By: Michael D. McClellan |
It’s a number that stands alone, one that towers, unyielding, above all others in NBA history. It represents twenty years of sustained excellence, 1,560 nights of competing against the world’s best, 57,446 minutes worth of memories, mysteries and milestones. Four other players have crossed the 30,000 career scoring threshold to date, including Karl Malone (36,928) and Michael Jordan (32,292), but no one has seriously threatened a record that may stand for decades. Perhaps LeBron James one day in the not-too-distant future. Or maybe some other unborn basketball phenom. Until then, the record belongs to the 7’2” legend with the most lethal offensive weapon the game has ever known, the player who retired, at the age of 42, as a six-time league MVP with six NBA Championships on his résumé.
Heady stuff for sure. But if you think that gaudy stats or Larry O’Brien Championship Trophies tell the full story of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, think again; and if all his name conjures is that of a moody, aloof loaner away from the court, then you’ve missed the boat on what makes Abdul-Jabbar tick. Look a little closer and dig a little deeper, my friend, and you’ll discover a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a quick wit and a playful streak, the kind of chap who poked fun at himself in the 70s cult-hit Airplane! and, decades later, bravely took the plunge on ABC’s short-lived reality series Splash. His friendships through the years have been as varied and as interesting as his taste in music – imagine, if you will, Abdul-Jabbar starring alongside Bruce Lee in Lee’s incomplete 1973 Hong Kong martial arts film Game of Death, or Abdul-Jabbar amassing one of the largest private collections of Jazz records on the planet, and you begin to get the real picture; basketball immortality was a byproduct of supreme skill and will, but it was never the thing that fanned the flames, never the be-all, end-all driver that it’s been for other sports legends who’ve scaled the wall of greatness before him.
“I think my achievements on the basketball court came from a whole lot of things coming together in one place and one person,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “I was able to learn the game from some of the best teachers, and I had particular skills that translated well to playing the game. So the knowledge that I had the physical gifts gave me the opportunity to be a very good player, and I was able to take advantage of that. But I also had other interests. I’ve always been inquisitive. Getting a quality education was very important to me, and today I get as much fulfillment out of writing as I did by playing basketball. I never wanted to be defined solely by who I was as a basketball player.”
“I think my achievements on the basketball court came from a whole lot of things coming together in one place and one person. I was able to learn the game from some of the best teachers, and I had particular skills that translated well to playing the game.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Outside interests are part and parcel of today’s superstar athlete lifestyle. In fact, it could be argued that the sports played are the secondary professions, merely feeder systems for a broader portfolio that includes shoe deals, Madison Avenue media blitzes, and Hollywood vanity projects. Turn on the TV and there’s LeBron hosting Saturday Night Live. Pull out your smartphone and there’s Aaron Rodgers doing the Discount Double Check. Go to the cloud and you find David Beckham kicking soccer balls on the beach, all in the name of Pepsi. From PlayStation to IMAX to Instagram, today’s sports stars are damned near ubiquitous, tweeting to us from the ether and giving us unprecedented personal access via their mobile apps. (Guess what! LeBron just filled up the Escalade!)
Which brings me back to Abdul-Jabbar.
Starring as Mantis and going up against Bruce Lee seems downright campy today, but that 1973 fight scene was all about Kareem being Kareem, in much the same way that a GoPro camera and a snowboard allow Shaun White to transform himself into something more than an X-Games wunderkind. Clearly, Abdul-Jabbar was ahead of his time. And seeing him now, towering over me, I feel an odd connection even though we have nothing in common other than the next four days of court time, as he attempts to teach me the secret to his signature skyhook. Maybe it’s because I’m so horribly bad at it. Maybe he sees a little of himself in me as I flail around and clank shot after shot, the same way he must have struggled to grasp what Bruce Lee found so easy to master. Whatever the case we seem to hit it off, shooting hoops and talking tennis which, surprisingly, turns out to be a mutual passion.
I hoist another air ball, me and the mysterious skyhook just not clicking, and I immediately gain a new appreciation for how easy Kareem made it look on his way to 38,387. Launching that signature shot over Wilt Chamberlain at the beginning of his career. Dropping buckets on guys like Moses Malone and Robert Parish a decade in. Schooling the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing at the end.
Which begs the question: Where did it all begin?
~ ~ ~
Ever heard of Power Memorial? Manhattan Catholic school, opened in 1931, closed in ’84, basketball powerhouse, sound familiar? Kareem knows all about it. Put it on the map. Except he was Lew Alcindor back then, known throughout New York City as a burgeoning hoops prodigy, a once-in-a-generation talent, his exploits celebrated in basketball circles and on the streets of Gotham in equal doses. How many eighth-graders dunk during a game? How many are 6’8″? That was Abdul-Jabbar, barely a teenager, yet as Bunyonesque as the legendary lumberjack himself.
Time travel to Harlem with me, slip into any early ‘60s corner barbershop, and the bloated expectations border on hyperbole – irrational exuberance run amok. You might encounter the occasional hater in those days, the meathead skeptic who refused to believe the buzz, but with Alcindor in the paint, the all-boys parochial school would go 79-2 in three seasons, including a 71-game winning streak and three straight New York City Catholic championships. Achievement on the highest order, and, for Abdul-Jabbar, a blank check in terms of where he would play collegiate basketball.
“I realized basketball was going to be an important part of my life very early on” Abdul-Jabbar says. “I was being recruited to go to high school. In order to go to Catholic high school in New York, there was tuition involved, and already I had offers to go high school and not have to pay tuition. So at that point basketball started paying for part of my education. I knew that college tuition was going to be a significant expense, but I also knew that I had the potential to attend college on a basketball scholarship. That meant another set of bills that I didn’t have to pay. Looking ahead even further, I also knew that professional athletes made good salaries. So I clearly understood the potential if I continued to apply myself.”
“I realized basketball was going to be an important part of my life very early on. I was being recruited to go to high school.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
We all know who won the Lew Alcindor Sweepstakes. That would be UCLA, located some 3,000 miles from Abdul-Jabbar’s hometown of NYC. And we all know how that worked out: Three NCAA Championships in three seasons of varsity ball (freshmen couldn’t play back then), and a boatload of awards and accolades on his way to being the top pick in the 1969 NBA Draft. And while most in his position would be content to coast academically, to do just enough to get by and cash in on a lucrative pro career, Abdul-Jabbar dispelled the myth of the dumb jock.
“I was always a pretty good student,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “My parents did a good job of instilling the importance of education in me from the very beginning, and they were very active and involved in that part of my life. From an early age my mom emphasized school. She wanted me to do well. Both of my parents were disciplinarians, so I didn’t get out of line very often [laughs].. I think that helped to lay the foundation for me as a student.”
There was something else that Abdul-Jabbar’s parents instilled in him at an early age: Confidence. It would come in handy during his formative years, as he frequently found himself singled out for being (a) tall, and (b) something of an egghead.
“A tall nerd,” he says with a chuckle. “Yes, there were times in grade school when I knew that I didn’t belong, and I truly couldn’t wait to get out. Kids can be cruel. But I discovered basketball, and that was my sanctuary. Thankfully, my parents helped me to stay focused on what was most important, which was getting a quality education. They nurtured me and provided me with the support system that I needed to remain confident when times got tough. There are kids today who don’t have that support structure in place, and an alarming percentage of them end up dropping out.”
Abdul-Jabbar was very much like many other New York kids of the day; he played stick ball in the streets and wanted to be a baseball player when he grew up. He celebrated when his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers won the ’55 World Series. He was a huge Jackie Robinson fan. Yes, ordinary in so many ways, right down to the awkward phase, but also extraordinary in a sport that would later bring him fame and fortune. Which begs the question: Did basketball come easily for him, so much so that he didn’t have to work at it?
“That’s a common misconception,” he says. “I experienced a lot of frustration during my first year of high school. I had to learn to work harder. I had to learn the fundamentals of the game, just like anyone else, in order to do better at it. Trust me, there were no shortcuts.
“I broke down in tears following the first game of my high school career. We lost to a team from Brooklyn, and their star player was doing Globetrotter tricks on us. I remember at one point he drove to the basket and put his foot on my knee, jumped past me, and laid the ball up. I cried after the game, and when I looked up, all of the other guys on the team were staring at me like I’d just landed from Mercury or Mars. It was a defining moment. I was 14, in the ninth grade and playing varsity ball, and they were all 16 and 17 years old. In that moment I realized that I needed to leave my childish emotions behind, and my maturity leaped four or five years in that moment. Right then I knew that I had to forego self-pity and focus on the things that would make me a better basketball player. I had to compete. I had to play with focus and determination, and minimize the emotional aspect of the game. It was that simple, really. And it was the moment that I decided to put in the work necessary to excel on the basketball court.”
If the jump from the insular world of grade school basketball was a shock to the system – the hoops equivalent of taking the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – then imagine what it must have been like for the young Alcindor as he tried to navigate this journey in a place like New York.
Abdul-Jabbar: “New York City high school basketball was a blood sport that felt like the Roman Coliseum, with heads rolling and things like that [laughs]. For me, it was an intense juxtaposition from the organized basketball that I’d played up to that point, because grade school was very nurturing and tame. Thankfully, my high school coach was also very good at working with me. He knew how to relate with people. He never berated anybody or embarrassed them, and in return he expected that everyone went out and played hard – which we did – and that we stuck to our team plan. I was very fortunate to have good coaching like that, both in high school and then again in college with Coach Wooden.”
So if he had his druthers, would Kareem have preferred to play his high school basketball in the rural setting portrayed in the movie Hoosiers?
The NBA’s all-time scoring champ cracks a smile and shakes his head emphatically, my hypothetical scenario rejected by the man who trails only Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo on the NBA’s career blocks list.
“I was very fortunate to play high school basketball in New York City,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “Power Memorial was only twelve blocks away from the old Madison Square Garden. Our high school coach allowed the NBA teams to practice in our gym. A perk of that arrangement was getting to see NBA games at the Garden – they had our names on the door list, so we could go anytime and watch NBA basketball. So, when I was in the ninth grade I got to meet Bill Russell and Red Auerbach.
“Our high school coach allowed the NBA teams to practice in our gym. A perk of that arrangement was getting to see NBA games at the Garden – so, when I was in the ninth grade I got to meet Bill Russell and Red Auerbach.”
“It was during this time that I chose Bill Russell as my role model. It was the perfect choice. I learned so much about the game watching him. I absorbed it. It enabled me to make a lot of progress, and enabled me to figure out what I needed to do on the court to effect the game in my team’s favor. I think that was a key part of my development as a basketball player.”
What impressed him most about those great Celtics teams?
“My high school coach agreed with the Celtics’ philosophy – get the ball to the open man and play tough defense. He would ask us trick questions after the games, like ‘how many Celtics players scored 20 or more points?’, and in those days nobody on the Celtics would score twenty points. They would have four or five gives who scored between 13 and 18 points, and they just whipped everybody. So I learned a whole lot from that experience, and took it forward.”
For the young Alcindor, the next stop on his journey would be the UCLA campus. But why so far from home?
“I chose UCLA for several reasons,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “From a basketball standpoint, UCLA won the national championship during my junior and senior years of high school. That was definitely enticing to me as an athlete. Also, I remember seeing Rafer Johnson on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was aware that he’d won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics as a decathlete, but he was on the show as the president of the student body at UCLA. That impressed me greatly. And Willie Naulls, who played for the Knicks at the time, had gone to UCLA and also spoke very highly of it.
“My recruiting trip solidified my decision, because that’s when I really got to sit down with Coach Wooden and get a feel for what he was all about. He also came to New York and spoke to my parents. They were impressed with his focus on academics, and thought I would be in good hands. The rest is history.”
The Wizard of Westwood.
Arguably the greatest teacher the game has ever seen.
Alternately revered and beloved, Wooden coached the Bruins to 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years, including a whopping seven consecutive titles with an 88-game winning streak thrown in for good measure. Abdul-Jabbar’s admiration for his college coach has been well-chronicled, but it is only when we start talking about the subject that the depths of their relationship hits home.
Abdul-Jabbar: “What a wonderful man he was. He understood our ambition as athletes, but he wanted us to learn lessons that would help us make it through life. He wanted us to become good husbands, good fathers, good parents, good citizens. He used basketball as a metaphor to teach that. Again, it was all about family – the sacrifices that you had to make to make your family successful, those are the things that you’ve got to do for your team. We didn’t really understand that that’s what we were learning at the time. Coach Wooden was crafty that way.”
“What a wonderful man he was. He understood our ambition as athletes, but he wanted us to learn lessons that would help us make it through life. He wanted us to become good husbands, good fathers, good parents, good citizens. He used basketball as a metaphor to teach that. Again, it was all about family – the sacrifices that you had to make to make your family successful, those are the things that you’ve got to do for your team. We didn’t really understand that that’s what we were learning at the time. Coach Wooden was crafty that way.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Wooden was famous for his expressions – Woodenisms. Does Abdul-Jabbar have a favorite?
“The one that I remember the most is, ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’. It meant that you really had to understand what you needed to learn, and get it down, or when it came to the moment of truth, you wouldn’t do as well as you’d hope to do.”
What was the one thing about Wooden’s coaching that resonated the most?
“If you read any of his books on coaching, you’ll hear him say that it’s not good to humiliate and berate your players. You have to explain to your players the best way to do something, and then encourage them to do that, and give them practical examples of how they’ll fail if they don’t. You don’t resort to histrionics. A mean-spirited approach doesn’t work.”
Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is world renowned and transcends sport; businesses have adopted its principles, which lay the foundation for highly functioning teams. Reading it, some of the verbiage has a 1950s feel to it, but the content is timeless.
“Coach Wooden was known as a very straight-laced guy,” Abdul-Jabbar says, “but he was so incredibly insightful. His Pyramid of Success a great example of this. He refined its principles over many years, and it was the foundation for our success as a basketball team.
“There were so many layers to Coach Wooden. He really liked poetry; Langston Hughes was his favorite poet. A lot of people don’t realize this, but he was a very good basketball player in high school. He later went to Purdue University, where he was the first college player ever to be named a three-time consensus All-American.
Any funny stories stand out?
“Coach Wooden played against the Globetrotters at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago, and he’d usually go straight to the train station and head back to Indianapolis after the games. But he told the story of the food being exceptionally good on one particular night, and Cab Calloway’s band was there, so he stayed in Chicago at the Savoy. Just the whole idea of Coach Wooden partying on the South Side of Chicago with black people, and with him getting into Cab Calloway going ‘hi de ho’ really rounded out my perception of him [laughs].”
The 1968 Olympics were held in Mexico City, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Two American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stood with their heads bowed and a black-gloved hand raised as the American National Anthem played during the victory ceremony. The Black Power salute would become the seminal moment of these Games, overshadowing Lew Alcindor’s decision not to play basketball for the United States, but he still received his fair share of criticism. Not that it mattered. His was a principled decision that not many in his position would have had the strength to make. Turn down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win Olympic gold? Are you kidding me? For Alcindor, it was all about making a decision and sticking to it.
Abdul-Jabbar: “Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist who taught in the Bay Area, in California, felt that black athletes should boycott the Olympics because of what was going on here in America. It was the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement – the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act had both been enacted, and there was a lot of turmoil; Dr. [Martin Luther] King had been assassinated, Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, there was the shooting at Kent State. There was also a lot of turmoil over Vietnam.
“I declined the invitation to go to the Olympics because I didn’t feel that the Olympic situation was reality,” he says. “Here we have this whole appearance of racial harmony on the American Olympic team when things weren’t that harmonious here. In addition to that, I had a very good summer job that paid me a pretty good salary, and I needed that to tide me over for the school year, and I couldn’t do both things. So I figured I had better go with what was going to benefit my life, as opposed to benefiting the Olympic movement, which I saw as very hypocritical.
“I declined the invitation to go to the Olympics because I didn’t feel that the Olympic situation was reality. Here we have this whole appearance of racial harmony on the American Olympic team when things weren’t that harmonious here. In addition to that, I had a very good summer job that paid me a pretty good salary, and I needed that to tide me over for the school year, and I couldn’t do both things. So I figured I had better go with what was going to benefit my life, as opposed to benefiting the Olympic movement, which I saw as very hypocritical.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
“The gentleman in charge of the U.S. Olympic team, Avery Brundage, to me, was a very controversial figure. I believe in the 1930s he had supported the Nazi Party at one point. It was not somebody I wanted to work for. I didn’t want to deal with him or the Olympics, so it was pretty easy for me to make my choice.”
A choice misunderstood by many, particularly white America, but Alcindor chose to tune out his critics and remain focused on his game. The net result? Damn near perfection: Three years of varsity ball, three national championships, three NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards, three national player of the year awards. The Milwaukee Bucks would select him with the first pick in the 1969 NBA Draft, and the league’s Rookie of the Year award would follow at season end.
Was there ever any pressure to succeed?
“I was always very critical of myself and my performances,” Abdul-Jabbar replies quickly. “I wanted to get the most out of myself. After you’ve been touted as being able to do something well, you want to do it better, and there’s a whole little war that goes on there, mentally. So there was always a pressure to improve. It was never a negative pressure. It was a pressure that helped me to perform at my best.”
Oscar Robertson joined the Bucks a year later, and Milwaukee would finish the 1970-71 NBA season with a championship. Alcindor was named NBA MVP, and then NBA Finals MVP following a 4-0 series sweep of the Baltimore Bullets. A day later, he adopted the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which roughly translates to ‘generous servant of the mighty one’.
“I was very bitter as a young man, and angry with racism,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “My interest in Islam started when I was a freshman at UCLA and I got the opportunity to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and it really made me understand that there was a lot more to monotheism than what I knew being raised as a Roman Catholic. I found in Islam that I certainly had a limited view of what monotheism was about, and it made me curious enough to read the Koran and see that it probably was something that I needed to investigate more completely. I was won over by the arguments. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church was greatly invested in the slave trade did not help me want to remain Catholic, and because of that, I changed my affiliation.”
While his professional career was cause for celebration, the death of his friend Bruce Lee would cut deeply.
“Getting to do the movie with Bruce was a dream come true. When I was training with him, he promised me that if he ever got to do movies, he’d make sure that I’d get to be a villain. That way we could fight and he could kill me [laughs]. The summer of ’72 I went to Hong Kong and we shot the movie. It’s bittersweet for me to remember it, because we shot our scenes and I had to come back to the U.S. to start the NBA season. Bruce drove me to the airport, and that’s the last time I saw him. It’s very poignant for me in that sense. He was a wonderful man. He never took himself too seriously. He was a great family man. He was a wonderful inspiration to me, because he was self-made and he did it his way.”
As fascinated as he was with movies at the time, Abdul-Jabbar’s clear-cut passion was music. His father attended the prestigious Julliard School in New York, which helps explain Kareem’s love of Jazz, and hardly a day went by that music wasn’t being playing in the Alcindor household. His newfound wealth as an NBA star allowed him to indulge this love, and he wasted no time in amassing an impressive record collection.
“My dad was an avid musician,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “He thought that music was the pinnacle of artistic statement, so musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine were always on the turntable.
“My dad was an avid musician. He thought that music was the pinnacle of artistic statement, so musicians like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine were always on the turntable.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
“Jazz, to me, is important because it is an expression of joy. It is an expression of people who, even though they were living in oppressive circumstances, were not going to take the negativity as the last statement on all circumstances.”
Following six seasons in Milwaukee, marked by three NBA MVP Awards and two league scoring titles, Abdul-Jabbar found himself traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the start of a glorious sixteen season run with the team that reached a crescendo in the mid-eighties, at the height of the Lakers’ Showtime Era.
In 1984 the fabled Celtics – Lakers rivalry reached an all-time high, fueled in large part by two stars at the top of their respective games. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson brought grit and glamour to the big stage in gargantuan doses, and basketball was elevated because of it. The Celtics would win it all in seven games, a bitter disappointment to the Lakers, who lost control of the series and let it slip away. A year later the Celtics and Lakers would meet again, beginning with a Game 1 route by the Celtics. Humiliated, Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers would respond in a big way.
“That series was special because we lost by 30 points in Game 1 at the old Boston Garden,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “They call the game ‘The Memorial Day Massacre’. I had a terrible game. For me, I just wanted a chance to redeem myself. So, in Game 2 I came out and had a really great game, and was able to carry that level of play through the rest of the series. We won the series in six games, and won the final game in the Garden. We’re the only team, other than the Boston Celtics, to win a world championship in Boston Garden. I can take that to the grave with me, and it will taste good the whole time [laughs].”
The same can’t be said for Laker legend Jerry West, whose teams were beaten by the Celtics eight times in the NBA Finals. Does Abdul-Jabbar share the same vitriol toward the color green as West?
“When I was in high school, I rooted for the Celtics,” he says quickly. “As I’ve said, Bill Russell was a great role model for me. I watched him play and learned a lot about how to play the game because of him, which was a benefit of living in New York and being able to go to Madison Square Garden.”
“When I was in high school, I rooted for the Celtics. As I’ve said, Bill Russell was a great role model for me. I watched him play and learned a lot about how to play the game because of him, which was a benefit of living in New York and being able to go to Madison Square Garden.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
How many people can say they were teammates with two of the league’s all-time greats, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson? What was it like playing with them?
“I think there was a difference in style, but the content was the same,” he says. “Both of those guys could run the offense and get points out of it. I think Oscar was more complete in that he was the better outside shooter than Magic. But in terms of big guards, they were prototypical. They were also great leaders in addition to being great athletes.”
~ ~ ~
On June 28, 1989, Abdul-Jabbar announced his retirement. The Detroit Pistons dismissed the Lakers 4-0 in the ’89 NBA Finals, and just like that, the most decorated career in basketball was history. Six MVP Awards, six NBA Championships, 19 All-Star Game appearances, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, his number 33 retired by both the Bucks and the Lakers. And of course, those points – 38,387 of them, many scored with that trip-hammer weapon that has yet to be duplicated. As I squeeze off another hook shot, this one finding its mark, I can’t help but wonder: Why hasn’t anyone tried to take a page from Abdul-Jabbar’s playbook? Why don’t players today even consider giving it a try?
“I don’t have a good answer for that,” he says later. “It’s not that difficult, but you have to take the time to learn it. I started learning it in the fifth grade. Someone demonstrated a drill that NBA legend George Mikan used to do. Mikan was a great professional who played for the original Minneapolis Lakers – he was 6’11”, and considered to be the first great big man in league history.
“He had a drill where he shot the ball with either hand right in front of the basket. It teaches you ambidexterity and how to use the glass, and it also helps with your footwork. Every time I had a chance to get to a basket by myself I’d work on that drill. By the time I got to high school, the hook was part of my arsenal. Everybody thinks that I learned the hook shot after they banned dunking, which was when I was in college, but I was using the hook shot in the seventh grade.”
Why don’t players use it?
“I’m surprised that players, especially big men, don’t use the shot. The guy guarding you can’t block it if you know what you’re doing, so it’s a great weapon. It enabled me to get high-percentage shots close to the basket, and it also allowed me to do so without taking a beating. That’s part of how I was able to last for twenty years. For whatever reason, that message hasn’t translated to the new generation of NBA players today.”
What was retirement like, after a lifetime of basketball excellence?
“Jackie Robinson had a famous saying – he said that athletes die twice. When the career is over, that’s the first death.”
For Abdul-Jabbar, retirement has been a series of starts and fits, especially in the realm of coaching. It’s no secret that he tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to secure a head coaching gig on the NBA level.
“A lot of it has to do with politics,” he says flatly. “I was always very independent, and I think a lot of the people in the front offices didn’t feel like they could trust me, because my independent streak might come out at a time that was inconvenient for them. So they’ve pretty much stayed away from me.
“But I’ve had a chance to work with a number of players. Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls sought me out, looking for ways to improve his offensive game. We spent a couple of weeks together. I’ve also worked with Andrew Bynum and a number of other big men. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment to contribute in that way.”
Never one to be held down, Abdul-Jabbar shifted gears and focused on his writing, while at the same time incorporating his desire to coach. Published by Simon and Schuster on February 1, 2000, A Season on the Reservation chronicles Abdul-Jabbar’s return to the sport he loves by becoming the assistant coach of the Alchesay Falcons – a high school team composed mostly of White Mountain Apaches.
“Fort Apache is on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. The White Mountain Apaches were scouts for the US Army, and because of that, their homeland was declared a federal reserve. That’s probably the only thing that the young men on the reservation can do and still be proud of – a lot of them still go into the military. It was very interesting, because I never expected that all of the ills that you see in most inner cities are same things that you see there – lack of good educational opportunities, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicides, poor nutrition. Two of the kids that I coached later committed suicide, due to the despair and lack of self-esteem that is endemic to their circumstances. It’s not something that I expected to see in the mountains of Arizona.
“I enjoyed the coaching experience – I made some lifelong friendships, and I’m actually a member of the tribe – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Apache Indian [laughs]. The whole idea of me going there was to encourage the young people to go to college. High school dropouts are forfeiting their opportunity to pursue the American Dream. When you don’t have the fundamental skills that enable you to be trained for a meaningful job, then you are going down a slippery slope with the potential for very negative consequences. Think about it: You are placing yourself at the bottom of this country’s workforce where, statistically, you will earn significantly less money, have less opportunity for job advancement, suffer more medical problems, and have a greater chance to become a victim of a crime. When you drop out, you’re basically giving up on your future happiness.”
That book was just the beginning of a publication stream that continues today. What does it mean for him to be viewed as an author?
“I think seeing one of my books in print has given me as much joy and sense of achievement as winning an NBA championship,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “Although I don’t get the notoriety from my books that I have gotten as an athlete, it still gives me great joy to know that I can contribute to American life something significant.”
~ ~ ~
As we wrap up for the day, the subjects range from Malcolm X to Muhammad Ali to his hilarious turn as Roger Murdock in Airplane!, and it’s easy to forget that I’m talking to arguably basketball’s greatest player ever. Abdul-Jabbar can hang with anyone on a social and intellectual level, the antithesis of the dumb jock – hell, he’s living proof that, blessed with the right gifts and work ethic, you can excel in ways that break down stereotypes and change the perception of those who follow the conventional thinking of the day. To me, Abdul-Jabbar’s principled and outspoken stance on equality sets him apart from other players who are in the conversation for the Greatest Of All Time.
And just then the question crosses my mind: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, GOAT?
Blasphemy if you’re in the Michael Jordan camp, and most fans can name at least a dozen players they would select before Abdul-Jabbar in an all-time mock draft. Think LeBron, Kobe, Larry and Magic, and you begin to the get idea. Sure, Michael was more intense, and Magic more charismatic. And LeBron is a freakish athlete with exceptional vision and an off-the-charts basketball IQ. But here’s the thing: Abdul-Jabbar’s Power Memorial teams went 79-2; his UCLA Bruins went 88-2; and as a pro, his six NBA titles and six MVP awards stamp him as one of the best at the very highest level of play. That, my friends, is a serious body of work.
Where does Abdul-Jabbar think he ranks among the greatest players of all-time?
“It’s difficult to rank players,” he says, thoughtfully. “Ranking players is so subjective, and you have to consider the fact that there are different eras in the game. It’s hard to even compare players at the same position. For example, I always defer to Wilt and Bill when I’m asked to rank the greatest centers of all time. That’s because I learned from them. I’ve yet to see anyone average 50 points a game, the way Wilt did. I don’t think we’re ever going to see that again. And there wasn’t a better defensive presence on the court that Bill. So those two are, to me, the mythical guys in the game.”
“Oscar Robertson. At every level, he was the best ever – high school, college and the pros. He’s in a class by himself.”
We shake hands and call it a day, and I realize, walking away, that my thinking has been forever transformed. It was a day that started out with Kareem ranked somewhere near the bottom of my personal top ten, and ended with him closer to a top three all-time player. On the court, his skyhook was the most feared weapon in league history. Off it, only Bill Russell can match his social conscious and moral grace.
The record will fall, eventually.
But the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, we may never see again.