A couple of National Basketball Association scouts had stopped in Cleveland last week to get an early look at both the Los Angeles Lakers, who were in town, and the Cavaliers. The Lakers had lost their first two games and were in the process of losing the third, 113-111, when Press Maravich ( New Orleans) turned to Pete Newell (Golden State) and asked:
"Why isn't Kareem playing?"
Newell relayed the question to a Los Angeles reporter.
"His season hasn't started yet," was the reply.
From all appearances, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had been off flying on a magic carpet somewhere. He was on the court for the Lakers' opening-night 110-102 loss at Philadelphia, but he took only 10 shots, made only three, scored just 14 points, and controlled but two offensive rebounds. At New Jersey the next night, he was 5 for 14, scored 12 points, had one offensive rebound, and the Lakers lost 102-100. It could have been worse. The Nets led 100-84 with 4:59 left, which was when Abdul-Jabbar was benched. With Dave Robisch in the pivot the rest of the game, the Lakers ran off 12 straight points and lost by only two. While in the game, Kareem had been held scoreless for a six-minute period by a rookie named Bob Elliott who shrugged off the feat, saying that "playing Kareem was just like playing myself."
If NBA centers intend to prepare for Kareem by chasing their own shadows around a gym, Laker Coach Jerry West might suggest the same for the swarms of reporters now hounding the club on the Abdul-Jabbar watch. "If you guys would write your stories about what makes a team win or lose instead of worrying about what one man is doing, we'd all be better off," he steamed in Cleveland. "Why we're losing doesn't have a thing to do with Kareem. Don't you watch the game? We don't pass. We don't rebound. We're playing poor defense. If you don't see Kareem score 30 points, you just assume the problem's with him."
The heat comes not in response to Abdul-Jabbar's performance so much as from the way he looks on the court. Even last season, when he averaged 25.8 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots and shot 55%—all close to his career marks—he usually looked disinterested and Bill Walton suddenly replaced Kareem in many eyes as the NBA's consummate center.
"Have I lost any enjoyment for the game?" Abdul-Jabbar took a long pull of orange juice and thought for several seconds as he sat at an outdoor restaurant in Los Angeles following a Laker practice. "I don't think so," he finally answered.
But he has changed, and the agent of change was the frightening incident with Kent Benson in last year's opener when Jabbar fractured his hand on Benson's face. "That moment will always be with me," says Kareem. "I see it over and over in slow motion. The really big thing is that I could have killed him. We were totally out of the play when he hit me in the stomach with an elbow. I immediately reverted to a primal state of mind, which is no mind at all. How many years am I out of Harlem, and that is still with me?"
"You have to know Kareem to understand what an experience like that would do to him," says West. "He's grown quieter. He's gone inside himself again. It's a tremendous change. When you've accomplished what he's accomplished, you don't need something like that to happen to your life. He gets beat up all the time, and when he retaliates he's a bad guy. He can't win either way. It's completely unfair."