Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is known for being the all-time leading scorer in the NBA, but was accomplished on both ends of the court and most importantly at using that vast array of skills to take his teams to championships. Here are some thoughts on the game he redefined:
Toughest defender you faced?
That would have to be Nate Thurmond. Nate had the height and agility along with the defensive tenacity to compete with me. A lot of guys would beat on me and claim they had played great defense but Nate actually would play me tough within the rules. It's a shame that he never got to play on a team that had championship potential and display his superb defensive skills in front of a larger audience.
Since you had such longevity in your career, one of your real tasks towards the end was relating with players of a younger generation. How did you go about doing that? How important is that skill for a coach, since there is always a generation gap between coaches and players?
I found the generation gap easy to bridge because I was able to reduce the basis for the conversation to one very simple thing: and that was success. The younger players wanted to succeed meaning that they wanted to become a part of the best team in the NBA. So everything we did together was focused on that goal and it made it possible for us to have a very direct and efficient relationship because we all had the same goals and we all wanted to get to the same place which made it easy to overcome the generation differences.
As a player that is looking to repeat as a champion and have repeated deep runs into the playoffs, how did you balance pacing yourself physically and mentally with giving maximum effort
It's absolutely essential for anybody who wants to succeed over a long period of time to be committed to staying in shape. That is the most fundamental preparation and it's also the hardest to maintain. I focused on the essential details such as conditioning and teamwork. If you just focus on essential details you will get there, everything else is just a distraction. It's absolutely essential for anybody who wants to succeed over a long period of time to be committed to staying in shape. That is the most fundamental preparation and it's also the hardest to maintain. I focused on the essential details such as conditioning and teamwork. If you just focus on essential details you will get there, everything else is just a distraction.
You have been around some incredibly successful coaches throughout your career; can you talk about the role of the coach as a teacher vs. an organizer vs. a motivator? In those 3 groups, what coaches would you point to as exemplifying those roles?
I have had the good fortune to have worked with great coaches at every level of my career. In high school my coach, Jack Donahue was the ultimate motivator. His sarcastic wit was his primary tool in keeping us focused. You did not want to be the object of his sharply sarcastic humor. His primary focus was effort. Good athletes who consistently make their best effort are the ones that succeed most often. Coach Donahue would tear you up if you didn't play with a passion to win but if you made the effort to do the right thing he would never berate you. He used the example of Bill Russell' Celtics as our template. Move the ball to the open man and hit the offensive boards on offense. Play tough one on one defense and always look to help a team mate who got beat. If you failed to pass the ball to an open player he would ask you if that player owed you money. If not, then why didn't you pass him the ball? We inevitably were a team with a lot of assist that held our opponents to a low shooting percentage for that reason.
John Wooden was the ultimate teacher of the game in my opinion. He broke the game down into its component parts, passing, shooting, dribbling, boxing-out, rebounding, defensive stances and footwork. He would devise drills that made us execute those fundamentals and he would have us execute those drills at a progressively faster rate as the season wore on. By the time you had played for him for a couple of years you were able to do your thing with the best players around.
Professional coaches that I have played for have been their best when they could organize the players they had to coach. At the pro level a player should be motivated and have the fundamentals mastered. At the pro level the coach needs to keep his players working well as a unit. So he has to make sure that the team is in shape and they are able to play as a unit of five individuals night in and out. The natural chemistry of personalities working toward a common goal is the thing that a pro coach wants to achieve. When that happens we see the ultimate type of team. Five talented individuals that work together as a unit that can take advantage of its strengths and avoid being vulnerable to its weaknesses.
What was your feeling about the importance of home court when you were battling in the playoffs?
Home court advantage give a team an edge because the visiting team must spend more time traveling and staying in a hotel than the team with home court advantage. The psychological burden of being on the road can create laziness in the visiting teams psyche. So any time the home team can sense this and encourage it they gain an advantage.
What was the most difficult road environment you played in?
Playing on the road in cities where fans were intensely rabid actually made it easy for me to concentrate on my game and my teams goals as a group. Focusing on my team enabled me to shut out the crowds attempt at distracting me from my game. Over the years I played, Portland, Detroit, Dallas, New York, Boston and Philadelphia had some very intense crowds.
Did you find playing on the road to be tougher in the pros or in college?
I think the pro game had the most intense road atmosphere for me since I was always a focus for their fans attempts to be part of the game.
How did it feel to win your first NBA Championship vs. your college championships?
My NBA championship was for me an indication that I would do well in the world of professional basketball. There had been speculation that I wouldn't make because I was not a 'bruiser' type but I was able to prove that theory wrong and I never looked back from that moment on. Winning that first championship gave me great satisfaction in proving my detractors wrong about my potential.
Do you have a favorite championship, one that was especially sweet? And what made it more special?
My favorite championship was beating the Celtics in 1985. In 1974 the Milwaukee Bucks had played the Boston Celtics for the world championship and we lost in seven games. In 1984 the Lakers lost to the Celtics in seven games after we gave away game two of that series. The Lakers were the first team to dominate the NBA winning five championships between the late forties to mid-fifties. But Bill Russell's entry into the NBA saw his teams win eleven championships in his thirteen year career. So by 1985 the Lakers were 0 and 8 against the Celtics in world championship competition. And I was 0 and 2. Being able to blot out the memory of our loss in 1984 was one of the most satisfying parts of beating the Celtics in 1985. The '84 series saw the Celtics' Kevin McHale blindside Kurt Rambis on a fast break. The Lakers needed redemption and we found it in 1985!
Was there anything you did after championships to personally celebrate?
I would never do anything extraordinary after winning the finals. When the Bucks won in '71 I missed the parade in Milwaukee because I drove home to New York City with friends and thus missed the plane the team took to return to Milwaukee. I was there for the dinner that was held by the team a few days later.
How do you feel the intensity of Game 7 compared with Finals clinching games that you played in?
I think that Finals pressure is something that is a consistent pressure on the players no matter what era they played in. Given the hi-tech capabilities that are focused on the events and the players they are totally aware of the scrutiny they are receiving. There is more intense scrutiny these days but the effect on the players is about the same.
Can you talk about the rigors of being a back to back champion?
A team that is trying to win back to back championships has to be willing to play at a higher level all season because every team you play will give its best effort to defeat the "Defending Champs". The more intense scrutiny can be a blessing and a burden at the same time. Having a goal of playing at your best is an incentive for the whole team. At the same time the burden seems worse when you don't live up to people's expectations and doubt is very much in the air. The historically great teams always respond to this type of challenge in ways that create dynasties.
Some antics that happened during the 1984 Playoffs.
In 1984 someone came to the hotel where we were staying and tripped a fire alarm at our hotel in Boston that caused us to lose sleep as they nearly had to evacuate the hotel. During the series there was a game where the temperature on the court was around 100 degrees which has been referred to as the sweat box game. After the final game in Boston in '84 the Celtics did not provide adequate security and the fans rushed the court at the end of the game and harassed Laker players. When we returned to Los Angeles the overall effect on our team was we wanted to beat them again and we knew we would have to raise our level of competition and tactics to be able to deal with the way the Celtics approached the game. I remember during the '85 Playoffs where somebody tried to foul James Worthy on a fast break and a fight almost broke up and K.C. Jones ended up coming out on court to help the confrontation. When K.C. made a move towards our players I stuck my hand down and grabbed him, preventing him from getting any closer. Nothing came of this incident but it gives you an idea of how determined the Laker team was not be intimidated.
Given your skills and talent level, you never had to fight for a roster spot; did you ever think about what it would have been like to come into the league as a free agent or lower draft pick?
I never thought about what I would need to do to try to make a team: my skills were always in demand.
Did you ever speak to other players to try to recruit them to sign with your team?
I never tried to talk to a player into signing with my team. It seemed to me that most ballplayers would try to play for a franchise like the Lakers.
What stands out to you the most about actually receiving your NBA championship ring, something that forever symbolizes your accomplishment? How is that different from the feeling you get when the final buzzer goes off in the Finals?
By the time you get your ring you have had a lot of time to internalize the success you have enjoyed and it is a moment when you get to look at the bigger picture instead of the excitement of the final moments of the last game when you are full of apprehension and adrenaline.
What are some of your outstanding memories about taking long road trips with your teammates?
My fondest memories of Laker road trips were the ones where we got to spend quality time together. For example a trip to Detroit would mean that we would get to eat a meal cooked by Magic's mom. She would cook enough to give all the players something to take with them. So the guys would get to eat great meals for a couple of days after we left Detroit. After we would go to the movies and have a chance to escape being stuck in our rooms. We were able to get to know each other in this way and that led to more solid team cohesion.
How much more difficult were road trips prior to team charter flights?
Road trips were a lot more difficult for the players because we had to take commercial flights. For example, after a game we would have to get the first flight available the next morning to our next destination. We didn't get to travel on a charter place with seats customized to accommodate seven foot players. The planes we flew on didn't always have a first class and were not catered. The players today get to leave the game to go to the airport and fly in these chartered planes to the next location where they get to check into their hotels and sleep until their next practice. I think I could have played 2 more years if I had the option of traveling on the road in this fashion but the Lakers did not start traveling this way until my first year in retirement.
What did you do to integrate your game with new teammates? What did you do to get to know new teammates off-the-court?
The game is based on fundamentals and it is on that issue that teams are able to jell. Off the court, teams come together by spending time together and learning about who their teammates are. Meals and travel time are the most convenient times for these things to happen. When time permitted I would talk with my teammates and find out what their interests were and what they liked to do. We would go to movies together and spend time together during the holidays for parties or dinners at each other's homes.
What did you do coming over from the Bucks to the Lakers to integrate with your new team?
I really didn't have any problem integrating with my new Laker teammates. I tried to respect them and appreciate them as I got to know them over time.
How many times did you have to play through the type of ankle injury Kobe Bryant has dealt with this postseason? How difficult can that be through the intensity of playoff games? Do you even let it affect you or just figure out different ways of succeeding?
I only sprained my ankle once in the postseason which was in 1980 against Philadelphia. The sprain was so bad that the team left me home and went to Philadelphia to play game six but in that game Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes and Brad Holland all played the best Playoff games of their careers. They came home with the NBA Championship making any further games unnecessary.
What was your most difficult playoff series?
My most difficult Playoff series was in 1984 in the Finals against Boston. We gave one game away and that ended up being the margin between victory and defeat. In 1983 and 1989 we lost the Finals but that was due to injuries. In 1983 we had to play the Finals against Philadelphia without Norm Nixon, Bob McAdoo and James Worthy. In 1989 instead of playing the Finals with Magic Johnson and Byron Scott as our guards we had to go against Detroit with Michael Cooper and David Rivers as our starting guards. We were swept again, but I can live with those but it's very difficult to live with losses that come from mental errors.
How much more difficult is it to close out an opponent than to go ahead in a series?
Close-out games bring out all the fight in the team that is going to be eliminated if they lose. In a seventh game both teams are in that situation.
Kareem's sky hook was an unstoppable shot as well as a skill that no other player has mastered. Kareem shares some thoughts on basketball skills.
Someone with shot blocking skills should focus on consistently eliminating as many lay ups available to the opposition. By reducing easy lay-up opportunities for the opposition you force them to take lower percentage shots on the perimeter. The lay-up is the most accurate shot in the game and professional players make close to 100% of their lay-up opportunities. By eliminating this high percentage shot you greatly increase the chances for your team to win. Bill Russell was the best center of his era because he consistently reduced the efficiency of the Celtics opponents. Any team that forces their opponents to rely on outside shooting will always have a great advantage and should be winners.
Was there a facet to your game that you wished you had been able to develop more?
I wish that I had concentrated on shooting my free throws more efficiently earlier in my career. When I was in the first part of my career I shot them at about a 65%-70% rate. Towards the end of my career I was shooting 75%-80% range. I'm sure maturity had a lot to do with it.
How do you teach a big man foot work? Are there specific drills that you employ?
I try to start the players with simple drills and then increase the degree of difficulty as times goes on. This enables the player to learn at his own pace. The pivot game requires an awareness of where you are in relation to the ball and your opponents. That court sense is the crucial aspect of playing the pivot. When a center gets the space awareness around the hoop, he is able to anchor his team's defense and be a force on offense. The drills I try to reach are designed to increase the awareness of the center as to how to help his team mates at both ends of the court.
What are the differences in teaching offensive footwork vs. defensive footwork?
The offensive game requires a player to recognize certain situations and take advantage of them. It is proactive. On defense a player must react to what is going on so it takes a different type of preparation. The ball is often in the center hands on the offensive end of the court so I try to get any player I am working with to be ready to attack the hoop or pass the ball as the situation warrants. On defense the center can help his team mates by shooting down the lane so that the offensive team cannot get easy lay ups. This greatly increases a team's chance of winning by forcing their opponents to take low percentage shots.
What are the different ways in which you have to approach shot blocking while defending your man versus helping on the weak side? How do you go about getting the timing down?
Blocking shots on someone that you're guarding is a matter of being able to successfully anticipate when he is going to shoot and time your block attempt with the shot. Helping a teammate is easier because you can time the shot attempt while the shooter is getting the shot off and not paying attention to your defensive help.
Did you make an off-season plan for improving your game?
I would choose certain aspects of my game, say free throws or rebounding technique or ball handling, and I would take 20 minutes to focus on that certain aspect of the game and improve it. I would do this in the couple of weeks right before camp started.
What's something you learned later in your career that you wish you could impart on a young Kareem? Are there certain things you'd like to try and convey to today's players?
One thing that I learned later in my career that I would pass on is that fundamental preparation is essential to success. Without basketball fundamentals a player will struggle on the court even if he is very gifted as an athlete.
As No 1 on the scoring list, what do you feel made you such a standout scorer?
I was able to score because the shots I wanted to take were high percentage shots in the heart of the pain. One on one I was unstoppable so the defense would try to help whoever was guarding me. This tactic opened up shooting opportunities for my teammates on the perimeter. When the defense stayed home on my teammates I had the paint one on one against my defender. I shot 56% lifetime and 72% from the free throw line. That forced the defense to choose how they would play against the Laker offense.
Kareem was an innovator in sports fitness, getting into yoga and other techniques which are now far more common, but totally outside the norm for a basketball player in his time. Kareem shares some thoughts on the fitness that enabled him to play so well for so long.
Today's training regimen:
I think the training regiments that today's teams use are very effective. I am particularly impressed with their increased focused on flexibility. Flexibility training enhances the effectiveness of strength training and the work they do on their cardiovascular endurance. Players will be injured less often and they will recover more quickly when they do get injured if they spend time on flexibility training, the flexibility training I used to stay relatively injury free for 20 years was Bikram Yoga. I would recommend it for anyone no matter what sport they are in.
What did you do to mentally and physically rest for the off season?
For the off season, I would try to take some time off — usually about two weeks. During that time, I wouldn’t do anything related to basketball. When my R&R was over, I would start a training regimen that would get me ready for the upcoming season. I would time it so that I would be at a peak when it was time to go to training camp.
What did you do to stay in shape during the off-season?
My training regimen consisted of three elements. The first was cardiovascular training. So I would run, jump rope, ride a bike or swim to get my cardiovascular work done. The second element was strength training on the Nautilus machines or by using free weights. The last aspect of my training regimen was flexibility training. For that, I practiced yoga, which is a very thorough way to maintain one’s flexibility.
How do you manage your body early in the NBA season so that you're in good enough condition to play your best physically late in the season? Was that ever a concern for you? Is there a specific challenge for forwards and centers vs. guards in terms of pacing oneself through the season?
I always tried to come to training camp in shape so that would not be an issue after the season started. I played so many minutes that I was able to maintain my physical regimen for the whole season. The mental aspects of a long season can also be challenging but vying for the championship consistently made that a secondary issue. I think that starters stayed in shape more than bench players and had very little to do with position as to who was in shape or not in shape.
Off the court
Here are a few thoughts from Kareem on his life off the court.
People ask me what type of music I listened to on my tape player before games. On my tape player I listened to a lot of jazz that I recorded from my album collection. Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins and Chick Corea were all some of my favorites. The music of these gentlemen was what was running through my head while I was on the court and helped me maintain my focus while at the same time playing in a relaxed manner.
What other team sports have you played?
The team sports I've played were baseball and football.
What do you enjoy about playing or competing as an individual as compared to part of a team?
Individual sports gratify my need to develop individual skills while team sports have a strong social element to them.
The sports world is more than just the games; Kareem discusses some of the experiences he had:
What do you think about the role of the sports media today?
Today's sports media has become an arm of the sports entertainment business. By having an intense focus on the athlete the media have enabled themselves to present a 24/7 take on a particular athlete and the athlete themselves have in most cases cooperated with that type of coverage. When I first started to play pro ball in 1969 the media limited their focus to what occurred on the field of play for the most part and left the more personal aspects of an athlete's life out of their reporting. When I retired the focus had expanded into all aspects of the athlete's life and if there was some hint of scandal involved they were truly thrilled to present it to the world. Most of this is probably due to the 24 hour news cycle that is the norm these days. Any and every detail is fair game and can be relayed around the world in a matter of minutes making the life of any prominent person part of the goldfish bowl of celebrity. Sports stars are now as prominent as any other of the entertainment classifications in terms of public focus. The uproar over the Tiger Woods is a clear example of that development.
What did it mean to you to enter the basketball Hall of Fame?
For me entering the Hall of Fame was a final and casting confirmation that I had put together a significant career on professional basketball. Along the way, there were achievements that spoke to what I was achieving on the court but those moments came during my career when I was still actively involved in making my mark in the NBA. The Hall of Fame to me comes after you have been on the sideline for 5 years and you've seen the impact of what you did on the court in a much more detailed perspective. You appreciate all the help you received along the way and the way that the competition helped you to be at your best. The time to reflect really helps you to understand how great the game is and how fortunate you are to have the chance to be a part of that game.
Does it mean anything different to you now, reflecting on it?
In the time that I have had to reflect on entering the Hall of Fame I have learned about how the game affects people in ways that you didn't understand while you were playing the game. The way that people are inspired and entertained by the game and the people that play it.
What does it mean to have had so many teammates also inducted into the Hall of Fame?
Having teammates inducted into the Hall of Fame makes you see you lucky you were to have teammates whose skills complimented yours. When that is the case, you are able to have success. One player using his skills enables another player to shine and vice versa. Teamwork is contagious and is always a crowd pleaser.
What are your fondest memories of the NCAA basketball tournament?
My fondest memory of the NCAA Tourney was our victory over Houston in 1968. They had beaten us earlier in the season and were considered at tourney time to be the #1 team in college ball. After we lost to Houston in February during the regular season all of the sports writers picked Houston as the number one team. I used the fact that the sports writers had abandoned UCLA as a motivation for preparing for a possible rematch against the University of Houston in the NCAA Tournament. As luck would have it we got to play them in the semifinals of the Final Four and it ended up being the most significant victory of my college career.
What were the differences between the 3 National Championship teams you played on at UCLA?
I think that my team matured every year we played. By my senior year we had a mature and seasoned team that knew how to win.
You were in so many All-Star games that they almost had to name the game after you. Thinking back to that time, what was the primary thing you took out of being named to the team year after year?
I felt much honored by being named to the All-Star team year after year. It was an acknowledgement of my talent and consistency on the court.
Was it important to you to be recognized by the fans and coaches? Did it mean as much at the end of your career as it did at the beginning?
I was honored every time I was picked for the All-Star game no matter if it was at the beginning or end of my career. Making the All-Star team is an achievement that only the upper echelon of NBA players achieves.
Kareem's long career charted a path that led to interactions with a variety of other famous personalities. Here are some of Kareem's thoughts on those people:
You appeared at the Jackie Robinson tribute put on by the Dodgers. What did Jackie Robinson mean to you personally?
I was an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan and Jackie was a hero to all Black Americans because he was the first player to integrate major league baseball. Jackie's fiery play was greatly admired by fans of all descriptions but he was also a great role model for kids because of the way he handled himself. He was articulate and patient even in the face of blatant racism. I also was curious about UCLA due to the fact that Jackie attended school here. He sent me a letter while I was in High School pursuing UCLA as a great place to attend college. I found him to be a leader in so many ways.
The Lakers unveiled a statue for Chick Hearn; do you have any favorite stories about Chick?
I thought Chick was one of the great sportscasters in America. He was always up to date on the details of the game and he was able to convey the subtleties of basketball to the least sophisticated listener. Many people don't get all of the nuances of the game but Chuck was great at breaking down the game into its component parts and conveying that to the average fan. His knowledge about the history of the game was also a factor in his ability to charm the fans.
What teammate of yours had a style of play that meshed really well with how you wanted to play?
James Worthy was a teammate that I really enjoyed playing with for his ability to run the court. I felt that my ability to run the court for four quarters was a problem for the centers I played against and James was of the same mold at his position. He had the great ability to anticipate the changes of possession and get a one or two step head start. From there he never seemed to lose in sprinting to the other end of the court and scoring. I played with him for 7 years and during that time I felt he never lost his advantage against the forwards that he had to compete with.
Did you find that you had certain teammates with whom you worked very well on one end of the floor (either offense or defense) but not on the other end?
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to lay with other players who worked hard at both ends of the court. In Milwaukee, Greg Smith and Bob Dandridge were hard workers at both ends of the court. Oscar Robertson was a total master of the game and prior to playing with Oscar; Flynn Robinson was another player I felt was committed to being his best at both ends of the court. The Showtime teams had Magic, James, Jamaal, Byron, Jim Chones, Kurt Rambis, Mitch Kupchak, AC Green, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper. All of them were committed to being their best at all aspects of the game and we were compatible that way.
What were the similarities and differences between 2 of the all-time greats you played with, Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson?
Oscar and Magic were similar in that they were able to initiate the offense for the each of their respective teams. And they did it without making a whole lot of turnovers. They were dis-similar in their styles; Oscar was no frills and he rarely showed emotion on the court. Magic always had his heart on his sleeve and enjoyed making the game more entertaining for the fans. Hence the no-look passes and huge smiles when he did something particularly entertaining in the heat of competition.
Among the many lessons you learned from Coach Wooden, is there a particular life lesson that stands out in your mind that he imparted to you?
I have benefitted the most from the way Coach Wooden taught about being prepared. His coaching style was one the emphasized intense preparation for what his team could do and achieve. It made us understand that our concern should be about what we control and not to worry about what the other team was about.
Was there a particular basketball lesson that you learned from him that carried through to the rest of your career?
Coach Wooden always emphasized being in shape. It was the most fundamental preparation that affected your ability to perform. So being in shape was the key was the key to being able to execute the important parts of the game.
How was your relationship with Dr. Buss when you were a player? Was it different from your relationship with other owners with the Bucks and Lakers?
My relationship with Dr. Buss was not a very close one while I played for the Lakers. It was not distant but I felt that he was very much into his friends and lifestyle and that kept us from getting to be close. I always felt that Dr. Buss was generous and fair to the players and appreciated the respect he showed when it was time to deal with the players.
What kind of impact did Martin Luther King and his message have on you as a young ballplayer?
Dr. King's message encourages me to try to make a difference with my own life and help make real change possible for black Americans.
For a league made predominantly of African American players, even with more and more international talent coming in, does playing on MLK Day carry special significance?
MLK Day is a day that gives us a chance to stress where American has gone in making the words of our Constitution a reality. Without it we might forget what has transpired in our nation with regard to the issue of civil and political rights.
How often did you look for outside motivation to be used on the basketball court, whether from politicians, leaders, thinkers or what have you?
I have always been open to influence and inspiration from a variety of sources as I have gone through life.