HALFWAY THROUGH THE Farewell Tour, which stops at the Salt Palace Wednesday night, we offer these keen insights on the life and times of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:
He stayed one season too long.He's no Julius Erving.
So what? Who says Abdul-Jabbar or anybody else has to leave basketball at just the right time? The Lakers wanted him, needed him and signed him to a two-year contract, carrying him into a 20th season.
And does everybody who qualifies for a farewell tour have to be known as the game's greatest ambassador, like Erving? Maybe Abdul-Jabbar never made the all-interview team, but he stood for 30 minutes in the Salt Palace Tuesday afternoon on a day off and answered some pretty silly questions.
That's good enough for me.
Abdul-Jabbar has won six league MVP awards and six NBA championships, but just playing 20 seasons is his No. 1 achievement. Nobody else played more than 16 years, and if Kareem's effectiveness is way down, consider that he averaged 23.4 points in 1985-86, when he turned 39 at the end of the season. That's a fairly high standard.
"Each season is tough, every single one has been tough," he said last summer.
He'd already played five seasons in the league before the Jazz were born in New Orleans in 1974-75, and kept right on going through their move to Salt Lake City - and Las Vegas, which is another story. One of the most memorable moments in the Jazz's history came in Las Vegas in April 1984, when they were playing selected "home" games in the Thomas and Mack Center and Abdul-Jabbar hit a sky hook to pass Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA's all-time leading scorer.
"It just seemed weird that we'd be playing in Las Vegas," he said later.
The Salt Palace was the site of one Kareem milestone, his 40th birthday in April 1987, when team officials wheeled out a huge cake to midcourt. And there's a chance Abdul-Jabbar's basketball career could end in the Salt Palace this spring - the Jazz and Lakers, who went seven games in the playoffs last May, figure to meet in either the Western Conference semifinals or finals.
Officially, though, Wednesday's game is the tour stop. For Kareem's 13th set of gifts, the Jazz are going with a Western theme, featuring a Utah-made shotgun.
The most recent farewell was more than three weeks ago in Dallas, so Abdul-Jabbar - and the Lakers, who have to sit through the pregame ceremonies - are not wearing down just yet.
"It's a new experience . . . being appreciated," says Kareem. "Being the villain during my whole career, through college and the pros, has put me in a certain frame of mind. It's a lot more meaningful to me, than if I would have gotten that kind of appreciation my whole career."
This season, while coming dangerously close to being phased out of the Laker offense before making a comeback in the last month, Abdul-Jabbar has handled himself well - especially after being left off the original All-Star team. "I didn't think I belonged in the All-Star Game," he said again Tuesday. "I only came as a favor to the commissioner."
Abdul-Jabbar also never complained publicly about his reduced role with the Lakers.
"It's different," Magic Johnson said in November, "because he's been the man for so long . . . for so, so, so, so long. He's a true professional. He could sit there and say, `I've been in here 20 years. I've been the greatest.' He could get mad and upset, but Kareem is about winning."
If Abdul-Jabbar's single-figure scoring average blemishes his career, consider the Lakers (35-16) still have the best record in the West are the clear conference favorites, until proven otherwise.
"I missed the opportunity during the summer to really come in shape and ready to go," he admits. "I wasn't really in bad shape - I just wasn't ready to really dominate. The only burnout I had was (last summer). I kind of breathed a sigh of relief and and enjoyed the accomplishments instead of getting ready for the next season."
After contributing to the first team to win back-to-back NBA titles since 1968-69, when he was a UCLA senior, Abdul-Jabbar deserved a break. Just like he deserves one during all of this 20th season - even if 19 years would have been plenty.