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."
Donaldson also has been relentlessly booed during games, and the nickname Scissorhands, hung on him by Dallas columnist Skip Bayless in reference to Donaldson's less-than-proficient skill in catching the ball, has caught on. Donaldson, who is unhappy with his lack of playing time, figures to be gone one way or another next season, because he will be an unrestricted free agent.
Until things soured this season, the 12-year veteran was always one of the most popular Mavericks, not to mention one of the league's most interesting off-the-court personalities. He is the majority owner of the Sydney Wave, a team in the Australian Baseball League. He owns a rehabilitation and physical therapy business in Mill Creek, Wash., and takes off-season courses at the University of Washington in pursuit of a master's degree in physical therapy. "I'm still not qualified to work at my own clinic," Donaldson says. "All I can do is stop by to take out the garbage or bring in lunch. They're very happy when I show up."
He was a partner in a fur-coat business in Seattle too, until the day in Dallas when a representative of the Society for Texas Animal Rights gave him a piece of her mind. He listened closely, concluded that she made sense, promptly sold his interest and is now a member of the society. He publishes a magazine for singles called Eligibles (of which he is one) and is pursuing his blue belt in taekwondo. He does most of his own cooking, plays the saxophone, immerses himself in the literature of nutrition (he takes about 100 vitamins and supplements daily) and rarely turns down a speaking engagement at a school or community group.
But the Mavs' dissatisfaction with Donaldson has been simmering for a while. One complaint is that over the years he has unnecessarily roughed up a few of his teammates in practice yet no longer displays that same aggressiveness toward the opposition during games. Donaldson doesn't deny having a taste for the physical—and even laughingly admits to the nickname Dukes—but says that he has acted defensively in confrontations with his teammates.
The Mavs' rebuilding campaign will start in a big way after this season, and Donaldson, who says he wants to play at least two or three more years, might consider preparing a classified ad:
AVAILABLE IMMEDIATELY—animal-loving, saxophone-playing, team-owning, vitamin-swallowing, martial-arts-practicing center. Physical tendencies must be properly channeled.
Shaquille? Maybe No Deal
Ever since it was determined that the U.S. Olympic basketball team would include at least one, and possibly two, collegians, LSU All-America Shaquille O'Neal has been considered a virtual shoo-in. But that isn't the case. There are rumblings that O'Neal, a classic back-to-the-basket center, will not be needed if NBA pivot-men Patrick Ewing and David Robinson are both healthy. The Olympic game is only 40 minutes long—not 48, as in the NBA—and shuffling three centers could be unwieldy, not to mention unnecessary. The thinking, according to sources close to the Olympic selection committee, is that a more versatile and active front-courtman, such as Duke's Christian Laettner or Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning, might be a better fit. Another name has entered the picture too—USC's multitalented Harold Miner. He or Ohio State's Jimmy Jackson will be selected if a smaller, swingman type is needed.
Coaches and general managers were asked a difficult question in this week's poll: Who is the league's smartest player? In an extremely close race Larry Bird of the Celtics collected 10 votes and Jazz point guard John Stockton got 8.5. (Rocket coach Don Chaney split his ballot between Stockton and point guard Isiah Thomas of the Pistons.) Forward Chris Mullin of the Warriors and guard Jeff Hornacek of the Suns got two votes each, Thomas got 1.5, and Cav point guard Mark Price got one. In voting for Bird, Laker assistant coach Randy Pfund tells a typical story:
"In the 1987 Finals every time Bird would hear us call out the Celtics' offensive play from the bench, he'd change it. Maybe they'd call, say, a 1-up, which is a pick-and-roll involving him and Robert Parish. So we'd call out '1-up' to prepare our defense, and—boom!—Bird would go back-door on us for a basket. It got so we tried to call the play without him hearing us, and finally it became counterproductive. I'm not saying Larry Bird is the only, or even the first, player to do that, but it's just an example of how he plays the game and how he thinks the game."
The fact that five of the six above-mentioned players are white suggests that the vote may have been tinged by racial stereotyping; indeed, it says here that any number of black players—Michael Jordan, Joe Dumars and Maurice Cheeks, to name just three—merit serious consideration for smartest player. But Thomas's court sense was recognized in the balloting, and several respondents indicated that Magic Johnson would have won easily were he still active.
Abdul-Jabbar thinks that his return to action could give the Lakers the lift they sorely need.
His teammates want Donaldson (right) to save the rough stuff for opponents.