“It was hard to get through to Kareem,” Magic said to LA Times of their first years together. “It was just hard to talk to him then. I guess it was just him, that’s the way he was. Certain times you just couldn’t talk to him, and we respected that.”
Magic also kept his distance due to Kareem’s stature in the NBA, and Jabbar was ok with that. He was never the guy to force someone into a friendship, nor did he rush into it himself. Kareem let things develop organically, and it took a while before the two became friends off the court.
Their friendship-in-the-making was put to the test 25 games into the 81/82 NBA season when Abdul-Jabbar went down with a foot injury, causing him to miss six straight games. The Lakers went undefeated without Kareem, increasing their scoring average to 117.6 PPG over the stretch — enough for players and reporters to start questioning if the Lakers are better without Jabbar.
And while his teammates publicly praised Kareem, talking about how the team needed him to be successful, privately, some guys believed they would be better without him. The media was only adding fuel to the fire, as two Lakers writers gave voice in print to the dump-Kareem sentiment. One of them even gave out matchbooks that read “TRADE KAREEM.”
I think everybody was getting carried away with just how great Earvin Johnson was, and his impact on the team, and how it would be best to run for 48 minutes and not have to throw the ball into the center. We had just lost a couple games by dropping the ball down inside to Kareem at the end by being too predictable. Players were actually doing some moaning about it in the press.Pat Riley, LA Times
It turned out Magic was also the one getting carried away in Kareem’s absence, despite averaging lower numbers across the board. Still, the fast-paced game Magic orchestrated while the big guy was out intrigued the 22-year-old guard. So when he was asked how he really felt about playing without Jabbar, Johnson had this to say.
When he leaves, you’ll be able to see the real Magic show. I’ve had to change my game because of the big fella. I’m just waiting my turn. My time will come.Magic Johnson, LA Times
Thus the debate was publicized, and it didn’t take long for Kareem to become aware of it. “I’m not dead yet,” he said during a TV interview. “The reports of my demise have been greatly overrated.”
Meanwhile, Pat Riley, who had just replaced Paul Westhead as the Lakers’ head coach, was fuming — especially after the whole thing went public. He demanded keeping the teams’ issues behind locker room doors, and once they were leaked to the press, he decided to put an end to it by summoning the players to a meeting.
Who here thinks we can get along without Kareem? Whoever it is, maybe you’ll be the one to go. If you’ve got something to say, say it here, and we’ll discuss it. If you’re gonna start giving information like that to the media, allowing them to use it against us, then we’re on our way down.Pat Riley, LA Times
Nobody said anything. Thus Riley answered everyone’s question about the Lakers being better without Kareem. They weren’t, and Pat knew it 20 games into his tenure as the team’s head coach.