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He is still hounded because he is just about the biggest, and for so many years he was unquestionably the best. And now, a few days past his 32nd birthday, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is still haunted by the perception of fans and media people that he can do whatever he pleases on a basketball court—score, rebound, defend—and, by extension, win or lose.
Thus when Abdul-Jabbar's Los Angeles Lakers opened their best-of-three-game mini-series in Denver last week, none of the questions that normally precede a playoff series seemed to be of consequence, at least not in Los Angeles. How the Nuggets would fare with Tom Boswell replacing the injured George McGinnis; how the Lakers' small back-court would cope with Charlie Scott and David Thompson; how their frontcourt would deal with the outside game of Center Dan Issel; and whether the Lakers could break the mile-high jinx and win for the first time ever in Denver—all seemed trivial. What really counted was: Does Kareem want it?
So in Game 1, which the Lakers lost 110-105, the lingering memories were those of Abdul-Jabbar being outscored by Issel—who is five inches shorter—30-23, the Lakers being outrebounded 45-37, Abdul-Jabbar at times not bothering to run upcourt, and the Nuggets scoring 17 layups off their set offense, rudely penetrating the basket area that Abdul-Jabbar is supposed to keep as secure as Fort Knox.
After this opening performance, Abdul-Jabbar was excoriated in the Los Angeles press. Few other players in the game are treated so badly in their home cities. In Houston, for instance, few want to have Moses Malone's uniform repossessed just because the Rockets were swept by Atlanta in their mini-series. But in Los Angeles they expect Kareem to do it all every game, as though none of the other 10 Lakers ever had a hand in a defeat. Much attention was drawn to the recent remarks of Wilt Chamberlain who, of all people, lashed out at Abdul-Jabbar for being lax in defending what Wilt calls the "office," the 15-by-16-foot lane in front of the opponents' basket.
"Is it fair?" said Kareem between Games 1 and 2. "Of course not. But I'm a target. Always have been. Too big to miss."
He responded to the acid attack by scoring 32 points and pulling down 12 rebounds—despite playing with five fouls most of the second half—as Los Angeles won Game 2, 121-109. Although many thought it was his finest game as a Laker, coming as it did in the face of elimination, others felt this was simply what Kareem should be doing all the time. But by the time the Lakers came back to finish Denver in Game 3 on Sunday, 112-111, Abdul-Jabbar was again being hailed as the best player in the game. And when was the last time anyone heard that? His numbers were sensational: 29 points on 13-for-19 shooting, 16 rebounds, eight assists and six blocked shots in 48 minutes. Not for a second did he sit, nor did he loaf for a moment on the floor, or gulp oxygen during timeouts as he had in Game 1 to combat Denver's altitude.
"I was very, very tired down the stretch," Kareem said, "but I figured I'd give my all because if we lost there would be no season left anyway." Despite his fatigue, when Norm Nixon passed him the ball with 12 seconds left and the Lakers down 111-110, he determinedly drove across on Issel from the left side of the lane and launched his classic sky-hook. As Thompson described it, "Automatic. Right down the bottom of the basket. Wow!"
But Denver still had a chance when Thompson, who scored 84 points in the series—28 in Game 3—put up a 15-foot jump shot in the final seconds that clanked off the rim. "I followed it and thought I had a shot by tipping it in," he said, "but out of nowhere Kareem came and swatted it away."
After the final buzzer Abdul-Jabbar was jumping up and down and thrusting his fists into the air. "It feels real good to show some people that they're not right," he said.
Kareem's performance in Games 2 and 3 showed clearly the resolution of what Laker Coach Jerry West had called the special problem that Issel created for Abdul-Jabbar. Issel is the best outside-shooting center in the NBA, and he was at his best Tuesday night in Game 1, hitting 12 of 23 shots outside and inside and taunting Kareem as if he were a chained bull. Issel would hit a couple of unchallenged 20-footers, forcing Abdul-Jabbar a little farther from the basket, at which point—whoosh!—with a lightning first step he would blow by Kareem for a layup. Or Issel would lure the defense to him by driving, then dish off to Boswell who, lounging like a tenant in Kareem's office all night, wound up hitting eight of 10 shots, mostly layups.