A Fitting Farewell to Kareem: Lakers Beat Seattle in Center’s Goodby

Kareem Abdul–Jabbar, NBA's all-time leading scorer, gets a retirement send-off from his Los Angeles Lakers teammates.
Kareem Abdul–Jabbar, NBA’s all-time leading scorer, gets a retirement send-off from his Los Angeles Lakers teammates at the Forum on April 23, 1989.
(Los Angeles Times)
<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

You might remember Sunday, the finale of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s regular-season farewell tour, for the Rolls-Royce and other lavish gifts he was presented, the heartfelt speeches, or simply the touching sight of his Laker teammates gently rocking him in a rocking chair during a musical interlude.

It all was so memorable, such a fitting and emotional tribute to the retiring Laker center by his teammates, family and friends, coaches and management, as well as the 17,505 Forum fans to whom Abdul-Jabbar was the sole object of affection on this day.

But remember this, too: It was not Abdul-Jabbar’s final National Basketball Assn. game. That day will come sometime later this spring in the playoffs, when the Lakers will try to give Abdul-Jabbar another gift in the form of a seventh championship ring.


This disclaimer was duly noted by most of the speakers at Sunday’s ceremony, including Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and even broadcaster Chick Hearn.

And, as Abdul-Jabbar later said in a news conference: “This one, we knew was coming, formally. The next goodby (will be) over and out. But it was nice to have this day.”

The Lakers, though their attention was diverted by the ceremony, certainly made the most of it. They defeated the Seattle SuperSonics, 121-117, to finish the season with 57 victories and make Abdul-Jabbar’s day all the more memorable.

And in his 1,560th, and last, regular-season game, Abdul-Jabbar played 26 minutes, scored 10 points and had six rebounds. His last points came on a dunk off a Johnson pass with 2:14 to play. Thus, his NBA-record point total rests at 38,387.

Johnson, noticeably inspired by the day’s events--”I was not about to let him lose on his day,” he said--had 29 points, 21 assists and nine rebounds.

But, from a Laker viewpoint, this game was not about facts and figures, or even trying to go into Thursday night’s playoff opener against Portland in the Forum with a five-game winning streak.

The purpose was to salute Abdul-Jabbar’s 20 seasons in the NBA before Laker thoughts become preoccupied with the playoffs, to present the emotional culmination of a season of goodby ceremonies.

Abdul-Jabbar, who has received a lot of gifts in recent months, was given a 1989 Rolls-Royce “Silver Spirit” from his teammates, a lighted tennis court to be installed at his home in Hawaii from Laker owner Jerry Buss, and various other mementos and keepsakes from well-wishers.

Though unaccustomed to public displays of affection, Abdul-Jabbar seemed genuinely moved by the 45-minute pregame ceremony. His emotional layers were peeled away.

It began promptly at 11:45 a.m., when the lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on a roped-off area near the south basket, where a a podium and a rocking chair were placed.

After Hearn introduced Al and Cora Alcindor, Abdul-Jabbar’s parents, and Kareem’s four children, the spotlight followed Abdul-Jabbar through a tunnel and onto the court.

Abdul-Jabbar raised his hands in acknowledgment, then sat in the rocking chair. The initial standing ovation lasted more than three minutes, Abdul-Jabbar shaking his head, smiling, looking up at the lights and making a brief swipe of his eyes with his right forearm.

Hearn finally muffled the roar by exclaiming, “Remember, we got a playoff game Thursday . . . “

That was followed by a rendition of the National Anthem, sung by Abdul-Jabbar’s 8-year-old son, Amir. Later, Abdul-Jabbar would say that Amir surprised him a few days before by asking whether they’d let him sing.

Hearn read a telegram by President George Bush, lauding Abdul-Jabbar’s accomplishments and his dedication in promoting literacy programs for youth.

Gifts from the Lakers’ radio network--first-class, round-trip tickets to Hawaii for Abdul-Jabbar’s parents--and television network--a vacation in Orlando, Fla., for Abdul-Jabbar, a guest and his parents--were announced.

Laker Coach Pat Riley then talked about Abdul-Jabbar’s impact on the team, about how he has served as a role model to Laker players and coaches on and off the court. He read an open letter from the team to Abdul-Jabbar.

“He is our mentor,” Riley said.

Then, as the players left the bench and circled the rocking chair, the song, “That’s What Friends Are For,” was played. While teammates tipped the rocking chair, Kareem took in the scene around him.

Near the end of the song, Abdul-Jabbar stood and was led by Johnson to a white Rolls-Royce towed onto the court during the song. After hugging his teammates, Abdul-Jabbar opened the door and slipped behind the wheel.

Johnson then gave a simple but poignant tribute to Abdul-Jabbar. Pointing to the Rolls-Royce, Johnson began:

“It’s definitely not enough. We should give you more than that. You’ve meant so much to all of us. . . . I’ve been fortunate to play 10 years with you. God has blessed me with the chance to get to know you, not only as a player but as a friend.

“I can remember when I was a snottie-nosed rookie. Not only did you wipe my nose clean, but you put me on the path to be not only the player but the man I wanted to be.”

Johnson, near tears during his speech, later said he nearly lost control when he and Abdul-Jabbar made eye contact.

Ed Vincent, mayor of Inglewood, was next on the docket. He announced that a side street outside the Forum has been renamed “Kareem Court.” Buss’ gift of a custom-made tennis court, was then announced by Hearn. Buss was not a part of the ceremony, but Hearn read a brief statement.

Finally, 35 minutes after the ceremony began, it was Abdul-Jabbar’s turn to address the crowd. But not before yet another standing ovation, this one lasting more than three minutes.

Abdul-Jabbar raised his arms, then lowered his head, seemingly fighting back tears. As the ovation roared on, he curled under his lower lip stared straight ahead as applause turned to chants of “Kareem, Kareem, Kareem.”

When the ovation finally died, Abdul-Jabbar thanked, among others:

--His parents: “When your dad is a cop and your mom believes in what’s right and they set exacting standards for you, I’ve tried to live up to those. Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Dad.”

--His children: “I’d like to thank these four little people over here because my relationship with them was not what it could have been because I had to step on this court. They never responded to anything but out of love and appreciation. I love you guys.”

--Former UCLA Coach John Wooden: “He taught me a whole lot about becoming a man. Not just basketball, but about living your life.”

--Teammates: “I think Mike Cooper and I go back the furthest, 11 years. This would be a very difficult life, if not for the people you work with. You guys (pointing to bench) and the other guys I have played with, that’s what I’ll remember. I’ll never be able to work with people of that quality in a setting like we have here in the NBA.”

Nearing 12:30 p.m., the game’s scheduled starting time, Abdul-Jabbar concluded his speech by saying: “I’m losing my voice. And I want to say to you all, thank you very much.”

A 10-minute break followed the ceremony’s conclusion. When Laker players returned to the court, all were donning goggles except Abdul-Jabbar.

As expected, the game was anticlimactic. But the Lakers, after falling behind early, rallied to pull to within 67-65 at halftime. The Lakers took the lead early in the third quarter and never relinquished it.

The Lakers did not need to win. They are assured of the best record in the Western Conference. But it was as if Johnson willed it so.

In a 3-minute 10-second stretch of the second quarter, Johnson made four three-point shots. On the only possession he did not score, Johnson threw a one-hand, half-court pass through a congestion of bodies to Michael Cooper for a layup.

Talk among the Lakers afterward centered on Abdul-Jabbar, not whether they would play Portland or Dallas in the first round. That could wait a day.

“It was his day,” Riley said. “I knew Cap, when the guys came over and the song played, they got to him. You could see that he was moved.”

Abdul-Jabbar did not deny that.

“It was kind of hard to cry because I was so happy,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “When I’m happy, I’ll smile.”

He smiled a lot Sunday.

“It was too much, just wonderful,” Abdul-Jabbar said of the ceremony. “I didn’t think I’d pick up a Rolls-Royce along the way. I was ready for the recognition and a few tokens. A Rolls Royce is quite a token.”

The Rolls Royce reportedly cost Laker players and coaches $175,000. Riley said it was worth it.

“Sometimes, we take this team thing for granted,” Riley said. “We get jaded and cynical. (Kareem) is not just another guy. He’s larger than life, and we’ve had the opportunity to be with him.”

With typical equanimity, Abdul-Jabbar summed up his career and impending departure from basketball this way: “I don’t think I stayed too long, and I’m not leaving too early.”

Laker Notes

In addition to Magic Johnson’s 29 points and 21 assists, James Worthy had 24 points and A.C. Green 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers. Xavier McDaniel had 39 points and Dale Ellis 27 for Seattle. . . . Johnson ended the season as the NBA’s free-throw percentage champion at 91.1%. He is the first Laker to ever lead the NBA in that category. . . . The Lakers decided to keep reserve center Mark McNamara (sprained right ankle) on the active roster for the playoffs.