Day by day, the
echoes inside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's month-old house were dying. First his books
and albums and Oriental rugs had arrived, followed by his paintings and
furniture, then his children and their toys, and his mother and father. He
draped himself across a sheet-covered couch and grinned. Two-twenty p.m. on an
autumn Monday in the moneyed Los Angeles enclave of Bel Air could linger as
long as it wanted. For the first time since he was a child he didn't want to be
anywhere but the time and place he was in.
How strange and
good this felt. For the last 25 years it had always seemed he was marking time,
not living it. When he was in high school he wished he was in college; in
college he wished he was in the pros. In Milwaukee he missed the sunshine of
Los Angeles; in Los Angeles he yearned for the jazz clubs and interesting
people of his native New York City; in New York City he sought freedom from his
parents and his past. He married and wanted to be single; he entered the arena
and wanted to be alone.
reflected this discomfort—unlike many people who want to be somewhere or
someone else, he would never mask it. He has made more field goals, 13,930 as
of Dec. 15, scored more points (33,754), blocked more shots (2,815) and won
more MVP trophies (six) than anybody in NBA history, yet his inability to enjoy
the moment became our inability to enjoy him.
An unusual thing
happened just as his career was about to die. Abdul-Jabbar didn't want it to.
He wanted to go on living in his city, in his house and with his family, and he
kept signing short-term contracts to extend his basketball life. He was
prolonging the moment instead of shedding it, sensing the sacredness of each
passing increment of time.
may still come and go, but now I have inner peace, and that stays," he
says. "I'm looking forward to life after basketball, but I'm in no hurry to
move on to the next phase. I was talking to a girl in my yoga class about how
I'm dealing now with celebrity and fans. She said, 'Oh, so you've decided to
ride that horse the way it is going.' "
He rose from the
couch. His mom was in the kitchen plotting a Thanksgiving Day meal, his dad in
the hallway directing two men hauling in a piece of late-arriving furniture. He
went upstairs to search for something, whistling a jazz tune. Two-thirty-five
was a nice moment to live in, too.
anymore? When a man has played for 17 years, broken records, won championships,
endured tremendous criticism and responsibility, why judge? Let's toast him
now. Let's toast him as the greatest player ever."
A few hours after
Pat Riley, the Los Angeles Lakers' coach, raised his water glass in that
tribute last month, Abdul-Jabbar stepped onto the court in Denver and scored 32
points, almost singlehandedly wrenching the fate of the game from men 15 years
his junior. The wonder that he was still playing had been eclipsed by the
wonder that he was playing as well as or better than ever.
Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers in scoring for the 10th time in his 10 years with
the club (22.0 points per game), had his most rebounds since 1982-83 and most
points since 1981-82 and achieved the second-highest shooting percentage (.599)
of his career. After the Lakers' embarrassing 148-114 loss in Game 1 of last
spring's NBA championship series, in which he had looked as tired and
dispirited as one might expect a 38-year-old player to look, he had shocked the
Boston Celtics and the cynics by playing five of the most intense games of his
life, capturing his fourth championship trophy and his second playoff MVP
award. While doing this he laughed and shouted his joy, capturing America.
"Six or seven
years ago I thought he was not a good player," admits Denver coach Doug
Moe. "He didn't seem to have the interest—he wasn't there. He's 10 times
better now; he hasn't played any better in his career than in the last two
years. He's 38, and he's a bitch."