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Pat Riley: Kareem never had potential, ‘only greatness’

Pat Riley remembers almost every detail of the events of December 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, everyone at Riley’s Linton High teammates peered out the window.

They saw a giant.

Long before Riley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar teamed up to win NBA championships as coaches and players with the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, they were adversaries. Riley and Linton that night beat Power Memorial and Lew Alcindor – that was Abdul-Jabbar’s name before he converted to Islam – 74-68.

Abdul-Jabbar, then a 6-foot-10 freshman, was held to eight points for spending virtually the entire game in foul trouble. He has told Riley multiple times over the years that Linton won because Riley’s father — a lifelong baseball player — let his umpire friends referee the game.

“So did we,” Riley admits.

Riley knew it then, and learned to appreciate it even more years later—there were few ways to stop the player who would eventually go on to be the most prolific scorer in NBA history for nearly four decades. Abdul-Jabbar is about to be overtaken by the Lakers’ LeBron James, the 38-year-old who was born almost nine months after he was born when the unforgettable center made one of his signature sky hooks on April 5, 1984 to snare Wilt to overtake Chamberlain and become league leaders.

“Kareem was a guy who never had potential. He just had greatness,” said Riley, now president of the Miami Heat and one of the few to have worked with both Abdul-Jabbar and James. “You could see that. If you can bypass potential and go straight to greatness as a high school player, then to college, then to the pros… there are very few like him. There are a handful. Two handfuls at most.”

James is one of those moving straight from high school to the NBA, and now in his 20th season, he’s just 89 points away from breaking Abdul-Jabbar’s record. The Lakers play Indiana on Thursday, then New Orleans on Saturday.

The most realistic target for the record-breaker is Tuesday in Los Angeles against Oklahoma City or — perhaps symbolically — next Thursday in LA when the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that Abdul-Jabbar started his NBA career with.

Last October, as James overtook Kobe Bryant for #3 on the all-time top scorers list, Abdul-Jabbar wrote — on his Substack page, where he posts discussions and opinions on a variety of topics often unrelated to sports — he “knew it was only a matter of time before he passed me too.”

Abdul-Jabbar added that every time a record is broken, all people are uplifted.

“When I broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record in 1984 — the year LeBron was born — it upset Wilt, who has had a one-sided rivalry with me since I’ve been so successful in the NBA,” he wrote. “I don’t feel that way about LeBron. Not only will I celebrate his achievement, I will sing his praises unequivocally.”

Abdul-Jabbar and James’ relationship seems complicated. Abdul-Jabbar was outside the Cleveland locker room during the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals when James jogged by; The two hugged and shared a few kind words, prompting James to open up about the respect he has for Abdul-Jabbar and others, which paved the way in his post-game remarks.

Abdul-Jabbar has also praised James “as a community leader and an athlete.” But he slammed James for not doing more with his platform to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. And earlier this season, James said he had “no relationship” with Abdul-Jabbar.

However, there are ties that bind them. Both are world champions. Both have championed social justice and opposed racial inequality. Abdul-Jabbar played in the NBA for 20 years; James is in 20th grade. Abdul-Jabbar set the record while playing for the Lakers; James will do the same.

Last but not least, James’ pursuit of the record by a generation or two who never saw Abdul-Jabbar play showed just how great he was.

“We always have to acknowledge those who came before us, who paved the way,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham. “Think of all the points Kareem scored and he had, huh, a 3-pointer? They think about all this and these kids are learning about another era. It’s high education at a high level in the game of basketball, especially NBA basketball.”

When Abdul-Jabbar broke the record, Riley said Magic Johnson — then the Lakers’ point guard — made sure he was the one getting the support for the game. Johnson nearly put himself back in the game against Utah that night in Las Vegas when Abdul-Jabbar was two points away.

Years later, when the Lakers from those then-championship teams gathered for a reunion in Hawaii last summer, Abdul-Jabbar was a day late for personal reasons. The Lakers in 2022 celebrated his arrival just as they did the record holder in 1984.

“He felt special because he was special, because he was special,” Riley said of the man who stood shoulder to shoulder with an embattled Muhammad Ali during the boxing champ’s legal troubles in the late 1960s, counting Bill Russell – another basketball giant and advocate for social change – as a mentor. “He was treated like the patriarch by all the players. It’s been a great week for him. He was engaging, came into everything we were doing, gave some impromptu speeches. 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 the unique opportunity to do it,” Riley said. “Training, travel, personal bosses, personal trainers, all of those things have come into play since Kareem. I hope people also recognize Kareem’s story and how different it was. He went to college for four years; LeBron came out of high school. But both have dominated from day one. Both have turned their potential into greatness from day one.”


AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports


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