- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Amir Abdul-Jabbar peered down at the jumble of microphones that had suddenly appeared beneath his nose, and for a moment he looked as if he might cry. Cradled in his father's long left arm, little Amir sniffed at the electronic thicket as if it were a spray of flowers, and then very casually he leaned toward the microphones and did what any self-respecting 1-year-old would do—he tried to eat them. First he grabbed one from a cable sports network and gnawed on it, then he started in on microphones from local stations in Los Angeles. Every time someone thrust a mike into Amir's face, he took it in his two front teeth and started to chew. No one seemed to mind. It may have been a violation of the First Amendment or something, but the kid was obviously hungry.
Between bites, Amir frequently turned to gaze into his father's face, and on those occasions Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would look into his son's clear brown eyes and smile. It was Tuesday night, June 8, and Kareem stood quietly above the tumult and the shouting in the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room in the Forum. All around him geysers of champagne erupted as the Lakers celebrated their second NBA championship in three seasons. They had just won the title by defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 114-104 in the sixth game of their best-of-seven series, atoning for an embarrassing loss to Houston last year in a mini-series. "This is the ultimate comeback," Kareem said. "We had a whole lot of stumbling blocks in our path along the way, but we made it."
Meanwhile, someone had slipped the insatiable Amir a sucker, probably to keep him from snacking on more microphones. While his father was engrossed in answering a question, Amir amused himself by shoving the candy into the mouth of a nearby reporter. Then he took the sullied sucker back, examined it for a while, and before anyone could intercede, he popped it into Kareem's mouth with a move closely approximating a sky hook. At just that moment, the Laker center was asked how he felt about winning the third championship of his pro career. "This is sweet," Kareem said, little knowing whereof he spoke.
In another corner of the room, Pat Riley talked about a dream he had been having since becoming the Lakers' head coach 11 games into the regular season, following the dismissal of Paul Westhead, who had coached the team to the NBA championship in 1980. As Riley spoke, champagne dripped from his hair. At least it could have been champagne. With Riley's hair—which he wears swept back, matinee-idol style—you can never be too sure. Maybe Dom Perignon, maybe Dom Vitalis.
The dream always went pretty much the same, Riley said: It was Game 7, Riley on the bench in a white tuxedo, and the game down to one final shot for the championship. In each dream, a different Laker would take the shot. Once, to Riley's horror, trainer Jack Curran took it. "I was yelling, 'No, no, Jack, don't do it!' " Riley says. "I knew it was an ultimate game because even in my dream I could always feel the pressure. But I never knew who we were playing because I could never see their faces. The disturbing thing to me was that when the game was on the line, I always woke up. I never knew who won. If this series had gone to a seventh game, I thought I was going to have to wear a tux just to finally live the damn thing out."
The Lakers made certain that it never came to that, playing their finest game of the series on a night when Philadelphia seemed determined to make the dream die hard. Abdul-Jabbar, who had awakened that morning with a searing migraine headache, so thoroughly intimidated the 76ers in the opening moments that not one of their first four shots even drew iron, and they quickly fell behind 9-0. The Sixers didn't get back into the game until Darryl Dawkins ignited them with 10 points in a little more than nine minutes at the end of the first quarter, which concluded with the Lakers leading 30-26. They were the last points Dawkins would score before fouling out with six minutes left in the game.
As in each of the previous games they had won, the Lakers wasted no time getting their running game revved up. They converted on all eight of their fast-break opportunities in the first half, and wound up outscoring Philadelphia 31-16 on the break. The 76ers knew L.A.'s heartbeat was measured by the rhythmic pounding of its break, but they were unable to stop it. "They use their quickness the way other teams use strength," said Sixer Guard Maurice Cheeks.
Perhaps the most damaging blow to the 76ers' hopes came in the second period, when Laker Forward Jamaal Wilkes finally regained his outside shooting touch. Before Game 6 Wilkes was shooting only 43% from the field in the series, and had made but three of his usually deadly perimeter sling shots. "My jump shot went on vacation," Wilkes would later say. But when he got the ball deep in the corner with just under six minutes to play in the half, he was startled to see Julius Erving backing away from him. Wilkes held his ground for a moment, then brought the ball up over his right shoulder and fired a strike. "That shot was what really got me going," Wilkes said. "They were daring me to shoot." Twenty-two seconds later he squeezed off a 17-footer, and half a minute after that he nailed a 20-foot jumper from the top of the key. The Sixers were never the same again. "We were giving him the perimeter shot," said Forward Bobby Jones, "but he was hurting us so much we had to change our defense." Wilkes finished the game with a Laker-high 27 points.
Perhaps more than that of any other player, Wilkes's season epitomizes the kind of year it was for Los Angeles: begun in frustration, then teetering on the brink of collapse after only a few weeks, surviving an emotional convulsion and finishing with a rush. Jamaal and Val Wilkes had lost their 8-day-old daughter shortly before the Lakers opened training camp, his second child to die in infancy. Wilkes's poor performance in the playoff defeat to the Rockets carried over into the start of the new season, culminating in a miserable 128-102 loss at San Antonio on Nov. 10, a game in which Wilkes shot 1 for 10. It was at that point, he says, that he came "very close, too close" to walking away from basketball until he could put his life in order.
"It had gotten to the point where everything, personal and professional, was interrelated," Wilkes says. "I was totally frustrated, out of sync, and the game had become very complicated for me. I had just played one of my worst games as a pro, and we were going to Houston the next day. I'd thought about taking some time off, and even talked to a couple of players about it after the game."