Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hotel room was dark and, with the air conditioner turned up, chilled like a crypt. Which was appropriate, because the night before, in Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference finals, Abdul-Jabbar had played in a cold rage after some fans at the HemisFair Arena in San Antonio had taunted him about the fire that had destroyed his Bel Air, Calif. house in January. Now, as he talked about the surprising dominance his Lakers were showing over the San Antonio Spurs, it was as if he was trying to cool some great heat within himself.
"Everybody wants to win," Abdul-Jabbar said, "everybody has that desire. But what's important is knowing how to sustain it without letting the other team throw you off. Sometimes victory is determined by fate, or just by the fact that you're stronger than your opponent. You win because you know what you want to do and you execute it."
And execute is just about what the Lakers did to the Spurs last week. With cold precision and an incendiary fast break, Los Angeles took a 3-1 lead in the series with a 129-121 victory in San Antonio on Sunday in which Abdul-Jabbar, productive as ever, scored 26 points. The Lakers had lost four of five games to the Spurs during the regular season, and in Artis Gilmore, San Antonio had one of the few centers in the league capable of guarding Abdul-Jabbar one-on-one. In addition, the Spurs were eager to avenge last season's 4-0 Western Conference final series loss to L.A. But while Gilmore did a creditable job last week, Abdul-Jabbar was consistently operating on some higher level.
It was a series that figured to turn on individual matchups, and the most intriguing was the one between Abdul-Jabbar and Gilmore. Before the series, Spurs Coach Stan Albeck had tried to relieve some of the pressure on Gilmore by insisting that the backcourt duel between Norm Nixon and Johnny Moore would be decisive, but that was merely a diversionary ploy. If the Spurs were to have any chance against the defending NBA champions, the 7'2", 260-pound Gil-more would have to successfully engage the 7'2", 235-pound Abdul-Jabbar in a physical and psychological slam-dance deep in the low post.
There was sufficient reason to wonder whether Gilmore was equal to that kind of challenge. Though the A Train is the NBA's alltime leading shooter (.593), the Bulls made the playoffs only twice during his six seasons in Chicago. When things went badly, Gilmore had usually gotten most of the blame, and it wasn't surprising that last summer the Bulls shipped him to San Antonio for Forward Mark Olberding and Center Dave Corzine. "Coming here provided a mental lift for him," says Albeck. "All you ever heard about Artis before he got here was the things he couldn't do."
It took Gilmore and high-scoring Guard George (the Iceman) Gervin nearly a third of the season to get used to each other, during which time the Spurs struggled before meshing to win the Midwest Division title. "One of our problems early," Albeck says, "was that Ice would come down, throw it into Artis and say, 'Damn it. Big Fella, go ahead.' Artis didn't know what to do. It was the first time Ice had played with a center of Artis' quality, and he thought if he just pitched it in there, Artis would be Kareem. But Artis just isn't as skilled as Kareem is."
That was obvious after Game 1 in Los Angeles. Gilmore picked up two fouls in less than three minutes as the Lakers repeatedly fed Abdul-Jabbar down low. The Spurs were never much of a threat after that, losing 119-107. Gilmore, who fouled out with 5:18 left in the game, had scored only seven points to Abdul-Jabbar's 30. "This is hurting me," he said later. "I've got to play better." Gilmore likened his game to "jumping into a car and finding out it won't start."
Albeck was so upset with the calls against Gilmore in that game that he drew two technical fouls and got tossed out with 3:53 to play. An excitable man who is known as Stanley Screamer, Albeck has an impressive repertoire of sideline moves, including the highest vertical leap of any white coach in the NBA. Last year, when Albeck was doing one of his routines. Referee Bob Rakel stopped to watch him. "You can talk to me, Stan," Rakel said reproachfully, "and I'll listen to what you have to say. But I'm not going to have you dancing on me." The Lakers had danced up and down on San Antonio in the opener—with Nixon scoring 30 and dealing out eight assists—but the Spurs were about to cut in.
Nothing that had happened in the first game diminished Abdul-Jabbar's respect for Gilmore. "I know that he's going to test me," Abdul-Jabbar said. "He's not a flashy player, but he's very effective. If I don't do my job well, he can make it a very long evening for me. He's done it before." And he did it again in Game 2, scoring 27 points to go with 20 rebounds and five blocked shots. This time it was Abdul-Jabbar who fouled out late in the game as the Spurs won 122-113. Gilmore was able to establish his game early, while the Lakers—perhaps because they were too intent on running—failed to take full advantage of Abdul-Jabbar.
The third quarter of Game 2 was really the only time last week when Gervin was able to fashion any of his Ice sculptures. Scoring on looping finger-roll drives, bank shots and an assortment of floating moves, he hit seven straight baskets and a pair of free throws for 16 points in the period. He finished with 32. "Ice is still Ice," Albeck said. "People forget he's one of the very few people in the league capable of scoring 20 points in a quarter. If he's got the hot hand, everything is directed to him, and all we try to do is milk it as long as we can. He's hunting the ball, and Moore's hunting him."