Talk of a comeback by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has quieted around the league since the former Laker star raised the idea some weeks ago, but it is by no means dead. While many observers agree with the Eastern Conference general manager who succinctly described Kareem's chances of returning as zero, others see it as a possibility. "How could some teams not be interested in one of the greatest players of all time?" asks Warrior coach Don Nelson. Golden State was projected as a possible landing area for Abdul-Jabbar, although a source close to the team says that the Warriors have now closed the door on the idea.
Naturally, most of the speculation has centered on the Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar's team for the last 14 years of his career, and the Knicks, now led by his former coach Pat Riley. Don't bet on New York. Though Riley has enormous respect for the man who helped him win four NBA championships, he would be reluctant to upset the Knicks' delicate chemistry for a backup center who will turn 45 on April 16. But the Lakers are another matter, at least in Abdul-Jabbar's mind.
"I see the Lakers need me, and I can help them," he told SI last week. That's about as blunt as he has been on the subject of his comeback. His intention from the outset, he says, was to use his Feb. 28 one-on-one match against Julius Erving, a pay-for-view event to be staged at an Atlantic City casino, as a test. "If I look and feel good, coming back is a possibility, either to an NBA team or maybe in Europe," Abdul-Jabbar says.
Magic Johnson's affliction with the AIDS virus is a major factor in Kareem's contemplating a comeback. Part of the proceeds from the Kareem-Dr. J matchup will go to the Magic Johnson Foundation and other AIDS-related organizations, and Abdul-Jabbar says he would contribute an unspecified percentage of his basketball salary—should he have one—to the foundation too.
Abdul-Jabbar looks good and says he feels good. He has begun shooting drills on a basket he installed on the racquetball court in his home. Kareem also says that the mental burnout he experienced toward the end of his career is gone.
But vivid memories of his struggles to get up and down the court during his final season of 1988-89 remain. He averaged 10.1 points per game in about 23 minutes of action that season, but he shot just .475 from the field, and that was with Magic setting him up in all the right spots. The Lakers have by no means decided that Abdul-Jabbar can help them, but neither have they ruled the idea out. The matchup with Erving has a somewhat melancholy aspect to it, no doubt about that. But don't think that some NBA teams, the Lakers included, won't be watching with interest.
"Hey, if Kareem's knocking down sky hooks," says one Laker insider, "imaginations are going to start running wild."
One of the saddest things about the Mavericks' dreadful season—their record was 13-31 at week's end—has been the unraveling of center James Donaldson's relationship with many of his teammates, as well as with the Reunion Arena faithful. Last week Donaldson and backcourt teammate Rolando Blackman were involved in a practice-session scuffle that led to Donaldson's being suspended by the team for one game. Donaldson blamed the scrap on frustration, but another teammate, guard Derek Harper, said, "This has nothing to do with what's going on out on the floor. James is just a 7-foot punk." (Actually James stands 7'2" and weighs 280 pounds; if Harper wants to call him a punk, that's up to Harper.) Said Donaldson about Harper: "I was shocked he said those things. I thought we were friends. I don't know how he's ever going to look at me again."