In appreciation of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the GOAT of his own echelon
Somewhere along the line, NBA discourse just forgot about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as debates over the Greatest Of All Time shifted instead to Michael Jordan and LeBron James for no other reason but time.
It is remarkable that James fulfilled his prophecy as Sports Illustrated's "Chosen One" from his junior year of high school. He walked into the NBA as one of its best players, stacked MVPs and championship rings on top of an undeniable statistical résumé, and he will exit the game as the most prolific scorer in history. As James etches his name into the record books, he remains one of the league's best players at age 38.
It is also not unprecedented. (Precedented, even.) Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, graduated New York City's Power Memorial Academy as what Wilt Chamberlain called "the greatest high school player I've ever seen." Sports Illustrated's cover story dubbed Alcindor "a minority of one" before he ever played a game for UCLA. He left college as the only three-time Most Outstanding Player award recipient, winning three straight NCAA tournaments almost by default (NCAA rules did not allow him to play varsity as a freshman), and then he began his assault on the NBA's all-time lists.
"So awesome were Lew Alcindor and his teammates," Frank Deford wrote in April 1967, following the first of those three NCAA titles, "and so obvious is it that they are destined for two more titles that the old moon there over Louisville will doubtless suffer the indignity of conquest by mortal man before the Bruins do."
(Deford was right, by the way. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969. UCLA next lost a title in 1974.)
Abdul-Jabbar entered the NBA as its first superstars were exiting it. Most everyone still covering sports today, but Bob Ryan, was not there to see him. Those who were could find no shortage of people willing to describe Abdul-Jabbar as a combination of Chamberlain and Bill Russell before he played an NBA game. So excited was Milwaukee Bucks owner Wes Pavalon to win the coin toss for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1969 that he accidentally stuffed his lit cigarette in general manager John Erickson's ear upon embracing.
After Abdul-Jabbar's preseason debut for the Bucks in October 1969, Tex Maule wrote, "He is as close to a meld of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as you can be and remain human." And Maule had the receipts.
"I played with Chamberlain, and when he wanted to, he could do everything. ... But most of the time he was stationary," then-Bucks coach Larry Costello, also a Hall of Fame player for the Philadelphia 76ers, said in the moment. "Russell was a great player, but he was never really a good shot. This kid is a combination."
Abdul-Jabbar single-handedly transformed Milwaukee from a 27-win team into a 56-win juggernaut as a rookie, and he delivered his first of six championships a year later, averaging a 27-19-3 on better than 60% shooting in a four-game Finals sweep. He finished third in the MVP race in his first season, won the award as a sophomore and never finished worse than fifth in the voting until he surpassed his 35th birthday.
"There is still a disposition to deny Alcindor his due. It is only occasionally malicious; mostly it is just a yearning to believe that he cannot possibly be so overpowering. To some he destroys the well-ordered faith in this carefully constructed game," Deford wrote in April 1970, following Abdul-Jabbar's playoff debut. "It is simply not right, they seem to be saying, that this one man — a rookie at that — can often render powerless Willis Reed, the league's MVP, and his entire, magnificent New York basketball machine. But it is so."
Abdul-Jabbar was barely 23 years old when those words were written. By the time he turned 38 in April 1985, he was a year removed from setting the career scoring record, had a record six MVP awards to his name and remained the Los Angeles Lakers' No. 1 option as they began their championship pursuit. Playing opposite the Boston Celtics' front line of Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Larry Bird, all in their prime, Abdul-Jabbar averaged a 26-9-5 (60.4 FG%) and earned his second Finals MVP in victory.
"He's 10 times better now; he hasn't played any better in his career than in the last two years," former Denver Nuggets coach Doug Moe, ever the candid interview, said in 1985. "He's 38, and he's a bitch."
It was then that Abdul-Jabbar's own coach, Pat Riley, dubbed the veteran as the GOAT: "Why judge anymore? When a man has played for 17 years, broken records, won championships, endured tremendous criticism and responsibility, why judge? Let's toast him now. Let's toast him as the greatest player ever."
Abdul-Jabbar would play four more seasons, win two more titles and add 5,125 more points to his career total. Four decades later, as James prepared to break the scoring record, Riley has not changed his tune.
"We don't win championships without the greatest player in the history of the game, who had the greatest weapon in the history of the game. The sky hook was unstoppable," Riley, who played with and coached Abdul-Jabbar and also won two titles with James as an executive, told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne last month. "Last minute of the game, it's going to one guy. Kareem was the guy, and he'll always be the guy."
Except, apparently, six years ago, when Riley called Magic Johnson "the greatest player of all time."
We should excuse Riley, if only because we have all made the mistake of forgetting about Abdul-Jabbar whenever the GOAT debate gets raised. Most anyone involved in the NBA today remembers him as the aged and begoggled bald center on the 1980s Showtime Lakers, overshadowed by the rivalry between Johnson and Bird, not the afroed force who won six MVP awards in a 10-year span from 1971-80.
Maybe it is because he ascended in the '70s, when the ABA split the talent pool, the NBA struggled to secure television ratings (and, in turn, financial security), and drugs threatened the integrity of the game.
Maybe it was because he was an introvert, rightfully bristling at the public's focus on what made him stand out — as a 7-foot-2 Black Muslim — rather than what made him great, both as a skilled basketball player and as an extraordinary human. He rarely spoke, and when he did, people were not ready for what he said.
It was not until 1985, when Sports Illustrated named Abdul-Jabbar its Sportsman of the Year at the same age James is now, that Gary Smith captured the essence of the man in juxtaposition to his public image:
The very traits that made people dislike him, however, were those that would make him last long enough that people would finally revere him. By not sacrificing himself for loose balls or rushing downcourt on every fast break, he conserved his body for the long haul. Because he became a Muslim, he seldom consumed alcohol or meat, and he remained remarkably fit. Because he distrusted people, he shunned parties and always got his sleep. Because he did not think and act like other people — he was practicing yoga long before stretching became an accepted regimen in the NBA — he kept his legs flexible and strong while other big men his age became stiff-jointed and slow.
Somehow, this tall, strange man, striding upcourt with the big bald spot and the industrial goggles would endure long enough to demonstrate the foolishness of passing judgment too quickly.
How did we get from anointing Abdul-Jabbar as a blend between Chamberlain and Russell to "passing judgment too quickly," when in between he scored more points than anyone ever had? Even as Abdul-Jabbar's career was unfurling, as he twice broke his hand on a stanchion and Kent Benson's face, and as the Lakers flailed in his first four seasons in Los Angeles, his fiercest rivals recognized him as the GOAT.
When Rick Barry, the 1975 Finals MVP, was asked if 1979 NBA MVP Moses Malone had usurped Abdul-Jabbar, he said, "What kind of ridiculous question is that? Kareem is probably the best athlete in the world."
"He's always been my idol," added Bill Walton, the league's MVP in 1978. "To me, he's the greatest."
That testimony is from John Papanek's March 1980 dispatch for Sports Illustrated. Two months later, Abdul-Jabbar dropped 40 points on a bum ankle in a pivotal Game 5 of the Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. Two nights later, as doctors ordered Abdul-Jabbar to nurse his injury, Johnson entered a close-out performance for the ages, snatching a title from Julius Erving and Finals MVP honors from Abdul-Jabbar.
"Early in the season, everything was Magic this and Magic that. People sort of forgot about Kareem," Paul Westhead, the coach of the 1980 title-winning Lakers, once said. "In a way that was good, because, before long, everybody realized that Magic or no Magic, this team is nothing without Kareem. I mean nothing."
So it was that the discourse shifted from Abdul-Jabbar to the rivalry between Magic and Bird, who would split six of the league's seven MVP awards to close out the 1980s. Their careers had not yet finished when the man who both interrupted and ended their streak of MVPs, Jordan, ascended to the throne. But for a brief reign of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, James seized control and has run with it ever since.
In basketball's infant stages, the game spent much of its early life trying to mitigate the impact of centers, even outlawing the dunk after Abdul-Jabbar's freshman season at UCLA, and he still dominated. It is not unlike how James has evolved his game to dominate despite the NBA's 3-point boon working against him.
"Kareem was a guy that never had any potential. He just had greatness," Riley recently told the Associated Press, reminding us that Abdul-Jabbar never met a level where he could not live up to the hype. "You could see that. When you can bypass potential and you move right to greatness as a high school player, and then college and then the pros ... there are very few like him. There’s a handful. Two handfuls, at the most."
Add the longevity, and there is only one other player who meets that criteria.
Beware, though, because before you know it, there will be a new face of the league and another and another. Decades will pass, the discourse will evolve, and we will forget how this moment felt, too, how impossible it seems that anyone could break this scoring record and how ridiculous it would be to leave someone out of the GOAT discussion who rarely spent a moment of his career not being at the center of it.
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Ben Rohrbach is a senior NBA writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach