For years, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn't shy about saying he thought the Lakers should have erected a statue of him outside Staples Center. On Friday, standing beside the nearly 16-foot-tall, 1,500-pound statue of himself in his classic skyhook pose, Abdul-Jabbar concluded the timing of the honor was right.
"I'm glad we got here before the pigeons got to it," he said, drawing laughter from an array of former NBA players, executives, family and friends.
"I don't know if you remember, but I had a little too much to say that it hadn't happened right away. But they were patient with me," he said after pulling a gold tassel that removed a curtain and unveiled the statue created by sculptors/artists Julie Rotblatt Amrany and Omri Amrany.
Abdul-Jabbar became the sixth Los Angeles sports figure to be remembered with a statue outside the arena, joining hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, boxer Oscar De La Hoya, basketball Hall of Famers Jerry West and Magic Johnson, and longtime Lakers announcer Chick Hearn.
Johnson was among the speakers during a ceremony that featured key figures from Abdul-Jabbar's childhood, his days in Milwaukee, and his Lakers years. All of them emphasized Abdul-Jabbar's leadership, great athletic skills and intellectual curiosity.
"You should have had the first statue," Johnson told the crowd. "It was on your back that we're here at Staples Center."
Civil rights activist Richard Lapchick, whose father, Joe, coached the New York Knicks, recalled that Abdul-Jabbar endured unspeakable racial slurs but triumphed on the court and by becoming an advocate for African Americans whom history had ignored. Lapchick congratulated Abdul-Jabbar "not only for the statue but for a life well-lived." Former Bucks announcer Eddie Doucette recalled that he came up with the phrase "skyhook," and added, "This man created a masterpiece. I was there to give it a name."
And Pat Riley, who coached him during the Showtime era, recalled getting the job and telling Abdul-Jabbar that he was really going to need the big center's support. "He looked at me and taught me the greatest lesson anybody could teach a young coach," Riley said. "He said, 'Pat, you won't have to worry about me. I may not be great every night but I'll be there.' He has been there for me — he has been there for us — his whole career."
Abdul-Jabbar, 65, thanked his youth and high school coaches as well as the late UCLA Coach John Wooden. He also said that through his Skyhook Foundation he is working with the California Board of Education to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math in schools, part of his aim to "turn success into significance."
He ended with a sentiment the nearby fans enjoyed, urging the Lakers to beat the Suns "because I'm getting tired of this." That might have sparked the loudest cheer of all.