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In the rarest of NBA seasons — an MVP center! — let’s remember the best ever to do it

How many basketball lovers in 2021 fail to understand that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar belongs — simply must be — on the sport’s Mount Rushmore as clearly and automatically as Michael Jordan and LeBron James?

New York Knicks vs Los Angeles Lakers
Nobody did it like Kareem.
Photo by Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images

We might as well dispense with the formalities and give Nuggets center Nikola Jokic his first NBA MVP award right now.

That’s what you get when you strap your Jamal Murray-less team across your broad shoulders and carry it — despite many outsiders assuming the situation is hopeless — on a 9-2 tear that puts the clamps on a top-four seed in the Western Conference. Murray’s torn anterior cruciate ligament last month was a cruel blow to the Nuggets, but Jokic will bring the franchise its first MVP and the center position its first MVP since Shaquille O’Neal won the award in 2000.

In a refreshing throwback to a time when big men ruled the sport, Jokic and 76ers center Joel Embiid almost surely will finish 1-2 in the voting. What a couple of players they are. So dynamic, so skilled, so unstoppable when they really get rolling.

But let’s not kid ourselves. And let’s not mislead our readers who aren’t yet old enough to stand on their front lawns and yell at clouds as white as the stubble on their chins.

Though the game in many ways gets better and better — and though many of the best players now are, hands down, better than many of the best players of previous generations — basketball has suffered an irreparable disconnect when it comes to the center position. That’s an admittedly long-winded way of saying the best centers of yore would’ve eaten Jokic and Embiid for breakfast.

No one more so than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

I was reminded of Abdul-Jabbar on Tuesday, when a photo taken exactly 10 years before popped up on my phone. It was of Abdul-Jabbar, then 64, in Los Angeles, where I interviewed him for a magazine feature. During that interview, we discussed at length the limelight he generally has taken pains to avoid from the time he arrived at UCLA until long after his 20-year NBA career was over. He had no doubt it had bridled media praise of his career to such an extent that younger fans were no longer automatically counting him as one of the three or four greatest players ever.

‘‘Sometimes people just can’t see through the fog,’’ he said then. ‘‘Maybe I’m a victim of that.’’

Even the Lakers had, Abdul-Jabbar thought, kind of forgotten about him. This despite his six rings (five won in L.A.) and — a decade later, still NBA records all — six MVPs, 19 All-Star appearances and 38,387 points scored. Not to mention his three consecutive national titles won at UCLA as the greatest player the college game has seen.

Other former Lakers made themselves extremely visible, while the shy, scholarly Abdul-Jabbar remained what often has been mischaracterized as aloof. Somehow, by 2011, five statues had gone up outside Staples Center, and not one of them was of a goggles-wearing, sky-hooking No. 33. How could Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Chick Hearn, Wayne Gretzky and Oscar De La Hoya all have been immortalized before him? It boggled the mind — not just his — and understandably offended him.

‘‘It doesn’t make me happy,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s definitely a slight. I feel slighted.’’

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Statue Unveiling At STAPLES Center
Abdul-Jabbar with his Staples statue in 2012.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The story created a real hubbub, and Abdul-Jabbar’s statue went up in front of Staples in 2012. It was long overdue. And the memory of it makes me wonder how many basketball lovers out there in 2021 fail to understand that Abdul-Jabbar belongs — simply must be — on the sport’s Mount Rushmore as clearly and automatically as anyone else. Yes, that includes Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

Carve Jordan, James and Kareem into that mountainside, I say, and let everyone else fight to be Guy No. 4.

Just sayin’

No, I can’t tell you who my Guy No. 4 is. I’ve never been able to decide.

But what about the Mount Rushmore of centers? Who’s on there with Kareem? Is Bill Russell an automatic? Is Shaq? What about Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon? Are Jokic and Embiid even in the top 10?

Wait, scratch that last question. It was off-topic and uncalled-for.

• As one-two punches go, the injuries to outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert that have cost the White Sox two of their most talented players are stunning. But nobody’s stopping this fight yet. Not even close.

The Sox will weather this barrage of bad luck for as long as their starting rotation will carry them. It’s the wrong question to ask if Jose Abreu, Tim Anderson, Yermin Mercedes and Co. can put enough runs on the board. The right one: Can Carlos Rodon and Lance Lynn keep leading the way?

Northwestern v Gonzaga
Collins has had a rough four years.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

• New Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Phillips was a state-of-the-art athletic director at Northwestern, but he left Evanston without having confronted the hardest issue facing successor Mike Polisky: What to do about Chris Collins and a basketball program that has disappeared since reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2017?

The Wildcats have had four losing seasons in a row — with a dreadful Big Ten record of 19-58 — since that high point. Collins is signed through the 2024-25 campaign. Polisky won’t be able to ignore the purple elephant in the room for long.

• Meaningless Blackhawks games vs. meaningless Bulls games:

Discuss.

Better yet, don’t.

• Note to brand-new Bears quarterback Justin Fields: Take a deep breath, pal. Everything’s great. There’s no pressure. Just go about your business and be the best player you can be.

We’ll handle the rest, starting with figuring out who’s going to make your 2041 induction speech in Canton, Ohio.