Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A tribute to The Captain

My dad turns 64 in about a week - even if he denies this - and that means in a few weeks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will hit the same age. It's how I remember Kareem's birthday, because he's a few weeks younger than my dad. Or maybe it's how I remember my dad's birthday, because he's a few weeks older than the big fella.

You don't see a lot of Kareem these days, at least if you're looking on TV broadcasts or NBA sidelines. He never did land a head coaching job in the league and his calm, measured way of speaking probably wouldn't earn him an audition for studio jobs, where volume often trumps all else. But he's been popping up recently, promoting his documentary On the Shoulders of Giants. More Kareem's always a good thing.

Twenty-two years after his final NBA game, Kareem remains one of the most remarkable athletes in sports history. Like many Lakers fans who came of age during the Showtime Era, I worshipped Magic Johnson while also realizing Kareem was just as important - more important in some ways - to the team's success. He was unstoppable, but also seemingly unknowable, no matter how many times fans quoted his lines from Airplane. He didn't care much for the media, meaning the media didn't have much reason to care for him. He possessed the most unstoppable shot in the game's history, developed as a kid and perfected after college basketball's lords tired of his dominance and banned the dunk. He remained the Lakers' go-to player at the age of 40, even while playing with two fellow Hall of Famers. He owns the career scoring mark, but even that impossible-to-comprehend figure didn't protect him from criticism, as many attributed it simply to good genes. For certain stretches, he was the best player in his sport in three separate decades. He was The Captain. Here then, a few thoughts on Kareem, or, as Dick Stockton called him on Return to Glory, the Begoggled Wonder:

* Kareem grew up in Inwood, about 15 blocks from where I now live. But he went to high school at famed Power Memorial, which was at 61st Street but closed in 1984. Kareem - then Lew Alcindor - led Power to 71 consecutive victories. He graduated in 1965. Jack Donohue coached Kareem's team and left Power for the head job at Holy Cross in 1965. Probably a coincidence.

There's a great video on YouTube that has footage of DeMatha snapping Power's long winning streak. The first few minutes are filled with people in glasses jumping up and down, as the cameraman was apparently under directions to not film the actual game, no matter what was happening on the court. I think you'll figure out which player was Kareem.

Here's Big Lew as a high school sophomore with the other top prep players in the country. They appeared on Ed Sullivan's show in 1963, probably right before a family of jugglers.

Ed says Kareem's being compared to Wilt Chamberlain. A 15-year-old being compared to the most dominant player the game had ever seen. Just a little pressure. Yet 21 years later, that kid drilled a skyhook in Utah and passed Wilt on the all-time scoring list.

* A star forward named Edgar Lacey joined Kareem on that All-Sullivan squad. Kareem later played with him on the UCLA dynasty. And in 1969, Kareem, now an NBA rookie, wrote a remarkable story for Sports Illustrated, where he talked about his Olympic boycott, his debate about which pro league to join and the final UCLA title of his career. But he also criticized the one saint of college basketball, his own legendary coach, John Wooden.

Kareem criticized Wooden for his treatment of Lacey. When Houston defeated UCLA in the Game of the Century in 1968, Elvin Hayes dominated Lacey in the first half of the game, before Wooden benched Lacey in the second half. Kareem wrote that Wooden had a "blind spot" when it came to players who didn't completely agree with Wooden's view of the world. If you weren't morally in tune with Wooden, he might not play you or he'd make your life difficult. Lacey, Kareem believed, suffered unnecessarily because of it. After the Houston game, Lacey left the team. Kareem wrote:

"Lace was very much his own man. He did his own thing, and he did not alter his personality to suit whatever coach he was playing for. He would never become anybody's 'boy,' in the sense that Shack became Coach Wooden's boy.' So he found himself fighting for a starting position, while Shack got his automatically. And so help me, if I'm any judge of ballplayers at all, both Lace and Mike were better than Lynn Shackelford, despite the fact that Shack was one of the fine college players."

Later in the piece, Kareem wrote that he believed Wooden had, finally, changed and was not so unbending. And there's no doubt Kareem respected and admired his old coach. But he also always had the guts to criticize - he repeated those thoughts about Lacey years later in his autobiography. Imagine a Duke player writing a piece like that about Coach K today, seven months after winning a third national title. And in the same piece he discusses his conversion to Islam and his boycott of the sacred Olympics. Whose head explodes first? Coach K's, Dick Vitale's or Glenn Beck's?

* Kareem won 71 straight games at Power and 47 straight at UCLA. And in the pros, he led the Bucks to a then-record 20 consecutive victories. He also led Milwaukee over the Lakers during the 1972 season, snapping LA's record 33-game winning streak.

* His career high for points in a game? 55, against the Celtics in 1971. Kareem scored 50 or more points 15 times with Milwaukee, but never with the Lakers. His career high with LA came in 1975, when he scored 48 against Portland.

* Kareem appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated 22 times. The first one's below. Yes, that's him. No, not in the cheerleader's outfit. That's his leg and hand. SI used to run a lot of strange covers. It actually opened up to reveal all of Kareem. Still.

* You can't talk about Kareem without talking about the skyook. You can't even think about Kareem without thinking about the shot. It's the first image that comes to people's heads when hearing his name, with the second probably being his goggles.

He could shoot it with both hands and used it effectively while swinging to the baseline or gliding to the middle of the lane. It enabled him to be one of the few big men who was regularly called on in clutch situations. Especially today, but even throughout the game's history, guards usually dominate the ball in the closing minutes and final seconds. But Kareem's teams could throw it down to him, because unlike most post players, it didn't matter if opponents swarmed him. The skyhook was as effective over two guys as one. And he didn't need to be three or four feet from the hoop to score. The hook was good from 12 to 15 feet, more if The Captain felt especially frisky. Even in his later years with the Lakers, when he really only had the skyhook in his arsenal (along with an occasional drop-step move), the Lakers still went to him in the clutch. In Game 4 of the 1987 Finals, Kareem took the shot with the Lakers down 2 after Larry Bird's 3-pointer gave the Celtics the lead. He drew the foul but made only 1 of 2 free throws. Boston couldn't grab the rebound, however, and Magic hit a famous hook of his own. A year later, in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, with the repeat in jeopardy, the Lakers again went to the old man. This time he drew a foul - a questionable one at that - on Bill Laimbeer. His two free throws gave the Lakers the victory and a game later they had back-to-back titles.

J.A. Adande wrote a good story on the hook. And here's a video on it.

In the video, several people lament the fact no one shoots a skyhook regularly today. My question: Where were all the skyhook experts in the 1980s? Or even in the 1970s. It's not like anyone challenged Kareem's dominance of the skies back then. Magic probably owned the second-best hook of the '80s, even though his was more of a rolling hook. It's always been a difficult shot to learn and nearly impossible to master. Really only one guy ever did. That shouldn't be used as an indictment against today's players. It's okay to wonder why players today haven't implemented it. But you could ask the same question of pretty much every player throughout the game's history.

Coincidentally, my dad's best go-to shot in H-O-R-S-E was always a hook. So maybe you had to have been born in 1947 to possess the skills for it.

* The 1985 Finals remain Kareem's greatest achievement. At 38, he averaged 25 points, nine boards, five assists and 1.5 blocks, as the Lakers defeated the Celtics for the first time and clinched it at the Boston Garden. And all of that came after the Memorial Day Massacre.

That series also produced my favorite Kareem story, which happens to be my all-time favorite story in Lakers lore.

The Celtics embarrassed the Lakers 148-114 in the first game. Pat Riley crushed the team at the next film session, especially Kareem. He kept rewinding the tape to show Kareem's mistakes, to show Robert Parish beating him up and down the court. Kareem usually sat in back at film sessions but for that one he planted himself right in front and took every Riley barb.

Before Game 2, one of the most important games in the Showtime era, Kareem got on the bus and asked Riley if his dad could ride to Boston Garden with him.

In his book Madmen's Ball, longtime LA Times writer Mark Heisler wrote:
"Riley had long rigidly enforced a rule that kept everyone but the traveling party off the bus. Now, he saw Kareem, who'd had his issues with his father, asking to keep his dad next to him and was moved to make an exception. In Riley's pregame speech, he recalled [his own dad] Lee's order to make that stand and told his players to remember what their dads had told them. As trainer Gary Vitti would note, 'We were into, like, this father thing.' It was May 30, 1985, the night the Lakers' world changed."

That image of Kareem riding to the game in silence with his dad - Big Al - next to him has always been one of the defining moments for the 1980s Lakers.

In Game 2, Kareem had 30 points, 17 boards and 8 assists. The rest was history. And so were the Celtics.

Kareem's highlights are never as jaw-dropping as Jordan's, Bird's, Magic's or Kobe's. They consist of long strides and a skyhook. And then more skyhooks. But if you threw every NBA player in history into one draft, why wouldn't you pick Kareem? He dominated the game in his youth, and he dominated it near the end of his career. He owned the one shot that could never be stopped and his will to win was as great as Jordan's or Magic's. He performed with mind-numbing consistency in the never-ending regular seasons and was even better in the clutch.

He was The Captain. And he might have been the best the game's ever seen.


Neil R said...

Instead of a tribute to The Captain, you could spend your time more fittingly with a tribute to THE ADMIRAL!

Shawn Fury said...

I aim to please. So here's a tribute to the Admiral, David Robinson.

Neil R said...

I think you meant this link.

Hakeem couldn't do this!