He was a man of mystery and even hostility through a basketball career that was longer, wider and higher than any in history. He wore those goggles and shaved his head and he looked as remote as a giant praying mantis. His name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, suggested a barrier, and he kept it that way.
Too bad. What he had to say would have been worth hearing long before he decided it was all right to express himself. He is good to hear in an era marked by braying, strutting athletes who consider the salary scale to be the measure of professionalism, and a shattered backboard is a badge of honor.
"It's all about style now," Abdul-Jabbar mused Tuesday. "When I was learning, it was what you did. Certainly it's style over substance; it's what looks great on the highlight films." It sounded like a lament.
He cited the usual suspects. "Derrick Coleman comes off the top of my head," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Chris Webber has shown a lack of maturity. Dennis Rodman has some emotional instability, it seems to me. He gets attention; people don't censure him.
"There's a lot more poor attitudes out there. We've gone though a period in our history where a lot of young people were not disciplined. It reflects itself all through our society: the rise in violent crime. Go through any major city and see the graffiti; there's a lot less self-control out there. It spills over into all our lives. Society throughout the world is more vulgar; there are fewer manners. That's the world we live in."
Last Tuesday was a day for basketball to celebrate itself and championship values that really haven't changed. Abdul-Jabbar, who went from Power Memorial High School through 20 years in the NBA, was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as the most enduring player of all time. With him were great female players Anne Donovan and Cheryl Miller; referee Earl Strom; the first power forward, Vern Mikkelsen; John Kundla, who coached the reign of the Minneapolis Lakers, and Aleksandr Gomelsky, the Soviet coach who beat the Americans in Seoul in 1988.
Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three college championships and three times was named Outstanding Player. He was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1969-70 and played through 1989. He saw the changes in basketball, in sports, in the world. Jose Canseco, he noted, will soon be in a position to earn three times more in one season than what Willie Mays earned in his entire career. "Salaries are just numbers," he said. They are not a measure of worth or accomplishment.
Except to those people who make them a measure of worth and accomplishment. "It reflects a lack of maturity," Abdul-Jabbar said. "There's more to life. There's more than one way to skin a cat; that's one thing that has been lost on the '90s."
The ease and fluency with which he handled himself Tuesday suggested the observation of the ballplayer who learns to say hello when he should be learning to say goodbye. Abdul-Jabbar was a difficult person for the media. He clearly was an insightful person but when he had the forum to say things that needed to be said, most often he secluded himself behind a self-imposed barrier.
Tuesday, after the formal introductions, he went off to talk to the kids at St. Jude's elementary school on 204th Street and 10th Avenue, as a member of the Class of '61. "I'm coming back to St. Jude's as an infidel, my goodness," he said with an easy laugh. "The principal is great; she said I'm coming back as a hero even though I read Koran."
From his time at St. Jude's, his parents always pointed him toward college. "Long before I could play basketball it was a goal," he said. "I tell that to kids all the time; they should understand that. I was offered hundreds of thousands to leave college and I'm glad I stayed. I was going to get a degree."
He understands that the moment an athlete accepts the "money and the glory," he is a role model--like it or not. "Some aren't morally or intellectually capable of handling that. Charles Barkley says there are a number of players in the league, who if not for basketball would be in jail. I'd have to agree."
Life was always complex. He joined the black athletes' boycott of the 1968 Olympics. He converted from Catholicism to Islam. He changed his name. Early in his career a group of Muslims who were guests in his home in Washington, D.C., were murdered. Years later his home in Los Angeles burned, destroying the artifacts of his career and a precious jazz record collection. Late in his career he was involved in a costly financial conflict with his agent.
Throughout, he never felt appreciated. He couldn't win in Milwaukee until Oscar Robertson was on his side. Then he couldn't win in Los Angeles until Magic Johnson was on his side. Kareem calls him Earvin. "Earvin handled the ball; that was important," he said. "If not for guys like him and Oscar Robertson, I couldn't have become the highest scorer in league history. But I made a lot of things possible for Earvin that were immediately impossible when I retired."
Abdul-Jabbar played a different kind of center than is currently in vogue. He played the pivot, with his back to the basket and armed with that skyhook, drawing the crowd inside. "When they played me one-on-one," he said, "I got high-percentage shots. That created a lot of stress on the defense and gave everyone who played perimeter on the Lakers extra opportunity. And we were able to win consistently." He won six championships--five with Earvin.
The first game Magic won as a Laker, he hugged Abdul-Jabbar in naive excitement. "Those years before Earvin got with the Lakers, they could not have been fun," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Earvin made it fun for everyone."
That was years after his conversion to Islam. The American public is better able to accept differences now than it was in 1968, when he was going through the process. "I felt I benefited from what (Muhammad) Ali went through," Abdul-Jabbar said. "People got to understand it was not a political statement I was making, it was religious. I was not going against the United States."
He identifies his role in the black boycott of the Mexico City Olympics as fixing him in silence for a long time. "I felt I had been savaged by the media," he said. "People thought I was a radical and regarded me as suspicious. Instead of dealing with it one-on-one, I decided the press didn't like me, which was not a very mature decision. But it was easy. And I took the easy way out and kept a veil there.
"After we got Magic, his smile was so infectious. Our success made me smile. And all of a sudden I evolved into an easier person.
"I grew to the point where I understood there is a price for success. I'd rather pay that price than the price for failure."