Pat Riley: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar never had potential, 'just greatness'
Pat Riley remembers just about every detail surrounding the events of Dec. 29, 1961. It was a cold night in Schenectady, New York. A little snowy, the roads a little icy. And when the bus carrying the opposing team from New York City arrived, all of Riley’s Linton High teammates peered out the window.
They saw a giant.
Long before Riley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were winning NBA championships together as coach and player with the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, they were opponents. Riley and Linton beat Power Memorial and Lew Alcindor — Abdul-Jabbar’s name before converting to Islam — 74-68 that night.
Abdul-Jabbar, then a 6-foot-10 freshman, was held to eight points because he spent virtually the entire game in foul trouble. He has told Riley several times over the years that Linton won because Riley’s father — a lifelong baseball man — had his umpiring friends refereeing the game.
“Which we did,” Riley acknowledges.
Riley knew it then and came to appreciate it even more years later — there were only a few ways to stop the player who would eventually spend nearly four decades as the most prolific scorer in NBA history. Abdul-Jabbar is on the verge of being passed by the Lakers’ LeBron James, the 38-year-old who was nearly nine months from being born when the unforgettable center made one of his signature sky hooks on April 5, 1984 to overtake Wilt Chamberlain and become the league’s scoring leader.
“Kareem was a guy that never had any potential. He just had greatness,” said Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat and one of the few who has worked with both Abdul-Jabbar and James. “You could see that. When you can bypass potential and you move right to greatness as a high school player, and then college and then the pros ... there are very few like him. There’s a handful. Two handfuls, at the most.”
James is one of them, going from high school straight to the NBA, and now in his 20th season, he is now just 89 points away from passing Abdul-Jabbar's record. The Lakers play Thursday in Indiana, then Saturday at New Orleans.
The most realistic target for the record-breaker is Tuesday in Los Angeles against Oklahoma City or — perhaps symbolically — next Thursday in L.A. when the Lakers play host to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that Abdul-Jabbar started his NBA career with.
This past October, Abdul-Jabbar — on his Substack page where he discusses and offers opinion on a variety of topics, often nothing to do with sports — that when James passed Kobe Bryant for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list in 2020, he “knew it was just a matter of time before he passed me too.”
Abdul-Jabbar wrote that every time a record is broken, all people are elevated.
“When I broke Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record in 1984 -- the year LeBron was born -- it bothered Wilt, who’d had a bit of a one-sided rivalry with me since I’d started doing so well in the NBA," he added. "I don’t feel that way toward LeBron. Not only will I celebrate his accomplishment, I will sing his praises unequivocally.”
The relationship between Abdul-Jabbar and James seems complicated. Abdul-Jabbar was outside of the Cleveland locker room during the 2016 Eastern Conference finals as James was jogging by; the two embraced and shared a few kind words, prompting James to discuss the respect he has for Abdul-Jabbar and others who paved the way in his postgame remarks.
Abdul-Jabbar also has lauded James “as a community leader and athlete.” But he criticized James for not doing more with his platform to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. And earlier this season, James said he has “no relationship” with Abdul-Jabbar.
There are ties that bind them, though. Both are champions. Both have worked to promote social justice and spoken out against racial inequality. Abdul-Jabbar played 20 years in the NBA; James is in Year 20. Abdul-Jabbar set the record while playing for the Lakers; James will do the same.
And If nothing else, James' pursuit of the record may have exposed a generation or two that never saw Abdul-Jabbar play to how great he was.
“We have to always acknowledge those who come before us, those who’ve paved the way,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “You think of all those points Kareem scored and he had, what, one 3-pointer? You think about all of that, and these kids get to learn about a different era. It’s high, high-level education in the game of basketball, particularly NBA basketball.”
When Abdul-Jabbar broke the record, Riley said Magic Johnson — then the Lakers’ point guard — made sure he was the one who got the assist on the play. Johnson nearly put himself back into the game against Utah in Las Vegas that night when Abdul-Jabbar was two points away.
Years later, when the Lakers from those championship teams of that era gathered in Hawaii last summer for a reunion, Abdul-Jabbar was a day late because of personal matters. The Lakers in 2022 celebrated his arrival the same way they did the record-setter in 1984.
“He felt special because he was special, because he is special,” Riley said of the man who once stood shoulder-to-shoulder alongside an embattled Muhammad Ali during the boxing champ's legal troubles in the late 1960s, and counted Bill Russell — another basketball giant and social-change champion — as a mentor. “He was treated as the patriarch by all the players. It was a great week for him. He was engaged, came to everything we did, gave some spontaneous talks. And he’s a shy guy, but he felt very comfortable in his group.”
Riley coached Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles and later lured James to Miami for a four-year run starting in 2010. He sees in James much of what he saw in Alcindor when that bus pulled into Schenectady in 1961.
“It’s all about LeBron right now, and it should be, with his unique career and unique opportunity to do this,” Riley said. “Training, travel, personal chefs, personal trainers, all that stuff has come into play since Kareem. I hope people realize Kareem’s story as well and how different it was. He went to college for four years; LeBron came out of high school. But they both dominated from Day 1. They both turned potential into greatness from Day 1.”
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