Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had quite a 68th birthday last Thursday. Celebrations were cut short by quadruple bypass surgery. Here’s hoping he at least got to blow out the candles and make a wish.
Here is our wish: that we find a deeper appreciation for this former 7-foot-2 tower in our lives.
As we celebrate the here and now in the NBA — the excitement of the Clippers in the playoffs, the joy of a series that matches the brains of Pop and Doc and the athletic wonders of Blake, CP3, Manu, Tim and Tony — let’s also take note of one extraordinary forerunner.
According to all reports, Abdul-Jabbar will be fine. That’s as fine as anybody can be after battling a form of leukemia a few years ago and now major heart surgery.
What won’t be just fine, if not addressed now and frequently, is the incorrect image he continues to carry; thankfully not as much as in his playing days.
He is the all-time NBA scoring leader. He won six titles, was MVP six times, was All-NBA 15 times and made 19 NBA All-Star teams. And that was after he led three straight John Wooden teams to NCAA titles at UCLA.
But to all too many, none of that matters. Nor does there seem to be a need to pay further attention now that he has retired from basketball.
To those, Abdul-Jabbar will always be the 7-2 surly guy, who was arrogant and defensive with reporters and therefore with the public. He was too private, too overly introspective, and too mysteriously protective for our tastes.
In reality, he was a kid from New York who couldn’t hide because you can’t when you are a 7-2 basketball star. He went to Los Angeles to play at UCLA, then was drafted to play in the pros in Milwaukee.
He didn’t moan and groan. He just went, played there and gave the city its only NBA title and only two NBA conference titles.
Milwaukee was never going to be a long-term marriage. The trade to the Lakers was inevitable. Then he changed his name from Lew Alcindor to the Muslim Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the image further eroded in parts of mainstream America, mostly the white parts.
Cancer and heart surgery are signs that it is time to pay more attention, to listen and see, not assume and dismiss.
Jim Cohen was among the first to get a true sense of Abdul-Jabbar. Cohen is an executive with the NFL Network in Los Angeles. Before that, he was sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal and Philadelphia Inquirer and an executive at ESPN, where he helped create the show “Around The Horn,” for which he admits now he will need to do a lifetime of penance.
As a young reporter in Milwaukee, he was at press row opening night, 1977, when the Bucks and the Lakers played. No. 1 draft pick Kent Benson had been encouraged to play rough with former Bucks center Abdul-Jabbar. Benson elbowed Abdul-Jabbar, who retaliated with a punch and was ejected from the game.
The game continued, but Cohen went to the Lakers’ locker room, talked his way in and asked Abdul-Jabbar if he could walk with him back to his hotel in downtown Milwaukee. Abdul-Jabbar, uncharacteristically, said sure. When they got to the hotel, Cohen asked if he could go up to his room and continue their chat. Abdul-Jabbar said sure. They talked for at least an hour.
“To this day, I don’t remember much of what he said,” Cohen says. “But he said something, and this was from someone who seldom said anything. It was remarkable.”
From that, and from years of observation, Cohen concludes, “I think he is one of the most misunderstood athletes of all time.”
In June 2013, a writer for the website Grantland, Chuck Klosterman, dug deeper into Abdul-Jabbar and mined this jewel:
“He [Abdul-Jabbar] refused to pretend that his life didn’t feel normal to the person inside it, and he refused to pretend that other people’s obsession with abnormality required him to act like the man he wasn’t.”
Not generally known is that Abdul-Jabbar is an oft-published and prolific writer. That works well, because he is an even better thinker. He has been published in Esquire (Example: “20 Things Boys Can Do to Become Men”) and often writes for Time Magazine.
One of his best efforts for Time came at the beginning of this NBA season, when co-owner Bruce Levenson of the Atlanta Hawks was found to have written an internal memo, telling his business partners there were too many blacks in their crowds, that they “scared away” the whites, and that he didn’t think there were enough blacks in the market to build a “significant season ticket base.”
While shuddering a bit at the “scared away” statement, Abdul-Jabbar wrote a defense of Levenson that said, in part: “Business people should have the right to wonder how to appeal to diverse groups in order to increase business.”
He also dealt deftly with the usual knee-jerk public and media reaction to anything even hinting at racism.
“The pitchforks are already sharpened and the torches lit,” he wrote. “So rather than let them go to waste, why not drag another so-called racist before the court of public opinion and see how much ratings-grabbing, head-shaking and race-shaming we can squeeze out of it?”
He also wrote: “After all, the media got so much gleeful, hand-wringing mileage out of Don[ald] Sterling and Michael Brown.”
Newspapers often publish addendums to obituaries. They are called “Appreciations.” All too often, it is better to do them when the appreciated person is still alive.
We have in our Los Angeles midst, hopefully for many more years, a 7-2 former giant of athletic skills and a 7-2 current icon of social thought and action.
A statue at Staples Center isn’t enough.