The first time Laker rookie David Rivers met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they were sitting next to each other in the first-class cabin of the jumbo jet taking them to Hawaii for training camp. From Los Angeles to Honolulu, a trip of more than 5 1/2 hours, they didn't exchange a word.
"I was feeling him out--I didn't know how to react to him," Rivers said. "I thought he could care less about who he was sitting next to, so I didn't even think to say anything to him."
So while Abdul-Jabbar read, Rivers flipped through a magazine, watched the in-flight movie, kept to himself. Finally, a breakthrough: While trying to cut up his salad on the meal tray, Rivers splattered some of the dressing on his napkin. The first sound he heard from Abdul-Jabbar was laughter.
"That was it," Rivers said, chuckling. "We still didn't say anything to each other, but he laughed."
A funny way to begin a relationship, but when Magic Johnson introduced all the newcomers at a team meeting and asked the veterans whether they wanted to own a rookie, they all said no--except Abdul-Jabbar.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," he said. "I'll take David. He can get my newspaper in the morning."
So, before Rivers could even begin to worry about making a proper impression on the basketball court, he had to start each day by going to the hotel gift shop, buying the New York Times, and delivering it to Abdul- Jabbar's door. He was doing fine until the day the gift shop ran out of the Times and Rivers brought the San Francisco Examiner instead.
A big mistake. That morning, on the team bus to practice, Abdul-Jabbar loudly informed everyone of the rookie's shortcomings as a newspaper carrier. Rivers didn't make the same error again.
"But after that experience when I'd get him the paper, I would slam it down real hard outside his door," Rivers said, laughing again.
Given their early connection, then, maybe it wasn't surprising that the 41- year-old captain was the first of the Lakers to ask the rookie about the 15- inch gash that crosses Rivers' abdomen from hip to hip, a permanent reminder of his brush with death in a car accident two years ago.
"I would get dressed and I'd see guys glancing at it but Kareem was the first guy to respond," Rivers said.
"He said, 'Man, you were lucky,' and I said, 'Yeah, I know.'
"That opened it up for just about everybody else. They asked me questions about what happened, was I in any pain, all that stuff. They shake their heads, because the scar goes from side to side, like I was cut in half and put back together again."
David Rivers is 23 years old, but his brown eyes are those of an older man, perhaps because they have looked directly at death and imagined what was on the other side. He already has buried two brothers--one who was stabbed to death, another who was struck and killed by a truck--and when he went through the windshield of a van driven by a former Notre Dame teammate and was ripped nearly in two, he thought of what it might be like to be dead, too.
"I did, because I had accepted the fact that I was going to die," he said. "I thought about seeing my two brothers. I thought about having the ability to see the whole world, see everybody all at once. I thought about things like that."
It happened after a late-summer pickup game back at Notre Dame, when Rivers was riding in a van driven by Ken Barlow, his recently graduated teammate. They were headed down a dark two-lane highway toward Elkhart, Ind., where both had summer jobs working for a caterer. It was about 1 a.m. when a car came at them and never left their path. Barlow veered off the road more than 100 feet, got back on the pavement, then lost control of the van. It rammed an embankment, and sent Rivers through the windshield, headfirst.
Somehow, after three hours of surgery and hundreds of stitches later, Rivers survived. Somehow, he also played basketball again--first for Notre Dame, now as a No. 1 draft choice for the Lakers.
Somehow, just as he always had dreamed back in Jersey City, he was in the National Basketball Assn., following in the footsteps of the only idol he ever had, Julius Erving.
"Julius Erving was everything," Rivers said. "Watching him on TV on a Sunday afternoon and seeing all the glitter and having the idea of someone being on TV and being the star and being comfortable in life--I mean, I would literally run through the house after watching him play, singing his old commercial. Hey, Dr. J, where'd you get those moves?
"I would say, 'I'm going to make it to the NBA. I'm going to be just like him.' You'd hear people say he was one of the most respected players in the league. I wanted people to say that about me.
"That's what influenced me most, to be the type of person I am, both on the court and in how I conduct myself."