Kareem on LeBron: ‘He doesn’t have to prove anything’

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talked on Monday about LeBron James considering retirement. "It’s up to him. Certainly, he doesn’t have to prove anything."

LOS ANGELES — Nearly three months after embracing LeBron James for breaking his league’s all-time scoring record, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offered another olive branch to James on another important development surrounding his 20th NBA season.

After the Lakers’ post-season run ended with a four-game sweep to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, James told both ESPN and Bleacher Report that he will consider retirement.

 “It’s up to him. Certainly, he doesn’t have to prove anything,” Abdul-Jabbar said on Monday. “It’s just what he wants to do at this point.”

Those around James expressed skepticism to The Sporting Tribune that he would ultimately retire. He has two years worth $97 million left on his contract. Although James has won four NBA titles with three different franchises in Miami (2012, 2013), Cleveland (2016) and the Lakers (2020),  any additional titles would spark more favorable comparisons to Michael Jordan. And James has stated he hopes to play in the NBA with his son, Bronny, who just committed to play at USC next season.

Those around James believe he considered retirement amid the exhausting physical and mental toll he endured throughout the 2020-21 season. James had missed 13 games in March and April because of an injured tendon in his right foot, an ailment James declined to have surgery on since doctors conceded he could play through it so long as he could tolerate the pain. James also occasionally showed the physical strain of playing 20 NBA seasons, which included 10 Finals stints and 16 playoff appearances.

Abdul-Jabbar can relate to that feeling through his own 20-year NBA career, including his final 14 with the Lakers. Then, Jabbar won five of his six NBA titles in eight Finals appearances. Abdul-Jabbar played until the 1988-89 season at 40 years old partly because of his disciplined training and dietary habits. As he conceded, though, “I didn’t want to keep throwing the dice.”

So when did Abdul-Jabbar truly know he no longer felt motivated to keep competing for NBA titles and scoring over opponents with his signature skyhook?

“For me, it was the ice test,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “For most of my career, I didn’t like putting ice. Then my next-to-last season, the ice started to feel good. I knew it was time to get out of there.”

James can certainly relate to that regimen. He received around-the-clock treatment to manage his right foot  during the playoffs in between playing games usually every other day. What else made the recovery regimen training? The Lakers had longer travel itineraries during the first round (Memphis) and Western Conference Finals (Denver) than they did in the second round (Golden State).  

The Lakers’ season seemed exhausting enough. They overcame a 2-10 start and a 13th place standing in the Western Conference trade deadline for a few reasons. They upgraded the team’s depth and chemistry primarily through trading Russell Westbrook. Anthony Davis stayed consistently healthy. And in between overlapping injuries, James still played at a dominant level.

Yet, the Lakers exhausted plenty of energy through the second half of the season because each game had significant bearing on their playoff fortunes. They didn’t even secure a seventh seed until dispatching the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA play-in tournament.

“LeBron and all of the guys looked like they had been through two seasons,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They still gave it an awesome effort.”

Abdul-Jabbar offered this commentary at the Lakers’ inaugural ‘Lakers Town’ community event in Koreatown. There, the Lakers unveiled a 140-foot wide, 38-foot tall Lakers-inspired mural that 41-year-old Jonas Never painted. The mural featured several Lakers stars, including the franchise’s past (Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol) and present (James, Anthony Davis).

That mural further symbolized how the Lakers have continuously tried to link their past and current stars together. The mural also captured two icons that eventually retired in a Lakers uniform after receiving a farewell tour during their final season (Abdul-Jabbar, Bryant).

“It was hard to deal with all of the tributes. It was kind of a distraction,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “But also there were people that might have always wanted to boo me that tried to show their appreciation. I really felt like I had to return that. It was a good experience even though, at times, it wore on me. It was a good experience.”

Is that an experience that James will also experience in a Lakers uniform?

“That depends on what LeBron wants to do,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He might want to adjust getting away from the game. He was doing it since he was 18. I mean, come on. You have to talk to him about that.”

It doesn’t appear Abdul-Jabbar will have that conversation with James. They remained cordial and polite when Abdul-Jabbar handed James the game ball after he broke NBA’s all-time scoring record. But James has kept a respectful distance after Abdul-Jabbar publicly criticized him throughout the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons for declining to publicly advocate for people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and for spreading COVD-related misinformation on his social media channels. Abdul-Jabbar has since apologized on his Substack account.

“I never had a chance to talk to LeBron other than two or three minutes,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “There’s no animosity or resentment there at all. He’s done remarkable things and he deserves all the accolades. We might get to chat. I certainly wouldn’t be against it. As far as where his heart is and the things that he does, I have nothing but admiration.”

James has not spoken to reporters since his post-game press conference following the Lakers’ Game 4 loss to Denver. James did not attend the team’s exit meetings the following day, but Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said that he and coach Darvin Ham planned to speak with James at some point without rushing their star player. Amid speculation that James hinted at retirement to pressure the front office into making drastic off-season moves, Pelinka stressed that “keeping that continuity is going to be very important.”

The Lakers plan to retain Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura as restricted free agent after becoming encouraged with their upside and development. They plan to keep all options open on D’Angelo Russell, who showed inconsistency and may expect a bigger salary than the Lakers plan to offer.

On Monday, The Athletic and Bleacher Report reported that Kyrie Irving has asked James to consider joining the Dallas Mavericks. The Lakers have no plans to trade James. Since last season’s trade deadline, the Lakers have lost interest in Irving because of his checkered availability history as well as the depth required to obtain him.

Although Abdul-Jabbar expressed uncertainty on what the Lakers could accomplish with continuity, he looked at the Lakers’ latest playoff as more of a success than a failure.

“I felt that if they hadn’t started out so bad, the Lakers could’ve done a lot better,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It seemed like at the end of the season that they were kind of gassed. But they really did a great job with finding a new identity and going out and doing really well. They just missed making it to the Finals. They should be proud of that. I think that’s a really neat achievement.”

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.