t come back, and Issel is amazed that Kareem pounds along, keeping up with the kids.

Kareem’s every step will be monitored this season by the media, the public, the players. He seems intent upon getting off to a good start. He grabbed 12 rebounds against San Antonio Saturday night, more than in any game all last season.

But every game is a new test. Wednesday, he scored the Lakers’ first Forum basket of the season, wheeling into the lane to arc a short left-handed skyhook over Danny Schayes.

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“Wow,” one fan said, “nice left hand.”

“Yeah,” another fan said, “the right one must be worn out.”

But a minute later, Kareem hit a righty hook. Later, he hit a finger roll, a shot made famous by Wilt Chamberlain.

Kareem played only 18 minutes in the game and had 6 points and 2 rebounds. Not a great night, but Kareem isn’t expected to carry the club.

At halftime, a news release was distributed, announcing a Friday press conference at which Kareem “will announce a new apparel sponsor for the 1988-89 season and . . . place his size-17 shoes in cement . . . “

You know what the critics will say about that.

“What’s the news? The man’s shoes have been in cement for 5 years.”

Fortunately, Kareem is accustomed to the cheap shots and he will play on, oblivious to the criticism.

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With the early play of Benoit Benjamin, who joined the Clippers in 1985 and left a wakeup call for 1988, there will be speculation that Kareem isn’t even the best center in town. Wilt might tell you Kareem is No. 3.

So why does the Big Fella hang around, subjecting himself to such abuse?

At least two reasons.

One, he still feels good and likes to play. Guys his age fork out thousands of dollars to go to fantasy camps and shoot layins with former NBA stars. Kareem has a better deal than that. It’s a fun game.

Two, the Lakers could win another championship, and who would want to bail out on a ship bound for glory?

Based on early-season returns, the Lakers are projecting very well. Wednesday, they outran and out-depthed the frisky Nuggets, 128-110.

The Lakers are excited about the addition of Orlando Woolridge, a 6-foot 9-inch leaper and scorer who gives the team very nice bench pop.

On one play Wednesday, Magic tossed Woolridge a back-door rim-pass, an Orlando-a-loop.

Woolridge scored 18 points in 25 minutes Wednesday, showing fans why Kareem can be given more rest this season. Magic, who seems to be getting the hang of this game, handed out 19 assists.

It was only the Nuggets, but coming on home-opener night, it was a nice start, even for Kareem.

In fact, the whole night had a familiar ring to it.


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