NBA

Pat Riley says Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is greatest player in NBA history: ‘He’ll always be the guy’

LeBron James is closing in on the NBA’s all-time scoring record, currently held by Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. At his current pace, James would be set to surpass Abdul-Jabbar’s mark of 38,387 career points on Feb. 7 at home vs. the Thunder

For most, this record doesn’t make a difference in the GOAT debate. If you think James is the greatest to ever play, you have likely already come to that conclusion. If you don’t, a few more points aren’t going to change your mind. 

To that point, Pat Riley, who signed James to the Miami Heat and coached Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers, winning multiple titles with both, revealed in a recent interview with ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that Abdul-Jabbar will always be the NBA‘s greatest player in his mind. 

From ESPN:

“I always said that Kareem was the greatest player of all time because of his longevity,” Riley recalled. “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.

“… 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,” Riley added. “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.”

A couple things here. First, Riley said he would put Michael Jordan in the GOAT conversation as well, but the longevity factor (Jordan played 15 seasons) swings the debate to Kareem, who played for 20 seasons, and LeBron, who is in his 20th season and still has plenty in the tank. 

So that’s where this gets a little contradictory. If Riley is saying longevity is what made Kareem the GOAT, LeBron is going to play longer. He’s going to score more points. He’s obviously the better passer and an indisputably more versatile defender. 

What’s interesting is that when James was with the Heat, it was well known — as chronicled in Lee Jenkins’ 2012 Sportsman of the Year story for Sports Illustrated — that Riley would refer to James, even address him as the BOAT, which is to say: “Best of All Time.” 

Riley, of course, is splitting hairs like everyone else because, in fact, it’s impossible to say who the greatest player ever actually is. There are too many layers to the debate, too many variables to credibly consider to pinpoint one guy, to say nothing of the fact that Riley is so closely connected to both James and Kareem. So he, like most of us, is dealing in semantics. Kareem is the GOAT. LeBron is the BOAT. Jordan is “in there, too,” as Riley told Shelburne. 

Go ahead and add Wilt to the list. And Kobe. Magic. Russell. All these guys are pretty great, as it turns out. Depending on what day it is, you might very well find yourself lobbying for any one of 10 guys as the GOAT. And that’s fine. I used to say LeBron was the greatest and I believed it. I’ve come to grips with the madness of that kind of subjective certainty. I don’t know who the greatest ever is. Frankly, it doesn’t sound like Riley does, either. 


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