In America's world of hired muscle, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands tallest, both in base salary of a year and a stature of 7-foot-2 or more.

Finally, in his 17th year in national sports consciousness, Abdul-Jabbar, now 33 and balding, is performing with an enthusiasm and intensity that may bring his play up to the level of his reputation.

From Power Memorial High to UCLA to the Milwaukee Bucks to the Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar has proved to be the finest center of his era, mixing finesse with a dispassionate artistry.

Abdul-Jabbar played basketball the way he did everything -- with an aloof connoisseurship and an intimidatingly cold desire to please himself in a private domain beyond outside judgment.

Whether he was adding to his exotic personal collections -- vintage boxing films, Oriental rugs, 3,000 jazz albums, texts on Asian philosophies, manuals on the martial arts -- or mastering the fingerroll, Abdul-Jabbar, was a model only-child of the '60s: brilliantly exceptional and self-centered.

Soaring sky hooks, balletic blocks and deft, no-look passes pleased his sense of what was most beautiful in basketball. He perfected the combined skills of shooting, shot-blocking and passing as no giant has ever done.

Rebounding, husting in the transition game, shouldering the complexity of being a team leader or risking the exposure of his private feeling in the public arena did not appeal to him at all. So he largely ignored them.

Abdul-Jabbar established himself as one of the worst-rebounding 7-footers in history -- his board stas barely half those of Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell.

His demeanor, especially during his decade in the NBA, was so enigmatic that it was bound to be interpreted as benign indifference, at best, or surly moodiness, at worst.

It is hard for a gigantic black who can dunk on his tiptoes to hide in front of a million eyes, but Abdul-Jabbar, with his shy, nonviolent nature and his reclusive bent, did his best.

He turned 30 with a full beard, goggles that made him look like "The Fly," a defiantly implacable exterior, and a defiant faith in the Hanafi Muslims.

No wonder he was beset with migraine. Bright lights, noise and pressure could make him feel like "the Alien was trying to get out through my eyes."

Yet his whole basketball life was predicated on constant performance under pressure amid bright lights and noise.

Such a life full of contradictions might never have reached a pleasant place of psychic rest during Abdul-Jabbar's basketball career.

In recent seasons, as it became unavoidably noticeable that his teams had won only one world title in his first 10 years, the constant poking at his guarded private life was exacerbated by caustic appraisals of his basketball skills.

Against this background, the most pleasing sight in these NBA finals may not be any particular dribble, pass or shot, but the expression of release and satisfaction on Abdul-Jabbar's face.

As though hidden lesions had been broken beneath the skin, he has begun to show the normal range of emotions that are at work behind every human face.

After a lifetime of accentuating his differences, cultivating elitist tastes and refining the giant's natural gift for intimidating those within his sphere, Abdul-jabbar has finally discovered that it does not diminish him to show that, basically, his heart works the same as those of smaller people.

"A lot of things have fallen into place this year, on and off the court, for Kareem," said his business representative, Tom Collins. "The chemistry is just right. Everything is going his way."

From a certain point of view, not a great deal has ever gone against Abdul-Jabbar. But growing up is never easy, especially when there is so much of you.

Abdul-Jabbar's streak of luck is long this year.

The Lakers drafted Magic Johnson, a perfect point guard to complement any center. The Lakers' new coaches -- first Jack McKinney, then Paul Westhead -- were the most intelligent, the most naturally attuned to Abdul-Jabbar's views, of any that the center had ever had.

"If Kareem came back in another life, he would probably be a poet or artist. He has a great eye for details," said Westhead. "No NBA player has his concentration."

While most players' statistics shrink against the superior compeitition in the playoffs, Abdul-Jabbar's have always improved -- his 30.2 playoff scoring average is the best in history. Then, and perhaps only then, has he deemed the game totally worthy of his attention.

The new Laker brain trust has also been cognizant that even an ecstatically happy Abdul-Jabbar will always need considerable rebounding help. A fleet of battleships has been imported for the purpose -- 6-foot-11 Jim Chones, Spencer Haywood and Mark Landsberger.

Although it's nobody's buusiness, the best change in Abdul-Jabbar may have come from a saucy new girlfriend who, he says delightely, "Is the first person who ever called me an 'ass' to my face. She's done a lot to help me take myself less seriously."

It is enormously difficult for a millionaire giant who has been feted since he was a child not to see himself as a sun around which others must revolve. Abdul-Jabbar has, however, always done well at looking out, as well as inside.

"I notice everything. I always look into people's eyes," Abdul-Jabbar said this week -- a span in which he has never been a more gracious interview. "I guess that, being a New Yorker, I developed what you might call a penchant for sitting back and observing."

"Some things I'm real sharp at. Other things escape me. I'm sharp at seeig things . But reading what you see can be a problem. . . Maybe it's just naivete, or just being too idealistic about things, but there's a lot of things about people that I don't understand."

This is a more modest tone of voice than the 23-year-old who, when closing a new name in place of Lew Alcindor, picked one whose translation meant, "Generous, powerful servant of Allah."

Like so many of the campus stars of a dozen years ago, so seriously and nobly self-absorbed, Abdul-Jabbar has -- with age -- picked up on a bit of Bob Dylan's self-deflating insight with, "I was so much older then . . . i'm younger than that now."

Now, Abdul-Jabbar can grin on court, jump up and down in childish anger at a ref's bad call, slap hands with Johnson, or go roller-discoing.

Abdul-Jabbar still cuts his eyes quickly to see what those around, and behind, him are making of him. His speech, at least outside his basketball inner circle, still has an ingrained cautiousness.

However, he will now attempt little jokes and plays on words. Of Seattle, he said, "They say they like to play with their backs against the wall. Well, they're about to go over the wall." When Philadelphia's Darryl Dawkins complained that the refs were protecting Abdul-Jabbar, he said cryptically, "Tell Darryl that if frogs had wings, they'd swallows."

Last week, Abdul-Jabbar even made what he calls "my first locker-room speech" when he chewed out his mates at halftime against Seattle.The result: an instant Laker romp.

Laker boss Jerry Buss is so pleased with his obviously altered star that, supposedly without provocation, he tore up Abdul-Jabbar's paltry $650,000 a year pact for two more seasons and extended it to an easy-to-remember $1 million a season for four more years.

If, amidst this confluence of good furtune, good teammates and universial affection, Abdul-Jabbar were not playing the best in years, that would be the surprise.

Chamberlain had his muscle and vanity, Russell his scowl and mystery -- and his manic laugh. Abdul-Jabbar, after years of yoga, self-defense training and meditation, is discovering that a smile and some old-fashioned pep may be what works best for him.

He has the NBA tying itself into knots with mind games.

The 78ers have temporarily given up on letting Dawkins, the fundamentally atrocious Lovetronian, play defense on Abdul-Jabbar, switching him instead, for Wednesday's second game (WTOP-TV9, 11:30 p.m.), to the Lakers' humble collection of big forwards.

Caldwell Jones, 7-foot-1, will start on Abdul-Jabbar. And that does Jones think? "I'll try to hold him under 35. If he gets 40, you really got problems."

Sixers Assistant Coach Chuck Daly holds out similar low hopes for the Philly defense: "Once Kareem gets the ball down low, you couldn't stop him with an airplane."

Abdul-Jabbar, naturally, will not concede that his performance has altered this season. "It's just that time of year," he says, meaning that the playoffs are his meat.

Others know differently, and tease Abdul-Jabbar very softly. "Kareem is gettin' old," says Jamaal Wilkes, loudly enough for him to overhear. "The man definitely wants another (championship) ring on his finger."

"I am old," Abdul-Jabbar replies with a smile. "And I want this as much as I can want anything."

Throughout his Laker career, when the gold-clads have been in fourth-quarter trouble, they have made no secret of their basic play. It's called fist down with the sign for it being a fist held down and to the side.

What it means is get the ball to Kareem in the low post if you have to drop-kick it in there.

Fist down is still the most devastating and unstoppable single play in basketball -- get it to Abdul-Jabbar, then get out of his way.

But a fist is no longer the proper symbol.

"To me," said Abdul-Jabbar's longtime friend, Lucious Allen, "he has become the Kareem he always wished he could be."

The fist is gradually to show the true hand of the man.