Minutes after Los Angeles' 109-102 victory over the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the NBA championship series, Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was confronted with a sure sign of his mortality.
Making his way though a crowd to enter his team's locker room, Abdul-Jabbar was stopped cold by the sight of former Celtics player Nate Archibald. Like Abdul-Jabbar, Archibald led a storied career in the NBA, one that spanned 14 seasons.
However, like the other 14,889 at Boston Garden Thursday, Archibald, 36, was only a spectator. Abdul-Jabbar, a 16-year veteran, was familiar with that role as well, having assumed it in the series opener last Monday when he scored just 12 points and had three rebounds.
Thursday night, though, Abdul-Jabbar gave an inspired performance: 30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and three blocked shots.
Two years older than Archibald, Abdul-Jabbar didn't need his friend's presence to remind him that there are only so many sky hooks and championship series remaining in his career, one that he has said will conclude after the 1985-86 season. Between the first two games of this series in fact, all the reminder Abdul-Jabbar needed was a darkened room and a projector.
"I knew it at the end of the first game and looking at the films confirmed it," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I wasn't getting up the court or helping my teammates out on defense. Everyone was in the forecourt and I was in the back court."
Throughout the Celtics' 148-114 Game 1 win, Boston center Robert Parish, 31, had beaten Abdul-Jabbar for position on the floor. Sometimes, Abdul-Jabbar was so far out of the picture it wasn't even a contest. When the Lakers had the ball, their fast break game slowed to a crawl and Abdul-Jabbar, the linchpin of that set, was unable to do much to help.
"That's my job. It's what the team expects and I try to deliver. That wasn't the case in the first game," he said. "But it wasn't just me. It was everybody. The way we played wasn't good enough to be in the NBA at all, let alone the world championship series."
Still, three days of watching films of the Memorial Day debacle convinced Abdul-Jabbar that he had to take a more active role. More important, it spurred his pride.
"I don't feel very different," he said after Game 2. "It's only been four days but I guess I have ups and downs like everyone else. I didn't think I had to play this game for any sort of vindication. I did feel it was played for pride, especially my own. If I didn't have that, I wouldn't be here now."
It has been said that for the last two or three seasons the Lakers have belonged to Magic Johnson. After all, the 6-foot-9 guard is the primary caretaker of the basketball.
In the locker room, there's also little surprise that Johnson is the team's spiritual offcourt leader.
But Abdul-Jabbar is the team's captain and when he assumes a hands-on role, as he did Thursday, it carries great significance.
"I knew he would be ready from the get-go," said teammate Michael Cooper. "He was really running with us in the practices and before the game he came up to each of us and gave us a little pep talk."
In turn, the Lakers helped out Abdul-Jabbar by fine-tuning their offense. Using rapid ball movement and wider spacing on the court, Los Angeles forced Boston to chase the basketball for much of the game.
"It was too easy for them to double-team me in the first game," he said. "They didn't have as much of a chance to do that tonight, and it gave me about two feet more to work with, which made things easier."
The power of the Lakers' game was reflected best in one statistic: Boston, one of the league's better rebounding teams, was limited to just three offensive rebounds in the first half.
"For him to do that kind of work at 89 years of age, I mean 38, had to help their club," Boston Coach K.C. Jones said.
There were no jokes from Lakers Coach Pat Riley, a man only two years older than Abdul-Jabbar. "Without Kareem we're just an average team," he said. "In my opinion he's simply the greatest player who's ever played."