Tall Tales : In a New Memoir, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Chronicles His Final Season on the Court
As the fall of 1988 approached, it was hard for me to comprehend that my last season of basketball had finally arrived. I had played organized basketball since I was 9 years old. For 32 years, I had operated on the time clock and within the structure and order of the basketball season--for the last 14 years as a Laker. Every summer in college, I would tell myself that I’d play four or five years, make a million and retire to the Caribbean. I never thought when I started out that I would end up playing basketball longer than anyone has ever played the game.
As that final season began, I had already stretched out my records. For five years, I had been the oldest player in the league and held the scoring record. All the guys who broke in with me had gone. I can remember, very keenly, being a rookie and wondering what guys did after playing professional ball for 10 years. But there I was, all lined up to go for my 20th season. Not only was it my last season, it also was the end of an era for a team that had won back-to-back championships. It was to be the last season of the ‘80s, and the last season that we would all play together--James, Byron, Coop, Earvin and me. Next year at this time, I would be in Hawaii, my version of the Caribbean, turning the corner into the ‘90s without basketball and without the company of my teammates.
The following are excerpts from a diary of my last season. The book stretches from the first practice of the year to my last regular-season game at the Forum to the Lakers’ loss to the Detroit Pistons in four games in the championship. I have never kept a diary before, and when it came to basketball, I always believed that as long as I adequately played the game, there was little left to say. But as the end of my professional career became a reality, I found myself wanting to capture my final season as it happened, and any memories along the way.
MONDAY, OCT. 17
ON TOP OF a bluff overlooking the wetlands of Ballona Creek, Loyola Marymount gym is our regular practice facility during the year. Today was the first time we had been inside it since the end of last season. From now until the end of this season, I will be driving daily to Loyola, the Forum or the airport. Grooves have been worn in my routes to these three places. Each only minutes from the others, they constitute a small, three-cornered piece of geography that is the center of the Laker team’s work life. The Forum is several miles east of the airport, which is several miles south of Loyola. I live about 15 miles directly north of this triangle, in the hills that stretch across Los Angeles. I have lived on the same lot in the same canyon for all of the years I have been here. I wanted my home to be as far away from the arena as possible without having to move into the flat plain of the Valley.
In the canyon where I live, the road is narrow. The houses have landscaped gardens and flowering trees that coexist with impenetrable scrub brush and chaparral on the steep hillsides where deer, coyotes, raccoons, lizards and rattlesnakes also live. At the top of the road is an earthen dam and reservoir that has been there since the ‘20s. In the movie “Chinatown,” this is the reservoir where they found Hollis Mulwray dead and where Roman Polanski’s character knife-slit the nose of Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes. So there’s a film noir quality here, too.
I enjoy the abruptness of transition from basketball and the city streets of L.A. to the relative wilderness and quiet of my home. One of the things that sold me on the property when I first saw it was the tall grove of sycamores standing on either side of the road. There had been sycamores back in my neighborhood in upper Manhattan. Sycamores have a beautiful light-gray bark that makes the black gash on the trunk of the large one on the side of the house stand out all the more. That particular tree bears the charred scar of the fire that burned my original house to the ground nearly six years ago. It is the fire’s only remaining visible mark.
I was on the road in Boston when it happened. It was the last day of January, during the 1982-83 season. During the night, a fire had started in some wiring behind one of the walls in the house. The call to the fire department went out quickly enough to have saved the house, but, ironically, the fireproof roof had acted like a sealed lid, escalating the fire inside into a conflagration. The fire annihilated my material existence.
I had received a call about the fire at 7 in the morning, Boston time. I flew home, and I remember riding up the street to the house, expecting to see maybe a corner of it burnt up. But as I came to the bend in the road where normally I could see the roof of the house, it was gone. The house and everything in it, everything I owned, my book and music libraries, priceless Korans, the jazz collection I’d started in high school, my Asian and Middle Eastern rugs, old photographs, my wardrobe, every sock, every dish, all had been incinerated. In an instant, my material world had been reduced to a carry-on bag. It was a neat statement on life.
Flash fires come through and clean the earth for fresh growth, and that’s basically what happened to me. I learned a lot about myself and also about the things we all strive to own, including shelter. They are nice, but they aren’t what make life wonderful. No matter what their quality of beauty or comfort, they are still only things, and transitory. There was some pain involved, but the lesson was timely for me. Step by step, I got my priorities straightened out, and my life since then has gotten only better.
As word about the fire got out, albums and books began finding their way into my hands from every part of the country. Friends and strangers, fans, people I never knew were there before, tried to help replace my collections and my loss. It was like Frank Capra’s classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” James Stewart is in financial trouble and in need of help and doesn’t realize how much he has coming back to him in life. Then everyone in town shows up and brings him things and, in the end, overwhelmed, he has more of everything than he needed. I felt something like that in those disorienting months.
MONDAY, NOV. 21
WE’RE IN New York to play a preseason game with the Knicks and for the beginning of my farewell tour. A car picked me up at the Carlyle Hotel at 10 and took me first to a one-hour press conference at Madison Square Garden. Was I ready for the forest of microphones and questions that I knew were waiting? I had to be. A whole season of them stretched out before me.
The press conference was easier than I expected. There’s more press in New York, more powerful press, than in any other city in the league, and the room was full. I explained that L.A. is home now but that there always will be a lot of emotion associated with my hometown. Sam Goldaper of the New York Times was there. He has covered me since eighth grade at St. Jude’s, back when he was writing for the Herald Tribune. He and, I think, Phil Pepe, now with the Daily News, wrote the first articles that introduced me to New York’s sports pages. When those first pieces were written, I was 14. I was Lew Alcindor then.
It feels sometimes as if I went straight from being a kid to where I am now, and that I have been living under the glare of public scrutiny forever. The early notoriety pushed me inside myself. Vastly outgrowing my peers physically pushed me inside, too. And I was put into the position of having unwanted attention focused on me by the press, by strangers. I have always enjoyed my height--I view it as a gift--but there is a price you pay.
From my freshman year on, I was the starting varsity center for Power Memorial Academy, an all-boys Catholic high school downtown, in the heart of Manhattan. The school building looked like a 19th-Century sweatshop, a high-rise dungeon in the shadows of Lincoln Center. But it was a good atmosphere academically, which I liked because I was ambitious about my education.
I didn’t know at the start of it, in ninth grade, if I had what it took to make it in high school basketball. I had the size but not the skills, and no clue that I would end up being any good at the game. My coach, Jack Donahue, threw me in with the varsity, and I guess that’s how it began. Our first game of the year, my first ever in high school, we lost to Erasmus. In the locker room afterward, I cried with abandon, the child inside me coming out in the agony of defeat. I haven’t taken a loss like that since. I believe that I grew as a basketball player then by having no choice but to compete hard against the older, better varsity athletes. By my sophomore year, I had grown to 7 feet and had developed into an agile, fluid, fast ballplayer. I was like all the other black players you read about, putting all my waking energy into basketball and learning the moves. In my last three years at Power, we lost only one other game, a long time to go between losses.
One of the benefits of going to Power was that many of the pro teams that came to play the Knicks would practice in our gym. Donahue knew a lot of the pro coaches, and our gym was only 11 blocks from the old Madison Square Garden. He’d receive free tickets to the games at the Garden, which he then passed on to me and my teammates. In fact, Donahue had given me passes back in eighth grade. I was in the Garden the night Elgin Baylor had 71 points against the Knicks. I remember signing my first autograph that same year there. Somebody thought I was a Knick because of my size. When I explained that I was in grade school, the man told me to sign anyway. I signed “Lew Alcindor” compliantly, and the guy said, “What kind of a name is that? Is this some stupid name you thought up?” That sort of sealed my attitude as far as autographs went.
The old high school gym, where the Power Memorial Panthers played, isn’t there anymore. They closed the school about five years ago and tore it down. Now I am the last Panther playing from those days.
SATURDAY, DEC. 10
WAITING FOR my flight to Indianapolis to take off this morning, I saw in the sports pages that Utah coach Frank Layden had resigned and was moving to the front office. The article said the move was sudden and unexpected, but in the fragile profession of NBA coaching, nothing surprises.
In the course of my career, I have seen the NBA go through serious changes. In fact, my basketball career has paralleled the period of greatest growth in the sport. I’ve watched basketball transform from a minor game without much glamour, kept alive by a core of dedicated fans, into the most actively growing game in the country. After soccer, basketball is now the most popular sport in the world.
All of this has been thrilling, including the silver lining of increased salaries for those of us who make our living playing the game. But the explosion of popularity and money hasn’t been without its price. Basketball as big business has made both the players and the coaches vulnerable to the bottom line. When I came into the league in ’69, there were 14 NBA teams, and only four of those were west of the Mississippi River. We played the same number of regular-season games as we do now, 82, but because there were fewer teams, we traveled to fewer cities, and those were concentrated in the East. Today, there are 25 teams in the NBA, scattered across the four corners of the country, and next year there will be 27. The demands of travel have expanded exponentially with the near doubling of the teams and territory. No other major sport has its players travel the way we do.
Within this context, you are under constant pressure to perform and to win--pressure from the fans, from the management, from your own high standards. As long as the status quo is profitable, as it was in the ‘80s, the league’s owners will never allow the season or the travel schedule to be shortened. So part of your job becomes learning how to play the NBA as well as the ballgame. You trudge through the season with as much consistency and equilibrium and snatched rest as you can muster, with the goal of arriving at the playoffs with your physical being and your intensity of desire intact.
This is true for the players as well as the coaches, and in many ways the pressures on the coaches may be more difficult to manage. They live a precarious existence, responsible to their organization for the whole team. They live with the losses longer. There are more sleepless nights. They receive little recognition until they win it all. And whether they win or lose, the season ages them. Already, the seasons are making Pat Riley old. In flashes, you can see it on his face, which often is a study in stress. One day in the locker room, he said that as a coach you are never satisfied until you win the championship, and then you’re sort of satisfied. There’s another championship to go for the next year and the year after that, and it never stops. As Riley has described it, there are two possible states of being in the NBA--winning and misery. And in the last seven years that he’s been Laker coach, winning years all of them, on only two occasions have I come close to seeing the state of misery slip completely away from him--when we reaped the back-to-back championship last year and when we beat Boston in Boston in ’85. It took the force of those history-making victories to lift off the Angst that otherwise seems to cling to Riley at only 43 years of age.
MONDAY, JAN. 16
IT’S MARTIN LUTHER King Day. There was a moment of silence before our afternoon game with Houston at the Forum, and then George Howard played the national anthem on the soprano sax. Later, I saw on the news that riots had flared up in Miami after a policeman killed a black motorcyclist. It’s true that there has been a lot of progress, that the legal basis for racial discrimination has pretty much been eliminated, but the battle for people’s hearts and minds continues. For every positive step, there are a hundred negatives that keep things at the status quo.
The first time I really became aware of myself as a black person was when one of the kids at St. Jude’s brought a Polaroid camera to school and took a picture of all of us standing in the back of our classroom. When I looked at it, I realized how much darker I was than everybody else.
When I was 15, my parents sent me by bus to North Carolina, where my mother was from, to attend the high school graduation of the daughter of a family friend. It was 1962, and I saw Jim Crow “Whites Only” signs all the way through Virginia and North Carolina. And the more of it I saw, the less I trusted white people, except for the ones I’d personally known.
It’s hard for people today to grasp the enormity of the racial and social tension that plagued the country in the ‘60s. In July, 1964, riots swept an eight-block area of Harlem, between Eighth and Lenox avenues and 123rd and 127th streets. I remember stepping off the subway right into the middle of it. Cops were swinging nightsticks, bullets were flying, windows were being smashed, people were stealing. All I could think was that I wanted to stay alive, so I took off running and didn’t stop until I was at 137th and Broadway.
I sat there huffing and puffing, absorbing what I’d seen, and I knew it was rage, black rage. The poor people of Harlem felt that it was better to get hit with a nightstick than to keep taking the white man’s insults forever. Right then and there, I knew who I was and who I had to be. I was going to be black rage personified, black power in the flesh. I was consumed and obsessed by my interest in black power, black pride, black courage. I thought that would suffice. It was immature thinking, but that was me at 17.
Black people have always been involved in meaningful things in America, but without credit. We get recognition only for urban crime and welfare fraud, with a little rhythm and blues and sports thrown in. Which is why blind rage at whites is a part of the black condition; all black people reach it. Some pass through it to a higher plateau of understanding, but some never get out of the rage, and their lives are blighted by it. I went through it, but I found that angry racism--my own included--made me ill. Emotionally, spiritually, I could not afford to be a racist. I gradually got past believing that black was either the best or the worst. It just was.
The black man who had the most profound impact on me was Malcolm X. I had read Muhammad Speaks, the Black Muslim newspaper, but even in the early ‘60s, its brand of racism was unacceptable to me. Malcolm X was different. He’d made a trip to Mecca and realized that Islam embraced people of all colors. He was assassinated in 1965, and his death hit hard because I knew he was talking about black pride, about self-help and lifting ourselves up.
Malcolm X’s autobiography came out in 1966, when I was a freshman at UCLA, and I read it right before my 19th birthday. It made a bigger impression on me than any book I had ever read. I started to look at things differently, instead of accepting the mainstream viewpoint.
Part of it had to do with the fact that I was different--I was too tall and too dark to really be mainstream. Plus, Malcolm clearly showed what was right and what was wrong about what was happening in America, and he opened the door for real cooperation between the races, not just the superficial, paternalistic thing. He was talking about real people doing real things, black pride and Islam. I just grabbed on to it and never looked back.
FRIDAY, MARCH 24
FOR MAYBE THE millionth time, Wilt Chamberlain got on my case today, belittling my abilities and my longevity in a column in the Herald Examiner. Wilt can’t get any publicity for what he’s doing, so he’s trying to get publicity for what I’m not doing.
Wilt and I go way back. When I was in high school, there were only two men I could be like, Wilt or Bill Russell. I kept a scrapbook of photos of both of them in action. Wilt lived in New York then, and I sought out his company. I’d run down the block just to say hello. But as I grew older, I strongly disagreed with some of the positions he took, like supporting Richard Nixon for President and denigrating black women in his autobiography. But I’ve never really disliked Wilt, and I’ve always respected him professionally for what he achieved. He was one of the best centers to have ever played the game. I’ve decided to take this opportunity to respond to all the aspersions he’s cast on me over the years:
An Open Letter to Wilt Chumperlame
It’s been several years now, Wilt, that you have been criticizing my career with your friends in the press. Since this pattern does not seem to have any end in sight, I feel that I might as well have my say about the situation.
It would seem that someone who achieved as much as you did would be satisfied with his career. After all, some of the things you did in your time were quite admirable and have given us an enduring set of records for the books. So why all the jealousy and envy?
In trying to figure this out, I started to look for what you would be jealous of, and that’s when the picture started to become clear. Many remember how frustrated you were when your team couldn’t win the NCAA tournament. Your talent and abilities were so great that everyone assumed the NCAA was all yours. But after a terrific triple-overtime game, Kansas lost. You complained about the officiating, your teammates and other things, and then quit, leaving college early to tour with the Globetrotters. That seemed to set a pattern for you. After any tough test in which you didn’t do well, you blamed those around you and quit.
In professional basketball, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics gave you a yearly lesson in real competitive competence and teamwork. All you could say was that your teammates stunk and that you had done all you could, and besides, the refs never gave you a break. Poor Wilt.
In 1967, your team finally broke through. That 76er team established records that are still standing today. But the following year, the Sixers lost and, predictable as ever, you quit. You came out to L.A. and got with a dream team. The only lack that team had was leadership at the center position. Bill and the Celts took one from you in ’69, and the Knicks followed suit in ’70. People are still trying to figure out where you disappeared to in that series. True to form, after the Knicks beat the Lakers in the world championship in 1973, you quit and haven’t been seen on the court since.
Of course, you came out every so often to take a cheap shot at me. During the sixth game of the world championship series in 1988, you stated, “Kareem should have retired five years ago.” I can now see why you said that. If I had quit at the time you suggested, it would have been right after a disappointing loss to the 76ers. And it would have been typical of one of your retreats.
But after that loss, I decided that I had more to give. I believed in myself and in the Lakers and stuck with it. We went on to win three out of four world championships between ’85 and ’88. The two teams you played on that won world championships, in ’67 and ’72, never repeated. They never showed the consistency that the Lakers of the ‘80s have shown. And you didn’t want me to be part of that.
Given your jealousy, I can understand that. So , now that I have left, one thing will be part of my legacy: People will remember that I worked with my teammates and helped us win. You will be remembered as a whining crybaby and a quitter, stats and all.
TUESDAY, APRIL 4
AT LAST, IT’S April. Three weeks left. The games all seem bigger now because it’s near the end. Physically, I’m feeling all right. My knees hurt after games, but that’s a sign that I’m playing hard. Mentally, it feels like the end of my senior year in high school, like “Geez, why do we have to go to class?” I definitely have senioritis.
SUNDAY, APRIL 23
THE LAST DAY,the last regular-season game of my career, and the last ceremony. The sellout crowd at the Forum arrived early. (Record producer) Lou Adler and Jack Nicholson were both there. Jack was decked out in a black top hat and tails, black shoes, purple socks, a faded yellow T-shirt with a sketch of me silk-screened in purple, a purple satin hanky in his pocket, a Laker ticket stuck into his hatband and a black bow tie around his neck.
My son Amir planned to sing the national anthem, and as I waited for the ceremony to start, the only performance anxiety I had was for him. It’s a tough song for anyone, and I wondered if he had the chops to pull it off. After all, he is only 8 years old. But nobody put him up to it. In fact, he kind of demanded that he do it after he learned that my other son, Kareem, had been asked and said, “No way!”
The ceremony started about 11:45. First, my parents, Cora and Al, were introduced, then my kids. Then Chick Hearn, who was emcee, said, “Now, take your gloves off. Let’s hear it. Here is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!” The fans cheered for three minutes with shouts of “Kareem, Kareem, Kareem!” Chick kept trying to interrupt: “Kareem thanks you, his parents thank you, his children thank you.” Finally, in desperation, he said, “Remember, everybody, that we’ve got a playoff game Thursday.”
At last, Amir got to sing the anthem. He did a great job, but I was so nervous for him that I forgot to stand up, and stayed in this giant rocking chair on the court that they had put me in.
Hearn read a congratulatory telegram from President Bush. Then he brought out Riley, who introduced a musical tribute to me that all my teammates sang as they rocked me in my chair. I tried to keep from feeling silly. There was tremendous good will, but I couldn’t help wondering if the guys weren’t going to come at me with a pie in the face. But what they were really doing was hiding from me my present from the team, a brand-new white Rolls-Royce.
I was stunned. The car, they told me later, cost about $175,000. Some of the guys put up as much as $30,000 apiece.
There was no way I could really thank them. I wish I could put the Rolls on my mantelpiece. I don’t even know if I’ll feel comfortable driving it. It’s something I would just like to keep. It wasn’t just a car. It was a gift from their hearts.
Though it seemed anticlimactic, we had a game to play against the Seattle SuperSonics, who had a seven-game winning streak coming in. When the Lakers came on the court, our guys were all wearing goggles, and the Laker girls put on white T-shirts with “33" on the back and “We’ll miss you, Kareem” on the front. And despite all that, we won the game 121-117, our fifth straight. My last points came on a dunk off a Magic pass, with 2:14 left to play. So when I walked off the floor for the last time, with 1:42 left, it was with 38,387 career points.
One more surprise. While I was doing the postgame interviews, the team took a pair of scissors and shredded my clothes and had pictures taken to show me exactly how they did it. I had to go home in my sweats. But if somebody gives you a Rolls-Royce, I guess they can tear your clothes up if they want to.