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It May Not Be Time to Give Him the Hook

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So what’s the problem?

What’s all this business about the struggling Lakers, the over-the-hill ex-dynasty, the death watch on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

Everything looked fine Monday. The Lakers played the Houston Rockets at the Forum. Both teams are division leaders.

The Lakers murdered the Rockets, 124-113. Kareem went against the league’s best center, Akeem Olajuwon, lived to tell about it and even scored 12 points.

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Magic Johnson had quintuple quadruples, or something like that. Every Laker was all-World. David Rivers played 1 minute and scored 4 points, which projects out to a 192-point game.

In short, the deathbed Lakers seemed to be clinging to life with a certain spunky zeal. They looked a lot like the old young Lakers, who made this kind of fast-break ball a trademark, a new standard for the sport.

The problem is, of course, that the Lakers did it at home, but this is no time for pessimism. The boys looked good.

On the first play of the game, Kareem posted up Akeem, took a pass from Byron Scott and skyhooked over Akeem. Like old times.

At the other end of the court, Akeem posted Kareem, got a pass and wheeled around Abdul-Jabbar for an easy layup.

“Quit while you’re even,” some courtsider yelled at Kareem.

Vicious.

Abdul-Jabbar hung in there, though, played 29 minutes and hit 6 of 8 shots for 12 points. Only got 3 rebounds, but Lazurus didn’t climb off that table and run a 10K, either.

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The Big Fella did show signs of genuine interest in the game. It was Game 3 of the Kareem Watch, the 2-week probationary period, after which Coach Pat Riley will present Kareem his wings or relegate him to the bench.

“It was OK,” Kareem said of his performance. “I shot the ball a little better. I was running the court a lot better. Hopefully it will all come together soon.

“I had a little more confidence (in his shot) and a lot more stability.”

These are tough times for Kareem. He is trying to power through his 20th season, but he came to camp overweight, physically and mentally.

He has played badly. He has looked his age. He has struggled.

But a funny thing has happened--Kareem has become a favorite of the fans. It’s not so much a sympathy thing as an appreciation of what he has meant to the Lakers over the years.

In his younger days, Kareem was publicly aloof and never captured the hearts of the fans. Now he has them. When he buries a skyhook, or grabs a defensive rebound and dribbles out, point-guard style, the Forum fans go crazy.

They’re rooting for the guy. They like him. It’s actually heartwarming.

Contributing to that support is the fact that Kareem hasn’t turned into a crybaby. This has been his toughest season, he has faltered and staggered, he has been criticized in the press, but he has shown class.

Not once has Kareem blamed the media for his performance, not once has he lashed out at his critics, or at Riley for trimming his playing time, or at his teammates.

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There’s no reason he should have, of course, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of other athletes in times of crisis.

The man has stood tall.

“After training camp, after our first couple exhibition games, he was down,” Riley said Monday. “He came to me and said, ‘I’m just rusty, it’s just not there anymore.’

“I told him, ‘When you start believing that . . . ‘ Maybe Kareem went through some doubts. I think he’s turned the corner, I think he’s turned the switch on now.”

Riley and Kareem had a summit conference Jan. 14. “Give us more,” Riley said, in essence. “OK, I’ll give you what I’ve got,” Kareem replied.

“I’m gonna make him live up to that,” Riley said. “If I see him make a mental mistake, I’m going to say, ‘Remember Jan. 14.’ ”

Riley has defended Kareem all along, while Kareem was ignoring the criticism, or pretending to.

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“One quality about Kareem has always been his ability to take it (criticism),” Riley said. “It stings, it has to, it was bothering him, but he had to let it go. I don’t think the team came to his defense quick enough.”

It’s important for the Lakers not to overreact. That would embarrass Kareem. They could become like Lou Gehrig’s Yankee teammates. Seeking to bolster Lou’s spirits at the end of his playing days, the Yankees would praise him lavishly.

Gehrig said he knew it was time to retire when his teammates gathered around him and slapped his back after he fielded a routine grounder.

Kareem doesn’t need that kind of support. Lou was ill. Kareem is just old.

He knows how he’s playing and he realizes that only one person will decide whether he goes out in a blaze of glory or in ashes--Kareem.

He knows he has to kick it up another notch. The All-Star game is coming up in February. When a Houston writer asked him before Monday’s game whether he thought he should be on the team, Kareem said: “If I make the team, it would mean that something’s wrong, because I haven’t played well. I don’t deserve it.”

Riley disagreed.

“I think he should be selected, the commissioner should step in and allow a 13-man squad or something. The league ought to give Kareem a Rolls-Royce. He’s made the league a lot of money. He should be honored.”

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It was suggested recently in this column that Kareem should be the league’s non-playing honored guest at the All-Star game, and also that he should consider retiring at that time.

He should finish out the season, I suggested, only if he can help his team.

The jury is still out. Monday he was more assertive offensively, but he didn’t shoot a free throw all day, and 3 rebounds isn’t enough from a starting center. He needs to wade into the action more, at both ends of the court.

Once, when Akeem lost his man and drove the baseline, Kareem, waiting under the hoop, took a step back and watched.

But mostly he was out there pushing himself, trying to rekindle the fire. The fans could see it. Kareem could feel it.

Can the Big Fella do it? Stay tuned.

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