The Washington Bullets will have their first sellout crowd of the season, 19,105, tonight when they play the Los Angeles Lakers at 7:30 at Capital Centre.
With such stars as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers have always drawn well around the NBA. And although they have dominated the Western Conference in recent years, they also have been vulnerable to the physical play that seems a nightly occurrence in the Eastern Conference.
In the last two seasons, the Lakers have lost in the finals, first to the Philadelphia 76ers, then in seven games to the Boston Celtics. Winners in both the 1979-80 and '81-82 seasons, the only time the Lakers haven't represented the West in this decade was when the Houston Rockets upset them in a 1980-81 miniseries.
As last season's finals showed, the Lakers are vulnerable to heavy pounding. In addition, they are beginning to show some signs of aging.
Although enjoying their customary position atop the Pacific Division with a 14-8 record (the Bullets are 13-7, including 11 victories in their last 13 games), the season hasn't been easy for the Lakers. At one point they were 2-5.
Age could be a reason. At an average of 27.67 years, the Lakers are the oldest team in the league, except for Boston and Denver. Yet the team made big news this week when it announced that Abdul-Jabbar, at 37 the oldest player in the league, had agreed to a two-year contract at an estimated $2 million per year.
The announcement came in the midst of a four-game trip east, a trip in which three of the teams visited -- Cleveland, New Jersey and Washington -- planned ceremonies in his honor.
Since the veteran center's announcement at the end of last season that this would be his final go-around, the Lakers had coaxed him constantly to change his mind. The Lakers also cautioned each team that if ceremonies were to be held in his honor they should be "in appreciation of past contributions," with the word "retirement" specifically not mentioned.
Abdul-Jabbar, the first-team all-NBA center last season, says he started changing his mind near the end of training camp. Prodded by Jerry West, the team's general manager, Abdul-Jabbar spoke to the Los Angeles Times of perhaps returning for another season.
Skeptics derided the Times report but it proved to be true. Abdul-Jabbar made his decision after consulting former all-stars such as Nate Thurmond and Chet Walker.
"This is my life, my profession," he said. "I do it very well and I'm still one of the best at it. As too many people are telling me, if you are in your prime and doing very well and at the top of your profession, there's really no need to quit unless you have urgent reasons."
Abdul-Jabbar, who often last season spoke of not wanting to duplicate the almost sad career finale of his boyhood idol, baseball's Willie Mays, sees no reason to stop now. Averaging 19.7 points a game, Abdul-Jabbar has come on in recent weeks, and so have the Lakers. Against the Chicago Bulls last Sunday, he scored 32 points and blocked eight shots.
When his new contract expires, he will have completed 17 seasons in the league, tying former Bullet Elvin Hayes for career longevity. But, at present, there are no plans for breaking it, despite his high level of play.
"I'm committed to it (basketball), but if, for any reason, I can't do it, I can walk away from it and not look over my shoulder," he said. "I won't be threatening to come back or hanging on the sidelines or breathing heavily in the papers." -- --
The Bullets said guard Gus Williams, who missed Thursday night's victory over the Indiana Pacers because of a strained adductor muscle, will be listed as questionable against the Lakers. A decision will be made at game time on whether he will play. If he cannot, second-year man Jeff Malone will start in his place.