Pat Riley on mentoring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "The skyhook was unstoppable…Kareem was the guy”

Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat - Game Four
Pat Riley on mentoring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

By the time Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 38 years old, he had already played more seasons than any other player in NBA history. The dominant big man had broken Wilt Chamberlain's scoring record and won four championships already. While he had done pretty much everything there is to do in the league, he still wanted to play.

The way Jerry West pitched a two-year contract extension to him, the all-time great didn't need to average the 35 points per game he did early on in his career. With plenty of young players on the squad, Abdul-Jabbar didn't have to produce the way he used to. His presence was enough to impact the team. The pitch worked, and Abdul-Jabbar signed an extension.

During the next three years, he won two championships, largely in part to the coaching of Pat Riley, who had already led them to two titles. In addition, during that time Abdul-Jabbar extended his lead as the NBA's all-time scorer.

As LeBron James approaches NBA history, Riley spoke in an interview with ESPN to discuss Abdul-Jabbar's dominance, saying:

"We don't win championships without the greatest player in the history of the game, who had the greatest weapon in the history of the game. The skyhook was unstoppable. Last minute of the game, it's going to one guy.
"Kareem was the guy, and he'll always be the guy."

LeBron James closing in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record

With LeBron James (38,164 points) just 224 points shy of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38,387-point scoring record it's only a matter of time before he takes the lead. The way Riley sees things, what made Abdul-Jabbar so great and part of what makes James so great, is the longevity both man have shown.

In Year 20 Kareem wasn't just entering games for five minutes here or there. During the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 31.3 and 28.9 minutes per game. Add onto that the fact that he played in 78 games in '86 and 80 games in '87, and it's truly remarkable how durable the 7-foot-2 star was.

(Plus, he had already won three NCAA championships at UCLA and, per NCAA rules, couldn't be on the varsity team as a freshman.)

(Suggested Reading: Kareem questions why the skyhook has 'gone out of style')

NBA icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
NBA icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

While many of his teammates would chirp at Abdul-Jabbar for doing yoga, often poking fun of the big man during stretching circles, Riley credits it with keeping him nimble. While yoga at the time wasn't as widely used in sports for strength and recovery, Abdul-Jabbar's early adoption of the practice was a game changer.

"I always said that Kareem was the greatest player of all time because of his longevity," Riley said. "Kareem was unique from the standpoint that he could play at a high level, play 80 games a year ... get beat up because of double- and triple-teams and guys just taking shots at him.
"He just developed this mental toughness along with a great physical body to really last forever."

With James closing in on Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record, it will be interesting to see how long James remains in the league and what other records he can break.

James, who is 38, came to the NBA straight from high school and is in his 20th season – and averaging an amazing 29.8 points per game. Abdul-Jabbar retired at the age of 41 in 1989 after 20 seasons.

Only 10 players have played at least 20 NBA seasons. Of those, only four played 21 seasons (Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Willis and Robert Parish), and only one played 22 seasons (Vince Carter).

Carter and Parish were 43 when they retired. Willis was 44 but missed two full seasons as well (once with an injury, once when he retired). Nowitzki retired at 40, while Garnett was 39.


(Suggested Reading: Robert Horry with a hot take on LeBron breaking Kareem's record)

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Edited by Joseph Schiefelbein
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