Bill Sharman does not need another assistant coach to help him run the Los Angeles Lakers. Nor do his problems have to do with things like Gail Goodrich playing out his option or Don Ford's injured right thigh or Corky Calhoun's reluctance to shoot. His big headache is finding the proper new words after each game to describe the play of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. What Bill Sharman needs is an adjective coach.
Already this season he has described his prize acquisition as "amazing," "consistently outstanding," "beautiful," "devastating," "a leader" and "a great passer." The Los Angeles press has added "awesome," and "sensational." "Super" is sure to follow. And "towering"—we must not forget towering. Perhaps Sharman should keep a copy of Roget's Thesaurus in his office alongside his NBA rule book—do you like "ineffable"?—but even so, the English language (not to mention Kareem's opponents) may be exhausted before the season is half over, and we'll be hearing "magnifico" and "extraordinaire."
Reporters and coaches and teammates and opponents have been struggling to find words for Abdul-Jabbar for a long time now, but this year it has been especially tough. Through Saturday night he was leading the Lakers in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots, steals, shooting percentage and playing time and was second in assists. Against Phoenix one night in the Forum he blocked a shot, grabbed the ball, dribbled the length of the court, put in a fancy layup and was fouled. He missed the free throw, so the adjective "perfect" was shelved temporarily.
The trade that brought Kareem and Walt Wesley (since waived) to Los Angeles from Milwaukee in exchange for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman is looking awfully good. Optimists are sure of playoffs; super optimists are thinking NBA title.
Now, Milwaukee General Manager Wayne Embry, who traded the big center away, is not an imbecile. He knew that Abdul-Jabbar is the most effective player in the sport, maybe the most effective in the history of the sport. But Abdul-Jabbar did not like living in Milwaukee and had made clear his intention of playing out his option, meaning he would have played for the Bucks two more seasons and then been free to deal himself to New York, his first choice, or L.A., where he starred for UCLA on three NCAA championship teams.
Bothered by injuries and dissatisfied both with the city and with Coach Larry Costello's elaborate system, Abdul-Jabbar did not play his best in '74-'75, and the Bucks finished last in the Midwest Division. For the first time since he was a rookie, he did not make the NBA All-Star team, and Embry decided that it would be "unfair to our team and our fans to prolong the situation."
The Lakers, in the dumps after having missed the playoffs and figuring that they could not take the time to rebuild slowly in a city that demands championship contenders, had the youthful goods to satisfy the Bucks: Smith, a 7-foot center; Winters, a good second-year shooting guard from the University of South Carolina; Meyers, a 6'9" rookie forward from UCLA who could become one of the NBA's finest cornermen; and 6'5" swingman Bridgeman, a rookie from Louisville. Considering his dilemma, it is hard to see how Embry could have done better.
But it was L.A. that ended up with the human franchise, the "Kareem of the crop" as Buck broadcaster Eddie Doucette had named him, the 7'2" superstar who could pack the Forum and maybe mean the championship. Sharman, who played with Bill Russell and coached Wilt Chamberlain, has come to appreciate Abdul-Jabbar as he never did when coaching against him.
"The way he blocked six, seven, eight shots and got 20 rebounds most every game, I felt he was playing terrific defense," says Sharman. "And I thought to myself, 'That was a good night,' and 'That was another good night.'
"But now it's every night. And it hit me. He has the things Russell had: the timing, the jumping, the reactions to be able to block two, three or four shots in a row, the quick outlet pass to the first guard or the baseball pass downcourt.