Before Shaq-Fu and Malice At The Palace, there was Game of Death. A basketball Kung-Fu hybrid that sounds like Jason Statham has debts to pay off. Luckily, it’s actually kind of awesome. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar takes on the fists of fury and creates a cultural monument in the process. Jimmy Ness runs a play-by-play.
Bruce Lee stepping to Kareem is an event which belongs in your imagination. A basketball martial-arts crossover featuring a seven-foot centre playing a light-sensitive demon is so ridiculous it has no right to exist. I’ve refreshed Wikipedia and taken a cold shower just to double-check I didn’t make it up. And yet, here we are.
The world’s standalone Kung-Fu fighter duked it out with Jabbar in 1972’s Game of Death. Bruce Lee’s final outing has the storyline of a Nintendo side-scroller. A retired champion pummels his way through a five-story tower looking for his sister. After defeating a dozen black belts, masters of Korean and Filipino traditions, a kicking adept and a praying-mantis style warrior, Bruce’s final boss is… an NBA champion. Stupid, right? Maybe. But it’s also amazing.
For those unaware, Bruce’s fusion of swag and fury cannot be replicated. His tenacious smirk pierces the soul. Lee’s shadowboxing is spiritual communion with God. Watch as he two-steps enemies into submission.
Tomes have been written about Bruce’s influence. He was the archetype for Goku. Neo mimics his beckoning hand in The Matrix. Lee’s melding of martial art disciplines inspired the UFC. There’s a striking resemblance to *Michael Jackson’s choreography. Even his octave shattering pitch sounds like a Jacko ad-lib.
Before Lee’s untimely 1973 death, he spent years training Kareem. They were introduced while the latter was still in college. Abdul-Jabbar was an aikido disciple. A friend suggested he meet Bruce and try his Jeet Kune Do mechanic.
Lee’s style was founded on rapid and explosive movement. In Abdul-Jabbar’s biography Becoming Kareem, he credits his bullseye floater to Bruce’s volatile training.
Yes, that’s right; the NBA is so badass that people use Kung Fu to win.
Kareem filmed his scene in Hong Kong and initially did the movie for free. They based their showdown on the duo’s previous training at Lee’s house. Imagine being a neighbour and witnessing the awesome elements of force vs altitude over your backyard fence.
In Game Of Death‘s extended cut, Bruce’s floral-shirted buddy takes Kareem first. He looks positively shook. Jabbar breaks a punching bag next to his face and cripples him mentally. The Laker-god then holds him like a child at arms reach. There’s a moment when he jumps and rips his opponent off a staircase like a giraffe tearing an apple from a tree. More tall jokes to come.
Lee dons a yellow jumpsuit with Onitsuka Tiger footwear in the next scene. A supreme look, the sunshine onesie is timeless. Whether invoking shades of motorbike racer, Catwoman or Beastie Boy, Bruce was a big tracksuit guy. Few have reached similar leisure-wear heights. Uma Thurman rocked it in Kill Bill. The rest of us would look like a bloated lemon.
Fashion resume aside, the man with bullet-time fists appears puny next to Jabbar.** Witness Kareem sitting in the corner of the room like the widow spider in Charlotte’s Web. He looks like two RZAs.
Kareem’s foot travels several metres to leave a Sasquatch footprint upon Bruce’s chest. The size variation between brawlers makes it difficult to believe CGI wasn’t yet invented. Kareem looks like when you’ve maxed out the settings on “Create a Player” mode. No wonder his hook-shot was unblockable.
Although already defeated by wearing a kaftan and white running shorts, Jabbar is a fierce opponent. Both fighters take a bruising. In a feat of superhuman vigour, Lee does a push-up with his feet off the ground to avoid a shard of broken vase. Kareem is beaten senseless to a retro guitar solo.
Like U2’s aging Dracula or TDE’s Ab Soul, Kareem’s only weakness is light. Lee accidentally pokes a hole through the dojo’s wall and directs a beam right at his poor retinas. It should also be noted that he’s a Kung Fu demon with lizard pupils and they apparently don’t tolerate daytime very well. Seriously.
A dazzled Kareem finally gets choked MMA style. Funnily enough, his eyeballs were fragile in reality too. Jabbar popularized wearing safety goggles due to the hits he’d taken from other players. He even donated 900 pairs to his former college.
The NBA demon sells his defeat admirably considering he’s a six-time champion unfamiliar with the concept of losing. Kareem was so good the NCAA banned slam dunks for a year. He’s also a best-selling author, was nominated for an Emmy and Obama gave him the same medal as Mother Teresa. Feel free to give up on your own hopes and dreams.
When two accomplished humans collaborate, the ego clash is usually something you want to forget quicker than the Jay-Z and R Kelly album. This time was different. As an Ectomorph body type, Kareem’s slight frame is favoured by lean-muscled MMA fighters. He was dedicated to Kung Fu mastery and quick for his size.
Jabbar did all of his own stunts and falls. There was no stuntman or body double who also resembled a stretched piece of muscular chewing gum.
Kareem ruled the league for two decades. He won NBA Finals MVP fourteen years apart, a peerless achievement. Jabbar averaged twenty points for most of his career and suffered minimal injuries thanks to Lee’s training. The 19-time All-Star was the NBA leader in points scored, field goals made and career wins. He credited Bruce’s knife-point focus for his championship crusades.
Game of Death was never finished, but the multi-sports snapshot is an unrivalled spectacle. With Jamal Murray being raised on the foundations of martial arts, will he be the next baller to face a grandmaster? Jamal vs Jet Li? Better yet, Bol Bol takes John Wick?
I’ll be watching.
*Controversial opinion, huh?
*This comparison hits particularly close to home as I share Lee’s height. I have defined the length as “extra medium” or “a tall small.”