"He's just doing everything: picking up all the players who drive, switching from one side of the court to the other, covering all kinds of ground, reacting exactly the way Russell reacted."
On the other end of the floor, Sharman says, he never had any doubts: "Let's face it, Kareem can do things offensively that Wilt and Russell never could. The point I'm trying to make is that he's definitely in their class defensively, too."
Abdul-Jabbar does other things. Sharman loves to see his teams run, but there can be no fast break without the big man who gets the defensive rebound. And Abdul-Jabbar continues to play unselfishly, nearly always looking for the Laker cutting toward the hoop rather than seeking a shooting opportunity for himself. If a teammate pops free, he gets the pass, and Goodrich is one of the league's best at getting open without the ball. If the man with the ball is in trouble, Abdul-Jabbar sprints out from the key to where he can take a rescue pass.
"I think I'm playing really well," he says. He has become much more friendly and articulate than in his "uh, you know" days. "I think my experience is really starting to count for a lot. Plus, I have a green light as far as innovating. It's more open, more free lance here. I don't mean to knock Larry [ Costello], but here you don't get yelled at if you don't run the play perfectly."
Abdul-Jabbar cannot win any championships by himself, of course, any more than Russell, Chamberlain or George Mikan could. But he has talented help. Though Goodrich is reportedly several fortunes apart from Laker management in his salary demands, he complements his big center well with his quickness and outside shooting. Lucius Allen, the other starting guard, has won championships with Abdul-Jabbar at two previous stops, UCLA and Milwaukee. Ford, a 6'9" rookie forward with speed, has already picked up the Rick Barry knack of knowing just when to zoom off on the break. Cazzie Russell and ABA refugee Donnie Freeman have mastered the art of coming off the bench and getting into the flow of the game right away, or maybe even stepping up the tempo.
The combination has been successful so far, especially at home in the Forum, where the Lakers had won seven straight going into last Friday night's game against their old friends from Milwaukee. The Bucks had just come in from Phoenix, where with the aid of some nice plays by Meyers they beat the Suns 96-94. Winters had scored 20 points and gotten a team-high nine rebounds.
The Bucks managed to play the Lakers even for a half, though Abdul-Jabbar was his usual dominating self in the middle, but in the third and fourth quarters two L.A. substitutes made the difference. Calhoun, a defensive specialist, put the clamps on Milwaukee's hot shooter, Bob Dandridge. And Freeman, who played with the San Antonio Spurs last season, supplied both defense and a jump shot he drilled through the hoop for 18 second-half points.
L.A. won 116-104, increased its home winning streak to eight and became the first team in the NBA to win 11 games.
And Abdul-Jabbar? A run-of-the-mill working night for him: 48 minutes, 12 of 15 shots and six of 20 free throws for 30 points, 19 rebounds, three steals, three blocked shots, six assists. When asked about this, Sharman just grinned and shrugged and shook his head—three adjectives in mime that were as good as any.
Embry was on hand, too, with compliments for the big guy, but he was not in mourning.