Scoring more points than anyone else in the history of pro basketball is a remarkable feat any way you look at it, but exactly what it means is another question. It did take Kareem Abdul-Jabbar an extra year and about 100 more games before he was able to surpass Wilt Chamberlain's record late this season. And when you're over seven feet tall, as both of these men are, putting the ball in the basket isn't all that difficult a task to begin with.
Of course there've been plenty of other seven-footers over the years who never came close to the 31,419-point total Kareem reached on April 5 to take the all-time lead. Clearly Abdul-Jabbar's accomplishments show that the man is a tremendously gifted athlete, not just an exceptionally tall basketball player. And of course the same can be said for Chamberlain, who averaged 50 points per game (including one 100-point effort) during the 1961-62 season.
However, the importance of height does have to be taken into consideration when evaluating a record like this.When you're as tall as most carriage house lampposts, the basket is only 10 feet off the floor, and your arm span is approximateluy 90 inches, scoring often takes on all the tougher aspects of mailing a letter.
To get an idea of the tremendous physical advantage
Kareem and Chamberlain had over practically all of their opponents, stand on a kitchen chair sometime and ask yourself how often you think you could hit the top of your refrigerator with a basketball!
The reason Abdul-Jabbar has lasted so long in pro ball (15 years with the promise of a 16th) is that he hasn't consistently played to his overall ability - his offensive ability yes; the rest of his game no.
In the past five years, for example, while Kareem's scoring average has stayed relatively the same, his rebounding totals have gone from 1,025 to 886 to 821 to 659 to 592.
Except for his early years with Milwaukee, when he was that team's No. 1 draft pick and guard Oscar Robertson was orchestrating the Bucks' offense, Abdul-Jabbar has never been a runner or a jumper. If he had been, he wouldn't today be nearly 9,000 rebounds behind Chamberlain's career total of 23,924. Nevertheless he has been elected the NBA's most valuable player six times, has been named to the All-Star team on 13 occasions, and has been the heart of three world championship teams.
It has been fairly well documented that racing constantly up and down the court while stopping at each end of the floor to leap for rebounds can physically shorten a player's career. The alternative, if you're a scorer, is to concentrate on that and leave the physical heroics for someone else.
While Abdul-Jabbar's decision might be questioned in some quarters, it is hard to ignore the fact that the Lakers, with Kareem at center, have won two of the last four NBA championships and will be in the running again this season.
''Abdul-Jabbar has been around the NBA so long,'' one pro scout told me, ''that in recent years I think it's been hard for him to get up mentally for games. What he has needed is a challenge big enough to raise the level of his game. That's why this year, when Wilt's record suddenly came within reach, his offense picked up maybe 30 percent.
''I'm not blaming him,'' this man continued. ''Late in his career Bill Russell coasted during the regular season and so did Chamberlain. It's a natural reaction, because in this league you always need to save something for the playoffs. Other veterans also do it, and any team would like to rest its key players during the last couple of weeks. But it's a delicate thing when a coach does this, because at the same time he may ruin his team's chances of going into the playoffs with a lot of momentum.''
When Abdul-Jabbar first joined Los Angeles in time for the 1975-76 season, nearly everyone in the Lakers' front office seemed to think that all they needed to do to win a title was to combine Kareem's talents with four guys named Joe. They were under the mistaken impression that he could do it alone.
Well, although Abdul-Jabbar scored 2,275 points that year (second best in the NBA after Bob McAdoo), the Lakers not only failed to make the playoffs, they didn't even play .500 basketball during the regular season.
It wasn't until LA began to give Kareem some help (first Jamaal Wilkes, then Norman Nixon, and finally Magic Johnson) that the Lakers won the NBA championship in 1979-80 and repeated in 1981-82.
If offense were all there were to the game, Kareem and Wilt would indeed be in a class by themselves. We'll probably never see two more prolific scorers, despite what you read about the potential of Ralph Sampson.
The fact is, though, that Bill Russell, whose 13 years in the NBA produced 11 world titles for the Boston Celtics, was more valuable to his team than either of them.
What Russell did better than anyone else was get his team the ball when it counted most; intimidate rival players with his defense to the point where they would sometimes blow layups; and raise his level of excellence several octaves in the playoffs.