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.
Kareem had ceded primary scoring duties to Magic Johnson two years earlier. But in 1989 his production finally plummeted as he averaged just 10 points and four rebounds. Head coach Pat Riley only played Kareem 22 minutes per game.
It was a strange year for the Lakers, exhausted from their back-to-back titles and decade of dominance. For awhile they couldn’t win on the road, dropping a remarkable eight in a row away from The Forum. The season included ceremonies in each road city, honoring Kareem and his remarkable career. Rivals gave him gifts like paintings, motorcycles and rocking chairs, but like Julius Erving’s going-away parties two years earlier, the ceremonies were often bizarre affairs.
Sports Illustrated put Kareem on the cover in January, with the headline “Kareem’s Last Stand.” The story, by the great Jack McCallum, documented Kareem’s season-long struggles, chastising one of the great physical specimens in league history for not being ready for the 82-game grind.
Laughable isn’t the word to describe his averages in points (8.6 per game through Monday), rebounds (4.1) and blocked shots (0.8), or his .437 field goal percentage. Sad is the word. Where once he scored in double figures in 787 consecutive regular-season games, a 10-point outing for Abdul-Jabbar these days is cause for celebration…
Still, the dramatic decline in Abdul-Jabbar’s play has both surprised and disappointed his teammates. “We knew Kareem would be down a little,” says Magic Johnson. “We just didn’t know it would be quite like this.”
Kareem did pick up his game as the season progressed — raising that average from the SI story a few points — and the Lakers won five in a row to end the regular season and then went on an unprecedented run in the playoffs, sweeping the first three rounds on their way to the Finals and an 11-0 mark in the playoffs.
The Lakers carried that 16-game winning streak into the Finals, but went into the series a damaged team. Byron Scott injured his hamstring in practice before Game 1 and Magic’s hamstring went out in the second half of Game 2. The Lakers still had chances to win Games 2 and 3 but missed free throws and a blocked three-pointer gave the Pistons a commanding 3-0 lead. I still firmly believe the Lakers win that series if healthy — or even if only Magic had been around the whole series. Kareem had his final great moment in Game 3, scoring 24 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
Game 4’s result seemed inevitable, even if the Lakers again stayed close. James Worthy scored 40 points on an incredible display of power and finesse against the Bad Boys, but like they did in Games 2 and 3, the Pistons pulled away in the fourth quarter. History has shown that no NBA team has a chance when its down 3-0 and the Lakers — without Magic and Scott — were in worse shape than even the most helpless teams. Fans came to The Forum knowing it’d be Kareem’s last game and if it had to end — and for 22 years people wondered if it actually would — it should end in LA, in front of the late-arriving, if always appreciative fans.
Kareem went out playing like an old man, instead of the Kareem of old from Game 3. He played 29 minutes, hit 2 of 8 from the floor and scored seven points. He grabbed three rebounds, blocked a couple of shots. A 10-years-younger Kareem could have perhaps led a team that played Tony Campbell, David Rivers and Jeff Lamp to victory — a 38-year-old Kareem might have done the same — but it was too much to ask of the Captain in June 1989.
I remember CBS showing Kareem’s parents in the crowd at Game 4. They saw him the first time he picked up a basketball as a young boy and they were there the last time he walked off a court. His dad — Big Al — remains a central figure in my favorite Lakers story. After the Celtics routed the Lakers in Game 1 of the ’85 Finals, Riley ripped into the team, particularly his 38-year-old center. Before Game 2 Kareem asked if his dad could take the bus. Mark Heisler wrote about it in Madmen’s Ball:
“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.”
The Lakers won Game 2 and the ’85 series. But there would be no last great stand in Game 4 of the ’89 Finals, just a last game in front of his mom and dad. The Pistons won 105-97, but their cushion in the final minute allowed Riley to give Kareem a proper send-off. I can’t find any good YouTube video of those final moments, just a grainy film. Riley removed Kareem a few times in the final minutes and each time you wondered if it was for the final time. He pulled him with 47 seconds and the crowd erupted, though he would again return to the court.
When he finally came out for good all the Lakers greeted him, including Magic in his warmup bottoms and blue T-shirt. Magic had certainly altered Kareem’s career; those late-70s Lakers teams were not title contenders and Kareem seemed increasingly miserable. But Magic’s not introduced as a five-time champion if not for No. 33. Of all the things that must have tormented Magic about that series — the failure to three-peat, losing to friends Isiah and Mark Aguirre — not being able to send Kareem out with a title likely ranked somewhere in the top 5. The famous Magic smile is nowhere to be found. Tony Campbell congratulates Kareem. So does a beleaguered Jeff Lamp, surely the highlight of the former Virginia star’s career.
I always love when a crowd acknowledges a player in high school or college when he fouls out as a senior. It’s a going-away ovation, recognition for that game and a brief career. This was that ovation times three NCAA titles, 20 NBA seasons, six MVPS and six titles. Give the Pistons credit too. Even in the midst of the franchise’s greatest moment, a title that confirmed Isiah Thomas’s status as an all-time great and gave veteran coach Chuck Daly his first championship, the bad boys — including Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer — turn to the Lakers’ bench and stand and cheer.
And Kareem’s reaction — you expected tears? He probably wore the same expression when he walked off the court following the freshmen team’s victory over the UCLA varsity 24 years earlier — only the goggles, hairstyle and name had changed. Kareem walked off the court scoring only eight points in that game but with 38,387 regular season points and 5,762 more in the playoffs. He still stood above everyone else on the court. But only literally this time.