So far this year the National Basketball Association playoffs have been the personal property of one man, 7 ft. 2 in. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Phoenix Suns, even with an extra player dropping of his man to help out against Abdul-Jabbar, couldn't stop Kareem in their playoff series. The defending world champion Seattle SuperSonics, often employing the same tactics as Phoenix, also came up short against the Lakers' center in the Western Conference finals.
Although the Philadelphia 76ers (now battling LA for the NBA title) obviously feel that physical harassment is the way to contain Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem still keeps dominating the action. He not only led all score with 33 points in a 109- 102 Laker triumph opening the best-of- seven series, he also grabbed 14 rebounds , blocked six shots, and handed out five assists.
Certainly the Lakers are team-oriented, and certainly they would not have gotten this far without enormous contributions from Norman Nixon, Magic Johnson, and Jamaal Wilkes. But the difference so far in the playoffs, as it was during the regular season, has been Kareem.
"Every winning team has its key, and we know that if we can stay with our opponents down the stretch, then the man [Abdul-Jabbar] will take over and turn the game around for us," said Los Angeles Coach Paul Westhead. "This is a man with great talent. When he comes to play, he will dominate anybody.
"before I became a part of the Lakers' organization, I really didn't know much about Kareem personally," Westhead continued. "I had heard that he was a very self- possessed person that few people knew. But from the second day in training camp, he was as outgoing with me and with his teammates as any player I have ever seen."
Years ago (when he was still Lew Alcindor), Kareem built a protective wall around himself to keep the public at arm's length. Like most walls, it had few windows.
Part of this was because he didn't want to spend all his time doing interviews. But a lot of it, I'm pretty sure, was because he felt that too many people out there wanted to know him only as a basketball player and not as a person.
Abdul-Jabbar still doesn't talk much. But this season undoubtedly has provided him with the most fun he has had as a player since 1970-71, when he and Oscar Robertson led Milwaukee to its first and only NBA title.
But even as late as last season there were stories that Kareem had lost his mental desire to play tough basketball; that at approximately $8,000 per game he was more interested in the money than a championship ring.
Abdul-Jabbar, of course, denies this. But there was often an unevenness of his game that the press quickly picked up on. People also wanted to know where all that dominating talent was when Seattle beat Los Angeles four games to one in the second round of the 1978-79 Western Conference playoffs.
If you're wondering what changed him, I think you can begin with Magic Johnson, the Laker rookie fresh off Michigan State's national-championship team. In addition to his talent, which is considerable, Johnson has something of a little-boy quality that could extract enthusiasm from a stone.
Those two hit it off personally right from the start of the season and have since become a mutual-admiration society. In fact, whenever Magic completes a super pass to Kareem that results in a basket, you can hear the slapping of palms between them all the way up to the balcony.
Abdul-Jabbar is obviously pleased with all his other new teammates (Jim Chones, Spencer Haywood, Mark Landsberger) and the various contributions they have made to the success of the Lakers.
"While one man can be a crucial ingredient on a team, one man cannot make a team," Kareem recently told the press. "You still must have the right kind of people around you to make it all work."
Home to Abdul-Jabbar is a 10-room Bel Air mansion that is tastefully decorated with Oriental rugs and pieces of Islamic art that Kareem purchased on trips to Africa and the Middle East.
Actor James Caan and O. J. Simpson are close friends and neighbors, who do not object when Abdul-Jabbar plays his conga drums. What more could a man want unless it be an NBA championship?