I don’t know how he did it, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar managed to become both the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and the most underrated player in NBA history.
You don’t think a man whose name is listed in the Basketball Hall of Fame and on the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team could ever be called underrated? Well, consider that even with all of his accomplishments and records — the six NBA championships, six league MVPs, two Finals MVPs, 19 All-Star selections, 10 All-NBA First Team nods, five All-Defensive First Team nods, the aforementioned all-time scoring record, not to mention a three-year sweep of national championships, Final Four MOPs and national Player of the Year awards at UCLA — Kareem is pretty much universally ranked below the lesser-accomplished Michael Jordan when fans, media and even former players argue over who is the greatest player of all time.
And depending on what day it is and who you ask, Kareem often gets slotted below the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
Why? I think part of it is because Kareem was so tall and so smooth that he made the game look too easy. Another factor is that Kareem wasn’t exactly friendly with the media during his career — he was admittedly awkward and sometimes defensive as a 7-foot-2 disarmingly intelligent African-American Muslim — so in turn he was not portrayed with as much reverence and awe as more charismatic superstars like Jordan, Shaq and Magic.
A classic example of Kareem being overshadowed is the above clip from Game 5 of the 1980 NBA Finals. Kareem put up 40 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks that night, including clutch buckets down the stretch to lead the Lakers to a 3-2 series lead over the 76ers. And he did it a lot of that while playing on a severely injured ankle.
The ankle was so bad that Kareem had to sit out Game 6, which is of course when rookie point guard Magic Johnson took Kareem’s place at center and led the Lakers to the title-clinching victory.
And ever since then, whenever people talk about this series, all they talk about is Magic in Game 6. Kareem’s dominant performance in Game 5, as well as the rest of that season — he won league MVP and was All-NBA and All-Defensive First Team — has become nothing more than a footnote.