EDITOR’S NOTE: At Crossover Chronicles, we’re spending August and September tackling something other than football. We’re revisiting various “all-time” NBA conversations in a roundtable format.
CC writers Joe Manganiello and Collin O’Connor are joining me for this extended roundtable series. In our opener, we looked at the top five centers in league history.
Each day, our roundtable will be accompanied by a companion piece on one of the men prominently featured in that particular discussion. This is, you could say, the first installment of our “roundtable companion series” here at Bloguin and Crossover Chronicles. Enjoy!
Before the end of the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs, Tim Duncan will turn 40 years old. Everyone in or near the NBA knows how well Duncan has kept the corrosive forces of time at bay. It is not easy to grasp Duncan’s otherworldly consistency at age 39, but modern-day basketball analysts are very familiar with it.
This familiarity with Duncan’s machine-like steadiness in the present day makes it easy to think that Duncan is redefining old-man basketball. However, nearly three decades before Duncan became one of the greatest graybeard performers in NBA history, another man showed something that Duncan hasn’t yet gotten a chance to match… but will be able to next spring.
Before there was Tim Duncan, stopping the two hands on the clock, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar showed that age 40 did not mean the end of a career, the end of success at the highest level, or the end of relevance. Indeed, for all that Duncan has achieved in his NBA life, he has not yet won a world title at 40 or made three (straight) NBA Finals after turning 40. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did that, and while there’s so much else about his legacy which deserves further examination, it’s this part of Kareem’s identity we’re going to focus on for a bit.
No one needs to be told just how great the late-1980s Los Angeles Lakers were. The team that was stunned by the Houston Rockets in the 1986 Western Conference Finals calmly responded by becoming the first NBA team since the 1968 and 1969 Boston Celtics to win a repeat championship. The Lakers stormed through the Western Conference in 1987 and 1989, sweeping the conference finals and barely getting touched in each of those years. The Lakers went 11-1 in the 1987 West playoffs, 11-0 in 1989. When the Lakers failed to win a third straight NBA title in 1989, they lost Magic Johnson and Byron Scott to injuries during and before the Finals against the Detroit Pistons. With a complete roster — or at least one with a healthy Magic — who knows if the Lakers could have won their “three-peat”?
The larger point is this: The Lakers of 1987 through 1989 were not exactly weighed down at any position. They couldn’t have been; otherwise, they wouldn’t have achieved what they did.
Their center turned 40 years old on April 16, 1987, roughly when the first of three playoff runs would begin in “The Fabulous Forum.”
Yes, the reality of the Lakers’ excellence in the second half of the 1980s — better than the first — is remarkable for the fact that the team’s center remained the same all the way to the very end. When the Lakers won championships in 1980 and 1982, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was their center, still in the early half of his 30s and not particularly close to the finish line in his career. Yet, when Kareem hit 40… and 41… and even 42, the Lakers were still a monster in both the league and the West.
This was not a team lugging around a center who couldn’t cut it; couldn’t run up and down the floor; couldn’t play the way he needed to play. Kareem did get valuable rest and help from Mychal Thompson, who could log 30 minutes a night if need be; in this sense, Kareem was protected and shepherded into an old-man age (for an athlete) in much the same way Duncan has been in San Antonio with the Spurs. Yet, when Kareem was called upon, he still offered positive answers for the Lakers, and interestingly enough, when he was no longer part of the team in 1990, the Lakers bombed out of the playoffs early (to the Phoenix Suns in the second round). Pat Riley turned the page in his coaching career and left Los Angeles. The Lakers made a surprising run to the Finals in 1991, but the decline of the franchise was painfully evident. It would take nine years after that Finals series for the Lakers to regain their aura as a franchise and become the elite team they’re expected to be.
Kareem mattered, but the instructive point to make is that this was not the Kareem of 1971 with the world champion Milwaukee Bucks. This was not the 1980 superstar who played effectively and productively while injured in Game 5 of the Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, thereby ensuring that the Lakers could not lose the series in Game 6 and giving Magic Johnson the confidence he needed to play what probably remains the best game of his life.
This was not the Kareem who commanded the NBA’s stage in 1982 and who rallied the Lakers past the Boston Celtics in the 1985 Finals, giving the franchise its sweetest victory.
Every version of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mattered during his career, but the man formerly named Lew Alcindor mattered even in his 40s, even near the end, even in the midst of the heavyweight series which marked 1980s-era NBA Finals.
In Game 6 of the 1987 Finals, Magic was busy tucking away the series MVP award, but Kareem closed down the Boston Celtics with a majestic 32-point performance on 13-of-18 shooting from the field… at age 40. Kareem wasn’t the best player on the floor in that series, but he was the best player in Game 6 of those Finals.
In 1988, the Lakers’ powers and Kareem’s legs were pushed to the limit, with three straight teams (the Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks, and then the Detroit Pistons) taking Los Angeles to a Game 7. That grueling playoff run could have taken every last ounce of what Kareem had to give, and in fact, the old man did look like a diminished player for much of the 1988 Finals against the younger and supremely intense Pistons. Yet, when it would have been so easy to walk off the stage as a champion and craft the perfect ride into the sunset, Abdul-Jabbar was willing to play another season.
The Lakers did not lose a Western Conference playoff game the next time they took the court in defense of their 1988 title. Kareem, at age 42, could still blend in with his younger teammates and get Los Angeles to thrive.
On the final night of his career — Game 4 of the 1989 NBA Finals — Kareem was slow to the ball. He was behind the curve — deficient enough to limit his team, at any rate. When Bill Laimbeer and James Edwards and John Salley and Rick Mahorn came at him in Game 4, he didn’t have answers. Surrendering the NBA title to Detroit — watching the torch get passed — represented the typical and expected ending to a long career in professional basketball. That’s how the story is supposed to conclude.
Yet, what many might forget about those 1989 Finals — diminished by the Magic and Byron Scott injuries, reduced to a sweep, essentially a done deal as soon as Game 2 ended — is that in Kareem’s next-to-last game, near the very end of a 20-season run which stretched back to 1969, he could still deliver the goods.
In Game 3 of the Finals, when David Rivers had to spell Magic Johnson at the point and the Lakers desperately scrambled for every last bench basket and role-player rebound they could find, Kareem filled the gap. He unfurled a 24-point, 13-rebound performance, hitting over 50 percent of his shots. Of all the impressive games Kareem has played, that one might not be the most impactful or memorable, but it underscores how relevant Abdul-Jabbar remained in his career, until the moment he hung up his sneakers.
Hakeem Olajuwon, as a point of comparison, suffered through three absolutely miserable seasons at the close of his remarkable NBA journey, which certainly put him in the conversation alongside Kareem as one of the five best NBA centers of all time. Olajuwon’s final season with the Toronto Raptors — much like Patrick Ewing’s final seasons with the Seattle Sonics and Orlando Magic — were sad and, in certain ways, unnecessary.
Kareem’s statistical output clearly declined in 1989, and his minutes were more limited than they’d ever been, but not to the point where he was relegated to the periphery. He still played roughly half of every Laker game, making his minutes count. Sure, he received a farewell tour and knew that the end was near, but he didn’t say his actual goodbye to the court until after he went for 24 and 13 on 10-of-19 shooting against the Bad Boys, the team that would dethrone the Lakers. Game 3 of the 1989 NBA Finals was Kareem’s great reminder to everyone that while his production was no longer constant, his presence remained a weapon in itself. For all the stoicism one might find in his demeanor over the final few years of his career — he was definitely not the angry young man he had been in Milwaukee — Kareem’s inner fire burned with a brightness only the greatest of champions can carry for a period as long as 20 years. Abdul-Jabbar’s pilot light never flickered or dimmed — it wasn’t extinguished until the last second of the last game ticked off the clock in The Forum.
Many people might think that Tim Duncan lives in a world no one else has ever visited before, and on some precise statistical levels, that’s almost certainly true.
Yet, with respect to hitting 40 years of age in the NBA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has inhabited the place Tim Duncan has yet to see. We will find out next spring if the great old man of today can match the greater old man of yesterday.
Kareem’s longevity and quality — with the quality matching the longevity, not merely preceding it — represent the heart of the argument which says that the greatest college basketball player of all time is also the NBA’s greatest center of all time.