I was listening to the radio this morning and one of my favorite NBA players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was being interviewed. One of Kareem’s many stories always reminds me of an important lesson for any of us during times of need, which is something to be especially thankful for as we count our blessings during the holidays.
It took place when I was a teenager in the ‘80s. The Los Angeles Lakers (I was a huge fan) and the Boston Celtics (hated them) were full throttle into their bitter rivalry that transcended professional basketball during that decade. Both teams had stars. The Celtics had Larry Bird, young and in his prime. The Lakers had Magic Johnson, also young and in his prime. Each team was littered with players that would eventually be Hall of Famers.
The first two games of the 1985 NBA Finals would take place in Boston. To say the Lakers were motivated would be a gross understatement. The year before they had lost to these same Celtics in a gut-wrenching final Game 7 in the Finals. Most thought the Lakers were the better team and let the Celtics sneak up on them. The Lakers felt the same way, and they were itching for payback.
Game 1 took place on Memorial Day 1985, and was played before a raucous Boston Garden crowd. The game was not in the balance for long as the Celtics dominated early and late and cruised to a 148-114 win. The Celtics looked fresh, fast, and confident. They now led the series 1-0 with Game 2 on their home court again after a two-day rest.
The Lakers, on the other hand, were reeling. They had never, yes never, beaten the Celtics in the Finals to win the World Championship. And one player in particular had been reminded of that for as many years as he could remember during his time in Los Angeles. He wore it like a badge of infamy. And it weighed on him more than he ever let on.
Now, after the Memorial Day Massacre as it came to be called, the all-too-familiar doubt crept into Kareem’s mind – maybe he in fact would never beat the Celtics for the championship. All of the confidence he and the rest of the Lakers brought to Boston came crashing to Earth with a thud on the parquet floor at the Garden on that Monday. They were embarrassed and humiliated; in two days they had to play the Celtics again.
To add insult to injury, the media was relentless in its criticism of Kareem’s Game 1 performance. Kareem was now 38 years old and had many more playing days behind him than in front of him. They called him slow. Washed up. Not the player he used to be. And on and on. Even a human being that is 7’2” has feelings – and these criticisms hit Kareem hard.
Thursday rolled around and it was time for the Lakers to board the team bus for Game 2 at the Garden. Pat Riley, the Lakers’ coach, had a very strict policy – only players, coaches and immediate team staff on the bus. Riley noticed that everyone was on the bus except for Kareem. He looked up and saw Kareem walking toward the bus and he had someone with him. It was his father. He said to Riley, “Is it okay if my dad rides with us to the game?” Riley would later recall this as one of the most poignant moments in his coaching career. He knew Kareem had taken Game 1 hard. Riley himself had been very critical of Kareem in team meetings the day after Game 1, to the extent of punching his fist through a chalkboard. He knew Kareem needed his bedrock is source of renewal. For Kareem, it was his father. Riley looked at Kareem and said “Of course.”
Kareem played Game 2 of the 1985 Finals like a madman. He scored 30 points, had 17 rebounds, and 8 assists. The Celtics were overwhelmed by his play and had no answer for him. Or for the Lakers as it turned out. The Lakers won Game 2 and would go on to win the series and the World Championship 4-2, finally ridding themselves of the curse of the Celtics. As for Kareem, he would be named the Finals Most Valuable Player at the age of 38.
What is your source of renewal? What is your source of strength when times are tough? As the holidays approach, and the inevitable stress that comes with them (!), keep in mind your source of renewal. Is it a person? Is it prayer? Is it a place? All of the above? Whatever it may be, be sure to reach out when you need it.