As if a leukemia diagnosis weren’t enough, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had another internal battle on his hands.
Whom should he tell?
The intensely private Abdul-Jabbar found out last December that he had a rare form of leukemia, though he shared it with only the smallest of circles.
He waited five months before telling Lakers Coach Phil Jackson that he had Philadelphia chromosome-positive chronic myeloid leukemia, Jackson said Tuesday. The disease is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that produces cancerous blood cells.
Abdul-Jabbar only recently alerted other Lakers officials, informing them late last week that he would soon go public with the disease in an effort to draw attention to it.
The NBA’s all-time leading scorer then granted phone interviews to three media outlets -- the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Associated Press -- with the agreement that the information be released early Tuesday morning. Numerous TV stations and other media followed the story from there.
How privately held was Abdul-Jabbar’s diagnosis over the last 11 months? His protege, Lakers center Andrew Bynum, didn’t know about it until Tuesday.
The Lakers’ franchise player, Kobe Bryant, said he was “extremely shocked” to hear the news. So was Bynum.
“I didn’t even know,” Bynum said. “It’s unfortunate. I wish him the best with it. Now that we know about it, I think everybody’s going to call him and really just find out what’s going on.”
Abdul-Jabbar has been a Lakers special assistant coach since 2005, when he was hired to work exclusively with Bynum, the youngest player drafted in NBA history. Abdul-Jabbar’s duties had decreased this season in part because Bynum, 22, had grown accustomed to the NBA game, averaging 20 points and 10.6 rebounds so far this season.
The Lakers are united, obviously, in hoping Abdul-Jabbar would recover. Thanks to medical advances in recent years, patients with chronic myeloid leukemia have an 85% remission rate of “really high quality,” according to Gary Schiller of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA.
Abdul-Jabbar, 62, will take oral medication on a daily basis, have frequent blood tests and see a specialist every other month.
He also is doing an educational campaign to promote treatment of the disease and is paid by the drug company Novartis.
“We’re obviously thinking of him and his family and his health overall,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. “We’re positive about the news we’ve heard in terms of it being manageable. We’re not sure when we’ll see him next, but we’re definitely thinking of him.”
In the phone interview, Abdul-Jabbar said that “the fact that you can manage the disease means that you can live your life.”
Fisher, whose daughter was diagnosed with an uncommon type of eye cancer in 2007, hoped Abdul-Jabbar’s message would make an impact.
“His spotlight affords him an opportunity to touch a lot of families and a lot of people that have been hit with cancer, with leukemia in particular,” Fisher said. “Because this is a rare form, I think he can do a lot of good and I think he’s looking forward to [helping].”
Abdul-Jabbar played 14 seasons with the Lakers, often scoring with his trademark “skyhook.” In fact, Bryant said he might employ it in the Lakers’ next game, Thursday against Phoenix.
“I stole it from him when I was a kid,” Bryant said. “I’ve used it in games a couple times. I might use it the next game, just because.”
Bynum back, Gasol not
Bynum practiced Tuesday and will play against Phoenix after missing two games because of a strained right elbow and sore right triceps.
“He ran well and I thought was aggressive and didn’t show any signs of his injury,” Jackson said. “We’re pleased.”
Pau Gasol, on the other hand, did not practice Tuesday and is expected to miss his eighth consecutive game because of a strained hamstring that has bothered him for more than a month.
After practice, Gasol was seen face-down on a training table, getting his hamstring worked on by Lakers massage therapist Marko Yrjovuori. Gasol did not talk to reporters Tuesday.
“I saw him upright today,” Jackson said, smiling.
Gasol worked out on an elliptical machine, but “I don’t have any hopes for him [to play] on Thursday,” Jackson said.