Pat Riley talks Kareem, LeBron and the NBA record for longevity

In fall of 1985, at the height of the Los Angeles LakersBoston Celtics rivalry, two questions dominated the NBA:

  • Could any other team make a Finals run besides the Lakers and Celtics?
  • Would Kareem Abdul-Jabbar really retire after his contract expired at the end of the season?

He was 38 years old and heading into his 17th NBA season; at the time, that was longer than anyone else in league history had played.

He already had passed Wilt Chamberlain to become the NBA’s leading career scorer in 1984 and was still at the top of his game, having been named the playoff MVP as the Lakers won the 1985 championship.

And perhaps most importantly, Abdul-Jabbar still wanted to play.

But as his coach at the time, Pat Riley, told ESPN in a wide-ranging interview discussing Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record (which current Laker LeBron James is on pace to break in early February):

“You have to have a reason.”

“When Magic [Johnson] got there in 1979-80, Kareem was already 32 years old,” Riley said, “but he saw what was developing around the Lakers by winning the championship in 1980 then getting [Bob] McAdoo in ’82 and Mychal Thompson, A.C. Green, Byron Scott and all these other guys … he saw a team that could win a championship every year. And so he was inspired by that.

“If he was trying to carry the Milwaukee Bucks at the time, and they didn’t have a chance, maybe he wouldn’t have played 20 years.”

At the beginning of that training camp in 1985, Lakers general manager Jerry West went to Abdul-Jabbar and presented him with a two-year contract extension that would take him through his age-40 season, if he so desired.

“There were rumors he was going to stop, and I told him, ‘This is crazy! Why would you retire?'” West recalled in a recent interview with ESPN.

“His presence out there was enough. His size, his passing, the intimidation factor. I told him, ‘You don’t have to do what you used to do … look at these guys around you. The only time you’re going to have to really play isn’t until the playoffs.'”

The pitch worked. Abdul-Jabbar went on to play four more seasons and win two more NBA titles. He also scored 5,125 points in those final seasons, leaving him with 38,387 career points and sole possession of the NBA’s career scoring record, which James is bearing down on 34 years later.

Like most of the NBA, Riley, as the Miami Heat‘s president, has been watching James’ incredible finishing kick — he is averaging a staggering 35.1 points a game since turning 38 on Dec. 30 — with a mix of awe and reverence.

Unlike most of the NBA, however, Riley has seen this kind of late-career dominance before: from Abdul-Jabbar.

“I always said that Kareem was the greatest player of all time because of his longevity,” Riley recalled.

“Kareem was unique from the standpoint that he could play at a high level, play 80 games a year … get beat up because of double- and triple-teams and guys just taking shots at him. He just developed this mental toughness along with a great physical body to really last forever.”

There are all kinds of parallels to be drawn between Abdul-Jabbar and James as they approach this shared moment in history, including the way they take care of their bodies and the circumstances of the contract extensions they signed with the Lakers heading into their age-38 seasons.

But perhaps most significant is that James, just as Abdul-Jabbar was, is still an excellent player at an age when most of his contemporaries have retired.

“I put Michael [Jordan] in there too,” Riley said. “But Kareem was the greatest at that time because of his longevity and the fact that he continued to perform at a high level when he was in his late 30s and 40s.”

James, in his 20th season, is still regarded as an All-NBA player. He was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday after averaging 35.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.3 blocks in four games as the Lakers finished the week 3-1, with wins against the Houston RocketsMemphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers. And he is sixth in the NBA in scoring this season at 29.8 points per game.

The Lakers, however, sit 12th in the conference as they await the return of All-NBA forward Anthony Davis from injury. It’s not exactly the same chance to win a championship that Abdul-Jabbar had with the 1985-86 Lakers. But there’s still a chance.

To Riley, that hope, that opportunity to compete for a championship, is everything at this stage in a player’s career.

“That’s where LeBron is,” he said. “I’m not speaking to anything that he might say in the media, but that’s his only reason to continue to play. Breaking the scoring record will be big for him if it happens, and it will happen. But he wants to win titles; that’s what drives him. And so for him to continue to play at this level, with that hope that this team is going to come together out there and Anthony Davis gets back, I think they got a shot. I really do. And I believe he believes that too.”

Despite what outsiders might assume, Riley said he still roots for James — except when the Lakers are playing the Miami Heat, of course. Riley and James have a shared history, from the two titles they won with Miami from 2010 to 2014. But mostly, Riley just appreciates James’ commitment to his craft and the game.

“It’s hard for me to talk about what the players were like in the 1970s and ’80s versus what the mentality is like today,” Riley said. “Back then, it was a badge of honor to play in every game.

“I always remember the two numbers that I respect the most: 906, and 1,192. Nine hundred and six was the amount of consecutive games that Randy Smith played when he was with Buffalo. Then A.C. Green, the first time he missed the game was when he retired. And so it was a different mentality. That was a badge of honor. And today, it’s not. It’s about rest, it’s about taking care of everybody, it’s about making sure you don’t do too much or you might get hurt.”

“It’s a little bit more cautionary today, and I think that’s good. But it’s a different mentality,” Riley added. “So for LeBron to be able to play during this era, from 2003 to now, during this period, it just shows just how great he is as a player.”

James has missed just 165 games in his 20-year career (94 of those in the past five seasons). In today’s NBA, that makes him remarkably durable.

“As you age, the league is so much more formidable,” Riley said. “He has his own personal trainers and people who keep his body going as best as you can with all the mileage on it.”

Abdul-Jabbar had the same level of commitment to keeping himself strong as he aged, Riley said.

“I think if you go back and look at his career, with the exception of the time that he hit a guy [Bucks rookie Kent Benson] and broke his fist, and the other time he had an ankle sprain [1980 Finals], I don’t remember him ever having any kind of injuries,” Riley said of Abdul-Jabbar. “He was a remarkable athlete.”

If anything, Abdul-Jabbar was ahead of his time in the way he took care of himself.

“His longevity came out of something that most players weren’t aware of back then or didn’t take the time to learn about,” Riley said. “Kareem was a practitioner of yoga.

“I mean, really deep in meditation and yoga. Back then, whatever stretching we did as a team was to put 15 guys in a circle and then they would tell stories for 15 minutes and bust each other’s chops.”

Abdul-Jabbar was different.

“He would end up in these pretzel-like positions, and our guys would laugh at him, and he would just say, ‘You’ll see one day. You’ll see one day,'” Riley said.

“Kareem was serious about getting up early and meditating, praying, and eating healthily and doing hours of yoga.”

Before games, when other players were working out or listening to music, Riley often found Abdul-Jabbar reading at his locker, stretching or meditating.

“All of that calmed his mind and his body,” Riley said, “to where he was able to overcome everything, any kind of defense, any kind of individual threat, any kind of off-field things.

“He went through a lot, and he continued to produce.”

In September, Riley and Johnson organized a vacation in Hawaii for all the Lakers players who played on championship teams during that “Showtime” era.

They tried to put something together a few years ago — as most of the players from that era were aging into their late 60s and early 70s — but delayed it for a few years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The itinerary was everything you’d expect and hope for: golf, swimming, speeches, Donny Hathaway music. Riley even put the guys through a practice.

“I was like my old self. I started around midnight doing the practice plan, and about 3 a.m. I finished it, after I wrote it about five times,” he said, not at all joking. “And of course, we didn’t do anything that I had on the practice plan because the players were a little bit unruly, and they were being defiant, like, ‘What? We’re going to stretch? What?'”

The turnout was much better than expected — probably because Riley and Johnson personally called anyone who didn’t give an immediate “yes” and told them to come.

Even famously private Abdul-Jabbar attended.

“He was a day late because he had some issues,” Riley said, “but when he got there, we all came down, and he was like the patriarch.

“He was great for the entire time he was there, showing up and making a great speech to the team with some meaning in it. Read it, actually.”

Riley brought this up because he knows there will be renewed discussion about Abdul-Jabbar’s reputedly prickly personality as attention is focused more on him as James passes his scoring record.

History has a way of emphasizing unkind details while leaving out the benign. But Riley was there: playing against Abdul-Jabbar in high school; as a teammate with the Lakers; and finally, as his coach. He saw up close what Abdul-Jabbar was like and said he now often finds himself feeling protective of Abdul-Jabbar.

“It wasn’t as rabid as today, because there was no social media back then, but Kareem would get attacked; people were just like a swarm of bees around him, wanting autographs, demanding autographs, things of that nature,” Riley said. “The things that were said to him about his height and all that stuff, he just became — not standoffish, he was quiet. He was an introverted man, and he was protective of his privacy. And in this sport, it’s hard not to be protective of your privacy when everybody’s trying to pry. So the questions that the media would ask him would sort of put him off a little bit if he had to answer something that was crazy. And so, yeah, he went within himself.

“But around us, I mean as a teammate and as a coach, when we got in that locker room and out on that court, he was fine.”

Riley continued: “We don’t win championships without the greatest player in the history of the game, who had the greatest weapon in the history of the game. The skyhook was unstoppable. Last minute of the game, it’s going to one guy.

“Kareem was the guy, and he’ll always be the guy.”

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