Nobody’s famous forever, but once in a while someone will step out of the history books back into popular culture. That’s what figures to happen with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as LeBron James closes in on his all-time NBA points record.
The man who arrived in the league in 1969 -- already famous for his exploits at Power Memorial High in New York and dominance en route to three NCAA titles at UCLA -- will be thrust back into basketball fans’ awareness, or introduced to a new generation or two who never saw him play (he was 42 when he retired in 1989). Abdul-Jabbar’s lifetime points total -- 38,387 -- will get celebrated and, sometime in 2022-23, waved at as James chugs past, grabbing one more achievement in his own remarkable career.
It won’t matter that James will have played more games, starting his NBA days four years younger than Abdul-Jabbar. Just as it didn’t matter that Abdul-Jabbar needed more opportunities to surpass Wilt Chamberlain’s 31,419 in April 1984.
What does matter is everything that went into Abdul-Jabbar’s career and life across 74 years, certain to be dusted off by the spotlight that will shine on James’ pursuit. From his earliest days as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., through his conversion to Islam and his adopted name in the early 1970s, to obvious highlights like his six championships and six Most Valuable Player awards.
He was a private, introverted individual who treated teammates and foes alike as strangers, yet he was drawn out in time to enjoy a farewell tour in his final trip through the league – and let fans enjoy it too.
There was his famous sky hook, a unique and devastating tool to win games and overwhelm opponents, and a life both scholarly and driven by curiosity over the past three decades.
But we’re just getting started here.
Everything that had come before had delivered Abdul-Jabbar, still known as Alcindor then, to the night of Oct. 18, 1969.
He was a 14-year-old in New York, making headlines for Power Memorial, when Chamberlain befriended him. At UCLA, he thrived working with traditional coach John Wooden while undergoing an awakening to civil rights issues of the late ’60s. After his final Bruins season, he became the prize of arguably the most impactful coin flip in the history of pro sports.
So it came to pass that on an autumn Saturday night, with only 7,782 in attendance at the Milwaukee Arena, Abdul-Jabbar made his NBA debut. And in his performance -- 29 points, 12 rebounds, six assists against Walt Bellamy, an established All-Star center on his way to the Hall of Fame – the lanky giant put all his skills on display: Jumpers, bank shots, blocks, a steal, outlet passes to trigger the Bucks’ fast break and surgically finding cutters in traffic.
The Earth moved a little for the NBA that night.
Think of Wilt Chamberlain, you invariably think of Bill Russell. That’s how connected the two contemporaries were for 10 years as the game’s most famous, successful big men. Kareem, by contrast, never had that level of rival, due as much to his status above the rest as to the timing of his birth and career. Robert Parish? Dave Cowens? Moses Malone? Nah, never quite the same.
The fact is, for a while, Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain were rivals, despite an 11-year age gap. They wound up as acquaintances for 37 years before Wilt’s death in 1999. For some of that time, they were even friends.
On the court, their matchups captivated fans. They met 28 times in the regular season and playoffs, with each man’s team winning 14 games. They represented a clash of styles, of age, of cultural reference points. After games, they sometimes traded compliments, other times slights.
For their first meeting, Oct. 24, 1969, Warriors All-Star center Nate Thurmond was in the stands, traveling from San Francisco to scout the new kid Alcindor. He saw Wilt get 25 points and 25 rebounds against the younger man’s 23 and 20.
When Chamberlain and the Lakers set the record in 1971-72 with 33 consecutive victories, it was Abdul-Jabbar’s and the Bucks’ mark of 20 set the previous season that they smashed. And when that 33-gamer ended, it was Milwaukee and its center doing the snapping.
When their squads met in the 1972 West finals, the Lakers on their way to a series victory and the NBA championship, Milwaukee fans gave Chamberlain a standing ovation as he exited the finale.
And so it went for two legends who would go nose-to-nose without really seeing eye-to-eye.
He had pushed for and gotten his trade from Milwaukee in June 1975, landing back in Los Angeles two years after Chamberlain vacated the Lakers’ center position. Physically, he should have been at the peak of his powers.
Yet over five years, his teams – the Bucks in 1974-75, the Lakers after that – finished fourth, fourth, first, fourth and third in their division. They missed the playoffs twice, advanced beyond the first round only twice and never reached The Finals.
Abdul-Jabbar won two of his MVP awards in that run, in 1976 and ’77, and went to four more All-Star Games. He missed in 1978, a troubled season all around. It began when he punched Milwaukee’s Kent Benson on opening night and fractured his hand, costing him nearly seven weeks before he played again. He posted his lowest scoring (25.8) and rebounding (12.8) averages to date in nine NBA seasons, perfectly fine numbers for almost anyone but him.
He had off-the-court issues related to his religion and his relationships, and from the looks of it, his pilot light as a great NBA player was flickering.
Red Auerbach, Boston’s cigar-smoking coach and GM, was a tough critic, especially of opponents. He and his players bled Celtics green -- earlier versions of Tommy Lasorda and Dodgers blue -- and Auerbach publicly praised others grudgingly.
Auerbach did have to make peace with some of those opposing players for a series of instructional videos, “Red on Roundball,” that aired at halftime of network games in the 1970s and ’80s. In an episode featuring Abdul-Jabbar, the feisty Celtics boss didn’t hesitate when he called the Bucks center “the greatest offensive threat in the history of basketball.”
Given the source of the compliment, it spoke volumes about Abdul-Jabbar’s place in the game, not just against contemporaries but in its history.
The big man got hooked up to jumper cables in the fall of 1979, when Earvin “Magic” Johnson came to L.A. with the No. 1 draft pick. With a new owner and a new entertainment-first approach on and off the court, Johnson was set loose for a high-octane, fast-break style of play that became known as “Showtime.”
Don’t get it twisted -- Kareem still was and forever would be “The Captain” of those Lakers teams. He earned his sixth and final MVP trophy in 1979-80. But the kid from East Lansing, Mich., with the mile-wide smile was their heart and their new face.
Johnson’s bear-hug jubilation attaching himself to the veteran center after they beat the Clippers in San Diego -- game No. 1 of an 82-game season -- startled Abdul-Jabbar. But it appeared to energize him too, as he averaged 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots that year, while posting the best field-goal percentage (60.4) of his career.
In the playoffs, during which Abdul-Jabbar turned 33, his averages bumped up to 31.9 points, 12.1 boards and 3.9 blocks. That included his work in the 1980 Finals against Philadelphia: 33.4 points per game and 13.6 rebounds.
Magic’s incredible Game 6 performance in the championship clincher is burned into NBA lore for the way the effervescent rookie stepped into Abdul-Jabbar’s considerable sneakers. The Captain had wrenched an ankle late in Game 5, so he was kept in L.A. to heal for a possible seventh game that never happened. Johnson handled the opening tip and scored 42 points with 15 boards, seven assists, three blocks and a steal in a 123-107 victory on the Sixers’ court.
Far fewer people recall what Abdul-Jabbar did in Game 5, though, before and even after turning his ankle in the third quarter: 40 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks. His full repertoire of offensive and defensive moves was on display, including a toughness for which the big man seldom got credit.
The Lakers’ young star, in other words, closed out The Finals because of what the old star did two nights earlier.
The Lakers won another ring -- the eighth in franchise history and Abdul-Jabbar’s third -- in 1982 and returned to the Finals in 1983 as well. By 1983-84, Kareem was 36 and beginning his 15th season, still an incredible athlete and competitor, but with a lot less hair and a lot more mileage.
There still was time to chase more titles, but the goal looming in front of him was the NBA’s most hallowed of lifetime achievements: Chamberlain’s all-time scoring total.
While it seemed inevitable to fall into Abdul-Jabbar’s hands, he was a different player by then, shooting the ball less, his minutes down, coach Pat Riley finding seams in the game each night to rest him.
He had a different personality by then, too: Less aloof and suspicious of strangers and reporters, more comfortable with the public. And as an athlete, he was coping with the rigors of aging, turning to chiropractors and assorted other regimens to stay limber and healthy.
When Abdul-Jabbar finally scaled the mountain top -- oddly, in a neutral-site game hosted by the Utah Jazz in Las Vegas -- his 31,420th point came on a sky hook from the right baseline. Chamberlain was there even if the Lakers’ regular season ticketholders were not.
Abdul-Jabbar’s status as his team’s and the league’s elder statesman lasted a solid half-dozen years. He and the Lakers won three more championships in 1985, '87 and '88, reviving the old L.A.-Boston showdowns of the 1960s into the rivalry of a whole new decade.
Six more All-Star selections pushed his career total to 19. He ran his All-NBA honors to 15 and his All-Defense berths to 11 before he was done. And he pushed his career points total to 38,387 – more than 20% beyond Chamberlain’s old mark -- by playing another 394 games after that special night in Vegas.
Years later, when arguments ignited about the greatest NBA player of all time, Abdul-Jabbar’s name often got lost in a shuffle behind Michael Jordan and LeBron James, neglected by old-school folks stumping for Chamberlain or Russell and squeezed by the wonders of his protégé Johnson and Celtics rival Larry Bird. Even when the focus was simply the Lakers, some folks would talk up Johnson, Jerry West or Kobe Bryant as the franchise’s best ever. It was as if Abdul-Jabbar’s 14 seasons in Los Angeles got disqualified by those first six in Milwaukee.
None of that seemed to matter much to the man himself. Pensive, opinionated, his emotions typically in check, he never seemed to get drawn into the debates. By the end of the 1988-89 season, at 42, he was on to other challenges in life, in search of new interests to pique his curiosity.
Besides, his record could speak for itself.
Sometime in 2022-23 most likely, Abdul-Jabbar’s points record will be eclipsed too. Another Laker, LeBron James, is chasing that goal and barring something unforeseen, will get it.
The brawny former Cleveland and Miami star figures to accomplish what another NBA strongman, Hall of Famer Karl Malone, couldn’t quite finish. Malone ended his 19-season career -- 18 in Utah, his final year with the Lakers -- with 36,928 points, a good season or more shy of Abdul-Jabbar’s total.
From the big fella’s comments, whether it be Malone, James or somebody else, handing off a sports record is the most natural thing imaginable. It is to be celebrated, not resented. Count on Abdul-Jabbar to be there when James reaches 38,388.
One thing Abdul-Jabbar can never have taken away is the sky hook. The signature move will be mentioned no later than the second paragraph of his obituary and in silhouette could serve as an alternate NBA logo.
So dubbed by long-ago Bucks play-by-play announcer Eddie Doucette, it forever will be remembered as the most unstoppable, effective, confounding, non-dunk shot in the game’s history. Even more astounding than the manner in which Abdul-Jabbar flaunted it across 20 seasons, though, is the fact that in what frequently gets labeled a “copycat league,” no one since has embraced and developed it as his own.
Big men have come and gone, many of whom had the finesse, length and build to have a right- or left-handed sky hook in his quiver. It’s almost as if it would be sacrilege or mocking to adopt the sport’s most famous shot.
So let’s always remember Abdul-Jabbar in all his grace and dominance, hoisting 70 of those in highlight form in a tribute for his 70th birthday in 2017. When the 7-foot-2 assassin would post up, hunch over and put the ball on the floor to rev up, he could look for a moment like an awkward grade-schooler just learning the game. Then he would soar, the shot almost unblockable, several inches beyond the reach of his most challenging defenders, who would know usually without turning that the ball had gone through.
Not duplicating it, that would be understandable. But seldom or ever imitating it? Now that’s reverence.