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Jack McCallum
January 23, 1989
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn't prepare properly for his final season, and it shows
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January 23, 1989

An Unhappy Ending

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn't prepare properly for his final season, and it shows

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Quite often, he says, especially when the "shadows chase me around the pool," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar climbs the hundred or so steps to the cement-and-stone deck that sits above his house in Bel Air, Calif., to catch the afternoon sun. And, no, at 41, Abdul-Jabbar doesn't require help to get to the top, thank you. From that lofty perch, he can look down on the houses of some of his equally rich and famous neighbors, like director Michael (The Bad News Bears) Ritchie. Or he can sprawl on his chaise longue and read; he just finished a book about Captain Kidd and lately has been engrossed in Arthur Ashe's A Hard Road to Glory, a three-volume history of the black athlete in America. Or he can just sit and think, something he has always done a lot of.

Many subjects cross his mind, but he wants to make this perfectly clear: He does not think, has not thought and will not be thinking about retiring before the end of the 1988-89 NBA season.

"Everybody else has been doing that for me." said Abdul-Jabbar last Thursday. "And they've done it before. Let them. I'm not retiring. The only thing that would change my mind would be some kind of serious injury, but that's always been the case. I'm going to play it out."

Many observers say that playing it out is all he's doing, anyway, even though the Los Angeles Lakers are paying him $3 million for his ride into the sunset. He has been the Lakers' starting center in name only—and may not even be that by next week—having averaged fewer minutes (23.1) than backup Mychal Thompson (27.2) this season. Laughable isn't the word to describe his averages in points (8.6 per game through Monday), rebounds (4.1) and blocked shots (0.8), or his .437 field goal percentage. Sad is the word. Where once he scored in double figures in 787 consecutive regular-season games, a 10-point outing for Abdul-Jabbar these days is cause for celebration; he has scored in double figures in only 12 of the 29 games he has played, with a high of 16 twice. (He missed eight games with elbow and knee injuries.) It is insufficient to say that he's a shadow of the man who averaged 25.3 points and 11.5 rebounds through the first 19 years of his career. He is a mere specter of that man. No wonder two columnists, Scott Ostler of the Los Angeles Times and Doug Krikorian of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, have urged Abdul-Jabbar in print to retire.

His woeful play would not have been so scrutinized, certainly, had not the Lakers suffered through an eight-game road losing streak that ended on Sunday with a 116-95 win over the cross-town Clippers at the Sports Arena. (Hey, the road is the road). But is there an easier scapegoat than a bald, begoggled, heavy-legged guy who turns 42 on April 16, no matter that he's the greatest scorer on Planet Earth? "If some of Kareem's teammates want to bash him for what's gone wrong, they'd better take a long look in the mirror," says Los Angeles general manager Jerry West.

Not that any Laker has publicly bashed Kareem, of course. And there are other players who obviously are not pulling their weight, either, notably guard Byron Scott, who has ceased being a slashing penetrator and has gone back to being merely an outside shooter, and supersub Michael Cooper, who these days is being recognized as much for his brickmanship (.414 from the floor this season, .392 for all of 1987-88) as for his celebrated flypaper defense. Then, too, the Lakers, for all their vulnerability on the road, had a 25-12 record and held first place in the Pacific Division on the strength of a 15-0 record at home, including a 124-113 win over Houston at the Forum on Monday.

Still, the dramatic decline in Abdul-Jabbar's play has both surprised and disappointed his teammates. "We knew Kareem would be down a little," says Magic Johnson. "We just didn't know it would be quite like this." That's about the most you'll get from the Los Angeles players. This comes from Laker coach Pat Riley: "Kareem is the ultimate professional, a bottom-line performer. No one knows better than he that he hasn't been playing well." And this from West: "Kareem has to face the fact that he can't shut up the critics unless he starts to play better."

And what does Abdul-Jabbar think? Last season, when his reduced role in the offense (14.6 points per game) first became a public issue, he was remarkably even-tempered, and he has been that way this season, even as the cry for his scalp (so to speak) has grown. "He's shown more class and dignity than any superstar I've seen," says Riley.

Maybe it's because of that class, but Abdul-Jabbar has been curiously passive about the criticism, and it's fair to wonder if that attitude has carried over to his play. Everybody ages, but not everybody goes gently into the good night. Has Kareem gone too gently?

He admitted as much two days after a dreadful performance last week (four points, three rebounds) in a 106-97 loss at Sacramento: "This past week or so I came to realize that for the first time in my career I had let burnout affect me," he said. "I didn't get mentally ready to play this season. I didn't do anything up to par in the off-season. Now it's telling on me. It could've been avoided. That's the part that annoys me."

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