Los Angeles — He's already well into his 17th season in the National Basketball Association, a record for longevity, but still he often performs as though he had just graduated from college. Last season his minutes played were up, his scoring was up, and his rebound total was its highest in three years. In close to the basket, there still isn't anyone in the league who can consistently stop his skyhook.
At a career stage when the vast majority of athletes have either retired or drastically reduced their playing time, 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers is making like a most-valuable-player candidate.
What's the matter, Kareem, six of those MVP trophies not enough? Got something against rookies who were still playing with blocks when you won your first NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971?
Most experts agree that Abdul-Jabbar is the one superstar the Lakers could least afford to lose, and that includes all-star guard Magic Johnson, who is no slouch himself when it comes to leadership. But Magic can't get you the ball, at least not the way a 7 ft. 2 in. center can when the hour is late and the game is on the line.
Trying to crack the protective shield that Kareem has built around himself, and especially his private life, is like trying to get inside the Kremlin for a closed-door KGB meeting. He's mellowed over the years, though, and will sometimes go at least partway with the news media these days.
One topic of interest, of course, is his thinking about next season, which would be his 18th in the NBA and his third consecutive earning $2 million.
``If I feel I've played well this season and the Lakers repeat as world champions, I'll definitely be back,'' Abdul-Jabbar told me earlier this season. ``If not, then I'll probably do something else.''
The ``something else'' could be acting, especially if he can land a reasonably long-term TV deal. Kareem was part of a recent episode of ``Diff'rent Strokes,'' in which he held his own against Gary Coleman, a known camera-mugger who is tough to block out in the game of klieg lights and rubber faces. He also had a cameo role a few years ago in the movie ``Airplane,'' a spoof on all those thrillers where the aircraft is hijacked, develops engine trouble over the ocean, or is discovered carrying a time bom b.
Then there are the financial deals and expensive personal possessions that Abdul-Jabbar doesn't hide but doesn't publicize, either. For starters, there is his customized home here in Bel Air that was recently rebuilt after a devastatiang fire. And over the years Kareem has acquired a magnificent Oriental rug collection.
This is not a man who stands still and counts his money. Abdul-Jabbar has produced two sellout concerts at the Los Angeles Forum that starred Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, and he recently purchased part interest in a hotel on California's Balboa Peninsula, where the price of beachfront property is staggering.
In addition to his Arabian breeding horses and the record company that may be just over the horizon, there are reportedly some earlier high-rise apartment house investments on the East Coast.
Yet despite what might be considered severe distractions for someone who is required to bring enormous amounts of concentration to his work, Abdul-Jabbar is actually playing with more gusto than he showed three or four years ago.
Asked about this, Kareem never specifically replied to the question. What he said was: ``In the last few years I've learned ways of playing this game that permit me to do my job without always wearing myself out physically.''
When the Lakers lost to Boston in the 1984 playoff finals, probably nobody took it harder than Kareem and Magic Johnson. Part of this was because twice in that series L.A. gave away games in which it only needed to protect the ball for the last few seconds to ensure a victory. For Kareem to lose at that point in his career -- well, it was more than frustration, it was like stealing a computer chip from his personal time machine.
Suddenly aware that there probably wouldn't be that many chances left for another championship ring, Abdul-Jabbar became almost like a rookie again in his approach to the game.
To those close enough to him to realize what was happening, it wasn't surprising that he was the MVP in last spring's playoff victory over the same Celtics. As Laker publicist Josh Rosenfeld said: ``He felt he had something to prove.''
As to Kareem's eventual place in pro basketball history, he'll probably be judged mostly in relation to what Bill Russell did on defense and what Wilt Chamberlain did on offense.
It won't be a fair comparison, because no two eras are ever the same. Better it be said that Abdul-Jabbar was the best of his time.