The Step Back: The long goodbye of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

If you’re old enough, cast your mind back to 1989: the year the Berlin Wall came down, Tim Burton’s Batman graced the silver screen, and Seinfeld premiered on US television.

The Los Angeles Lakers were the NBA’s reigning champions, having overcome the Detroit Pistons in the seven competitive games that comprised the 1988 Finals. As the team had also won it all one year earlier, they were on for a three-peat – something last achieved by their fiercest rivals, the Boston Celtics, back in the 1960s.

But the entire campaign had something of an unusual feel to it, as center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had announced that the season would be his last. As a result, each team the Lakers visited hosted a pre-game tribute to pay homage to the big man’s contribution to the game.

Sam McManis wrote about this somewhat bizarre spectacle in the Los Angeles Times, saying:

“Not known as a sentimentalist, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has mostly acted the part of courteous house guest while being treated as a visiting dignitary during a six-month farewell tour that has visited every sector of the country. Protocol has been strictly observed. Gifts have been given the retiring Laker center, platitudes exchanged, applause graciously accepted and, once in a while, emotions revealed.”

Drawn out as it may have been, the tour finally came to an end on this day in 1989, as Lakers fans got to say their farewells. Of course, they weren’t really farewells, as the team was on course for another trip to the playoffs, meaning Abdul-Jabbar would eventually play his final game in June. But there was still a ceremony that saw Pat Riley, Magic Johnson and others deliver heartfelt speeches in honor of their close friend and colleague.

Then it got a bit weird, as he sat in a rocking chair on the court, while his son struggled through the national anthem.

Don’t believe me? Well, it happened:

It was hardly a fitting tribute. But it was a heartfelt one, for a player who had spent 14 years with the franchise. More fitting, perhaps, was the display he and Johnson put on in that final game of the regular season, securing the team’s 57th win of the campaign, while wrapping up the number one seed in the Western Conference and the second best record in the NBA.

Behind the duo and their celebrated supporting cast, the Lakers romped past the Portland Trail Blazers, the Seattle Supersonics and the Phoenix Suns without losing a single game to claim a spot in the NBA Finals. Their opponents, The Detroit Pistons, however, were the only team that had secured a better regular season win total than the Lakers. And home court advantage resulted in a clean sweep, denying Abdul-Jabbar the opportunity to secure one more ring and retire on a high.

It could have all been very different. With his team leading by two points in the third quarter of Game 2, Magic Johnson suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to exit the game. He battled back to start Game 3, but left the court after five scoreless minutes and didn’t return. Without him, the Lakers battled hard but they were unable to impose their will on the Pistons, who eventually came out worthy winners.

In 15 postseason appearances that year, Abdul-Jabbar averaged career lows of 11.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in limited minutes. His final appearance yielded just 7 points and 3 rebounds (proof if any were needed that he was by then, at the ripe old age of 42, an unsurprisingly spent force), but a lot of love from the Lakers faithful:

And rightly so, as when Abdul-Jabbar retired, no NBA player had ever scored more points, blocked more shots, won more Most Valuable Player Awards, played in more All-Star Games or logged more seasons.

His list of accolades seems endless and he was, most notably, a six-time NBA champion, a two-time Finals MVP, a six-time MVP, a 10-time All-Star, and eventually had his jersey retired by the Lakers and the team that he played for prior to joining the Purple and Gold, the Milwaukee Bucks.

Thanks in no small part to his contribution, the Lakers reached the NBA Finals eight times in the 10 seasons between 1979-80 and 1988-89. They won five titles in that time, beating the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers twice each, and the Detroit Pistons once.

Abdul-Jabbar was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, while a statue of him pulling off his signature ‘sky hook’ was unveiled outside of the Staples Center in 2012. He remains the NBA’s all-time leading points scorer to this day with a whopping 38,387 career points.