Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Was the ‘Best Weapon in Basketball’
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still a couple of months from breaking the N.B.A.’s career scoring record, but Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz had been crunching the numbers, and he was worried — for himself.
Eaton had determined that Abdul-Jabbar could eclipse the record when his Los Angeles Lakers faced the Jazz on April 5, 1984 — in Las Vegas, oddly enough — and guess who would probably get the defensive assignment as Abdul-Jabbar chased one of basketball’s greatest feats?
“I don’t want to be in that picture!” Eaton told Swen Nater, a friend who was playing for the Lakers that season and who recalled their conversation in a recent interview.
For 15 seasons, first with the Milwaukee Bucks and later as the Lakers’ impassive captain, Abdul-Jabbar had been drop-stepping and sky-hooking his way toward history — and no one, not even Eaton, a 7-foot-4 shot-blocking maestro who died in 2021, could prevent any of it from happening.
In recent weeks, LeBron James of the Lakers has been on his own inexorable march, thrilling crowds and mowing through defenders as he gets closer to overtaking Abdul-Jabbar’s record, an achievement that once seemed untouchable.
For Abdul-Jabbar, 75, the hubbub over his pursuit of Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record nearly 39 years ago was little more than a distraction in the final weeks of the 1983-84 regular season, teammates said. The Lakers wanted to win another championship.
“One thing that he didn’t really like to do was talk about himself,” said Mitch Kupchak, a teammate of his for five seasons before he joined the Lakers’ front office in 1986. “I think he just wanted to get it over with.”
There was one player who wanted to talk about the record: Magic Johnson, the team’s All-Star point guard.
“I’m making the pass,” Johnson told teammates, according to guard Byron Scott. “I’m throwing it to Cap for him to break the record.”
Nater, 73, who was Abdul-Jabbar’s backup, joked that he tried to help out at practice in his own way in the days leading up to the April 5 game.
“I basically let him score on me,” Nater said, deadpan. “I’d pat him on the butt and say, ‘Nice shot, Kareem.’ Or tell him to maybe follow through a little more with his wrist on the sky hook. I just wanted to build him up a little.”
It was one of 11 home games for the Jazz in Las Vegas that season as the team’s owner sought to build a fan base there. And even though the Jazz were solid — they would advance to the Western Conference semifinals — would-be fans did not exactly flee their slot machines and flock to the Thomas and Mack Center to watch Adrian Dantley, Rickey Green and Darrell Griffith.
Their game against the Lakers in April drew 18,389 fans — the largest for a Jazz “home” game since the team had relocated from New Orleans before the start of the 1979-80 season. The Jazz had no illusions about their role in the game being such a hot ticket. History was happening.
“I don’t think anybody thought that they were going to stop him from scoring,” Dantley said. “No one has ever stopped the best weapon in basketball.”
Before the game, the crowd gave Abdul-Jabbar a 45-second standing ovation, according to an account in The New York Times. Abdul-Jabbar, who needed 22 points to break Chamberlain’s record of 31,419 career points, expressed his appreciation by flashing a double thumbs-up, then went about his familiar business of leading the Lakers to another win.
He scored 16 points in the first half. But even as the Lakers built a big lead in the third quarter, Abdul-Jabbar resisted forcing shots and consistently passed out of traps. A 12-footer along the baseline gave him 18 points for the game. By the start of the fourth quarter, the game was so out of reach that Frank Layden, the coach of the Jazz, began removing his key players to preserve them for the playoffs.
But Abdul-Jabbar was so close to the record that he re-entered the game, and he tied Chamberlain when James Worthy passed to him for a dunk. The next assist needed to belong to Johnson, and when Johnson passed out of trouble to Bob McAdoo, one of the Lakers’ reserves, his teammates shouted at McAdoo to pass it back to Johnson.
“Magic almost ran up and grabbed it,” Scott said, laughing at the memory.
Bob Hansen, a first-year guard for the Jazz that season, was guarding Johnson and made the unconventional decision to give him a little space to make an entry pass to Abdul-Jabbar on the right block.
“Didn’t want to really get in the way of history,” Hansen said.
Hansen’s teammates had other ideas. Eaton and Green tried to double-team the 7-2 Abdul-Jabbar, but he took one dribble, pivoted to his right, then spun to his left to rise for a sky hook over Eaton, who had been dreading such a moment. Chick Hearn, the longtime play-by-play announcer for the Lakers, rejoiced when the ball splashed through the hoop.
“The new king of scoring has ascended his throne,” Hearn said on the broadcast as Abdul-Jabbar’s teammates embraced him. “This man has accomplished something that I don’t believe — and I mean this sincerely — I don’t think this will ever happen again.”
As reporters, photographers and dignitaries swarmed Abdul-Jabbar, Hansen waded through the mass of humanity with the ball in his hands. He found Abdul-Jabbar near midcourt.
“I said: ‘Here you go, big fella, here’s the ball. Do you want the ball?’ He was like: ‘Yeah! Thanks, little man,’” said Hansen, who is 6-6. “And he patted me on the head.”
Abdul-Jabbar acknowledged the crowd, thanked his teammates and hugged his parents, Cora and Al Alcindor.
“His father, Mr. Alcindor, was very stoic,” Scott said. “He was an ex-cop in New York, so he was tough. It was probably the first time that I saw him give Kareem a hug. You could tell he was very proud, his mother was very proud.”
Abdul-Jabbar was subbed out of the game and replaced by Kupchak.
“That’s my claim to fame,” said Kupchak, 68, now the general manager and president of basketball operations for the Charlotte Hornets. “Put in the mop sweeper.”
Chamberlain did not attend the game, but he came to a ceremony that the Lakers held at home the next day before they played the Kansas City Kings.
In Las Vegas, the visiting locker room was so packed with reporters and photographers after Abdul-Jabbar broke the record that Scott tried to escape as quickly as he could.
And while the Jazz did not enjoy losing that night, many players are still proud to have played a small role in basketball history, and to have witnessed a record that has stood for decades.
“You do kind of appreciate the fact that you’re on the court with a legend,” said Thurl Bailey, a longtime power forward for the Jazz.
Bailey has particularly warm feelings for Abdul-Jabbar. Earlier that season, Bailey, who was a rookie, emerged from the locker room at halftime of a game against the Lakers wearing an eye patch after Worthy had inadvertently scratched him. Abdul-Jabbar pulled Bailey aside and showed him his goggles.
“Young fella, you need to get you some of these,” Bailey recalled Abdul-Jabbar telling him. “And I tried them and loved them and they worked. He was always nice to me.”
When Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989 after 20 seasons and six championships, his point total was so high — and he was such a singular talent, with the durability to match — that few thought anyone would rival it.
But about eight months after Abdul-Jabbar’s record-setting game against the Jazz, something else happened: LeBron James was born.