For someone who accomplished so much for so long, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can rightfully make the claim to being the best player to ever lace up a pair of sneakers. Personally, I’m not in the business of trying to suss out such arguments, but if someone picked Kareem how could you doubt them?
His career ran a remarkable 20 years, which only a handful of players have approached, especially prior to the 2010s. It took Kareem until his 39th year on this earth, his 18th in the NBA, to finally dip below 20 PPG. The only time he shot below 50% from the field was in his final season. At age 37 he spearheaded the Los Angeles Lakers to the title and captured a Finals MVP in the process.
In his younger days, he teamed with Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge to deliver the Milwaukee Bucks a title in 1971 and a rollicking 66-wins in that regular season. During his six seasons in Wisconsin, Kareem averaged an astounding 30 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3.5 blocks a game on his way to three MVP awards.
Even after a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, which left the Lakers gutted, Kareem kept up the assault. The Lakers “stumbled” to a 40-42 record during this first season (1976), but Jabbar was a one man wrecking crew with 28 points, 17 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks per game that season on his way to yet another MVP. These 1970s years were Kareem at his absolute finest but given the lack of exposure the NBA had in general, and Kareem’s sometimes aloof personality, they aren’t as easily relived and beloved as other NBA stars and eras have been.
And his signature move was an unstoppable shot dropped in from the heavens. The skyhook was a foregone conclusion. It operated with ceaseless predictability and effectiveness. Its perfection became mundane.
Then came Showtime in the 1980s.
The highlight clips we most often receive of Kareem came in this era and Magic Johnson’s bubbly personality allowed the public some belated appreciation for Kareem’s greatness. Indeed, Magic receives rightful credit for igniting Showtime, but when that fast break attack wasn’t humming, Kareem was the go-to safety valve. He wasn’t quite the force he was in the 1970s, but Kareem’s second act in his mid-and-late 30s was better than most men ever dream of in their youthful 20s.
At age 38 in 1986, Abdul-Jabbar was still producing 23.4 PPG for the Lakers and just the previous year had earned the NBA Finals MVP award averaging 26 PPG, 9 RPG, and 5 APG in the series.
The sheer weight and volume of his numbers have such gravity that we’re dumbfounded at its absurdity: 6 MVPs, 19 All-Star Games, 15 All-NBA Teams, the all-time leading scorer in NBA history… And all of this still hasn’t revealed the defense of the basket, especially in the 1970s, he provided with his long, lanky frame swatting shots. Nor has it touched on his deft passing and offensive arsenal (dunks, drop steps, and turn around jumpers) beyond the skyhook.
Using his endless skills, Kareem battled Wilt Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo, Bob Lanier, Jack Sikma, Hakeem Olajuwon, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Patrick Ewing, and got the best of all of them at one time or another.
So, if someone indeed comes around arguing for Kareem as the greatest of all-time, the argument is about as dependable and solid as Jabbar’s skyhook.
Years Played: 1969 – 1989
6x Champion (1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-’88)
2x Finals MVP (1971, 1985)
6x MVP (1971-’72, 1974, 1976-’77, 1980)
10x All-NBA 1st Team (1971-’74, 1976-’77, 1980-’81, 1984, 1986)
5x All-NBA 2nd Team (1970, 1978-’79, 1983, 1985)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1974-’75, 1979-’81)
6x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1970-’71, 1976-’78, 1984)
19x All-Time All-Star (1970-’77, 1979-’89)
Rookie of the Year (1970)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1970)
NBA – 1560 Games
24.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.6 APG, 2.6 BPG, 0.9 SPG
55.9% FG, 72.1% FT