Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 38 years old, and he looked every bit of it on May 27, 1985, as the Boston Celtics whipped the L.A. Lakers 148-114 to open the NBA Finals. The Lakers' venerable center looked like he was mired in quicksand as he was beaten up and down the court by Boston's Robert Parish in a game that was quickly dubbed the Memorial Day Massacre.
The next day, as the Lakers gathered for a team meeting in their hotel, the immensely proud Abdul-Jabbar went to each of his teammates and apologized for his effort, or lack thereof.
"I was embarrassed," he said succinctly.
It wouldn't happen again. Pat Riley, then the coach of the Lakers, recalls the transformation between Games 1 and 2.
"Kareem was bad, knew he was bad, said he was bad," said Riley. "I told him, frankly, he had not played hard enough. He said the same thing to me, said it to the other players. He made a contract with us that it would never happen again, ever. That game was a blessing in disguise. After that, Kareem had this look, this air about him. His commitment thereafter was astounding."
Turning back the clock, Abdul-Jabbar outran Parish in Game 2, racking up 30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and three steals as the Lakers drew even, 109-102. After the teams split the next two games, Abdul-Jabbar netted 36 in the crucial Game 5 as the Lakers won 120-111. Los Angeles closed out the series with a 111-100 victory in Boston, where it had lost in eight previous Finals matchups.
Abdul-Jabbar, at 38, was voted the NBA Finals MVP, the oldest player in history to win the honor. He had won it once before, in 1971 at the age of 24, when he was still known as Lew Alcindor and was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks.
"He defied the critics," said Riley. "He defies logic. He's just incredible. He's the most unique and durable athlete of our time."