Editor’s note: The first in an ongoing series (well, hopefully) that will look at the final games of sports legends. Everyone remembers their careers and great moments but the end is usually mundane, forgettable, if not difficult to watch. The player is usually slower, tired and well past their prime. Their whole careers — and most of their lives — have been spent practicing or playing games. All those passes and free throws and catches and hits and pitches. And then, finally, it’s over. There’s one last basket, one last touchdown, one last game. It ends. It’s not the most memorable chapter in their careers but it is an important one — because it’s the final one. Today: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood above everyone else from the time he stepped onto a basketball court as an unusually tall Manhattan schoolboy. He was the best high school player in the country, perhaps the greatest college basketball player ever (depending on your views of Bill Walton) and the most prolific scorer in NBA history. He dominated from his days at Power Memorial in New York to his legendary first game on the UCLA freshmen team, when he led the first-year players to a rout over the varsity Bruins, who happened to be the defending national champs. He arrived in Milwaukee and led the Bucks to a title in his second year. He won five championships with the Lakers and even at the age of 38 he won the Finals MVP in a six-game victory over the Celtics in 1985. At 39, he was voted first-team all-NBA, in a league that included a young Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. In 1987 — now 40 but looking fierce with a newly shaved head — he scored 32 points in the clinching Game 6 of the Finals. The next year, as the Lakers saw their attempt at becoming the first repeat champion since Russell’s Celtics slipping away in the final seconds of Game 6 against the Pistons, the Lakers dumped the ball to him on the right block as they trailed by 1. Kareem went up for the hook for the millionth time in his life, drew a questionable foul on Bill Laimbeer and drained the two free throws. They repeated in Game 7. He was always The Man, from the time he was a boy until he was the oldest man in the league.
Then came the 1989 season.