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Now, More Than Ever, A Winner
Gary Smith
December 23, 1985
For 20 years of enduring excellence and a championship season that ranks among his greatest, SI honors Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the traditional amphora (below) given the Sportsman of the Year
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December 23, 1985

Now, More Than Ever, A Winner

For 20 years of enduring excellence and a championship season that ranks among his greatest, SI honors Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the traditional amphora (below) given the Sportsman of the Year

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Day by day, the echoes inside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's month-old house were dying. First his books and albums and Oriental rugs had arrived, followed by his paintings and furniture, then his children and their toys, and his mother and father. He draped himself across a sheet-covered couch and grinned. Two-twenty p.m. on an autumn Monday in the moneyed Los Angeles enclave of Bel Air could linger as long as it wanted. For the first time since he was a child he didn't want to be anywhere but the time and place he was in.

How strange and good this felt. For the last 25 years it had always seemed he was marking time, not living it. When he was in high school he wished he was in college; in college he wished he was in the pros. In Milwaukee he missed the sunshine of Los Angeles; in Los Angeles he yearned for the jazz clubs and interesting people of his native New York City; in New York City he sought freedom from his parents and his past. He married and wanted to be single; he entered the arena and wanted to be alone.

His face reflected this discomfort—unlike many people who want to be somewhere or someone else, he would never mask it. He has made more field goals, 13,930 as of Dec. 15, scored more points (33,754), blocked more shots (2,815) and won more MVP trophies (six) than anybody in NBA history, yet his inability to enjoy the moment became our inability to enjoy him.

An unusual thing happened just as his career was about to die. Abdul-Jabbar didn't want it to. He wanted to go on living in his city, in his house and with his family, and he kept signing short-term contracts to extend his basketball life. He was prolonging the moment instead of shedding it, sensing the sacredness of each passing increment of time.

"Happiness may still come and go, but now I have inner peace, and that stays," he says. "I'm looking forward to life after basketball, but I'm in no hurry to move on to the next phase. I was talking to a girl in my yoga class about how I'm dealing now with celebrity and fans. She said, 'Oh, so you've decided to ride that horse the way it is going.' "

He rose from the couch. His mom was in the kitchen plotting a Thanksgiving Day meal, his dad in the hallway directing two men hauling in a piece of late-arriving furniture. He went upstairs to search for something, whistling a jazz tune. Two-thirty-five was a nice moment to live in, too.

"Why judge anymore? When a man has played for 17 years, broken records, won championships, endured tremendous criticism and responsibility, why judge? Let's toast him now. Let's toast him as the greatest player ever."

A few hours after Pat Riley, the Los Angeles Lakers' coach, raised his water glass in that tribute last month, Abdul-Jabbar stepped onto the court in Denver and scored 32 points, almost singlehandedly wrenching the fate of the game from men 15 years his junior. The wonder that he was still playing had been eclipsed by the wonder that he was playing as well as or better than ever.

Last season, Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers in scoring for the 10th time in his 10 years with the club (22.0 points per game), had his most rebounds since 1982-83 and most points since 1981-82 and achieved the second-highest shooting percentage (.599) of his career. After the Lakers' embarrassing 148-114 loss in Game 1 of last spring's NBA championship series, in which he had looked as tired and dispirited as one might expect a 38-year-old player to look, he had shocked the Boston Celtics and the cynics by playing five of the most intense games of his life, capturing his fourth championship trophy and his second playoff MVP award. While doing this he laughed and shouted his joy, capturing America.

"Six or seven years ago I thought he was not a good player," admits Denver coach Doug Moe. "He didn't seem to have the interest—he wasn't there. He's 10 times better now; he hasn't played any better in his career than in the last two years. He's 38, and he's a bitch."

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