“Kids around me 20 and 21 years old, were acting like infants. . . . I said to myself that I had come all the way to California at the age of 18 to find out I was a very old person.” Lew Alcindor in 1969, on his UCLA years
BOSTON — There he goes again, taking that hook. How old must Kareem Abdul-Jabbar feel now? He is 40, almost twice the age of rookies in his sport, yet he is still out there, in shorts and sneakers, throwing up mini-rainbows and lugging that pained expression on his face. There is nothing visibly left to prove: he owns most of the important statistics, he has his rings, and Lord knows he doesn’t stay around for the media attention. A few days ago, at this NBA final, a reporter asked the 7-foot-2 center the difference in his off-season conditioning now versus 20 years ago.
“Twenty years ago I was in UCLA,” he said, sneering. “I spent most of my off-season sitting down.”
Age gives you perspective. And yet Abdul-Jabbar, the oldest player in the NBA, is somehow still beyond our grasp, still hazy after all these years. Here is a child of the ’60s, now laboring in the ’80s — in the same job. (How many former radicals can say that?) Once the common word for him was
“militant.” He wore African caftans, hailed Malcolm X, boycotted the 1968 Olympics, talked about playing “for 10 years, then moving to the West Indies, or maybe working with black schoolchildren.”
What has changed? What hasn’t changed? His name is different. His politics are different. His family is different. His team is different. He has done a movie, and a candy bar commercial. He has started a record company and purchased Arabian horses. He has gone from poor to rich to rich with big problems. Everything has changed.
And nothing has changed. Abdul-Jabbar, Lew Alcindor, “The Big Guy” (as he teammates call him) is still enigmatic, aloof, a man unto his own very tall self. He is on the verge of his fifth NBA championship (it could come tonight in Game 5 of this Celtics-Lakers series) and if it does it will be just one more corner turned. He takes the hook; he does not leave it. No goodby yet for the King of the Sky. “I’ll be back next year,” he says, and he says little more. D o you ever reflect on how long you’ve been in this game?” he is asked during an interview session after practice.
“Not really,” he says. “There isn’t much time for that.”
“Has this year with the Lakers been your most enjoyable?” someone else asks.
“It’s been the easiest to get through. It’s been less demanding physically.”
“How about these playoffs?” tries another. “Do you get most psyched up for this time of year?”
“It’s a very good time. This is what we all work for.”
He looks off as he says the last line, as if searching for a swift horse to ride in and save him from this. Abdul-Jabbar has rarely been open with reporters — for years he avoided them — and the flowering that came with his autobiography “Giant Steps” and the Lakers’ 1985 championship has been wilted lately by problems in his personal life.
He rubs his large palm over his head, again and again, as if checking on his quickly disappearing hair. He waits for the next question. He fidgets like a child in a dentist’s chair.
Nobody asks him about the money.
The word is that Abdul-Jabbar is in a financial mess as big as his NBA numbers. He is suing his former agent for $55 million, charging, among other things, negligence and fraud, mostly for investing in hotels with no future and restaurants with more debt than customers. Nine other former or current NBA players were involved in dealings with Abdul-Jabbar and the agent, Tom Collins, and the cross-suing is almost comical. Abdul-Jabbar was sued by Alex English of the Denver Nuggets, and the papers were served while Abdul-Jabbar was in the Lakers’ locker room. Abdul-Jabbar then sued English and the papers were served to English on the Denver bench.
There is evidence of Abdul-Jabbar losing $300,000 in a cattle feed deal,
$900,000 to cover debt costs, and somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million
— $5 million? — in the deadbeat real estate. Quite naturally, there is talk that Abdul-Jabbar’s interest in playing several more seasons for the Lakers
(he currently earns around $2 million per year) is at least partly because he could use the funds.
How sad — even if untrue. That kind of rumor should not have to follow a man who has redefined his craft, who has sculpted his own shot, who has competed 16 times in the playoffs, and earned more points, rebounds, blocked shots and MVP awards than any player in history. Age brings perspective? Age should also bring dignity. A few years ago, Abdul-Jabbar talked with a reporter about watching a 40-year-old Willie Mays strike out on a passed ball, then slide into first base to beat the catcher’s throw. “He should not have had to slide,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “There was something not right about that.”
In the same way does this “Kareem is broke” gossip seem, well, inappropriate. But it is not unusual. Because Abdul- Jabbar’s personal life was always such a secret, it became a stream ripe for the news prospecting. His relationships with women — he separated from his first wife and their three children in 1973, lived with another woman, left her, and returned to his wife — has been fodder for the LA note pads. His religious views (raised Catholic, became a Muslim) have earned him both scorn and praise. When his Bel Air mansion burned down in 1983, everyone seemed to know about it. How much were the lost possessions worth? $1.75 million? How many jazz albums were lost? Three thousand?
So undoubtedly, the sum total of all this has left Abdul- Jabbar willing to perform only between the lines of the court. There he continues to amaze. This season he has adjusted his game, taken a smaller role, and it is
“probably the biggest reason we’re here now,” Lakers coach Pat Riley says. The supersonic Lakers of 1987 can run as much as they do only because Abdul-Jabbar does not need to get the ball down low every time, to back in and back in, then take that famous sky hook while everyone else watches.
“The adjustment he’s made,” says teammate Magic Johnson, whose subsequent increased role helped earn him MVP honors this year, “is not something every player would do. He adjusted for the team.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s minutes have decreased as well, but his effectiveness has thickened (his rebounding average actually increased this season from 6.1 to 6.7 per game). After playing well against the Celtics in Games 1 and 2 of this championship series, he had a poor outing Tuesday night, and was almost the goat of the game when he missed a free throw with eight seconds left and the Lakers trailing, 106-105. “I was disgusted with myself,” he says.
But the night was saved. Magic Johnson hit a hook shot — which Kareem taught him — and the Lakers won and are up 3-1 in this series with Game 5 tonight followed by two games, if necessary, in Los Angeles. Years ago, Abdul-Jabbar might have brooded about his own performance, despite the win. But when the buzzer sounded Tuesday, he lept into the air and slapped high fives with his teammates.
So how many more years? And will he ever get clearer to us? This is a New York child who once chased some thieves two miles down Harlem River Drive until they relinquished his bicycle. This is a teenager who once doodled the phrase “DEATH TO THE WHITE MAN.” This is a tall man, a skinny giant who embraced religion, yoga, music, art, who aligned himself with advisers who now no longer speak to him, who made and lost millions, who is articulate (when he wants to speak), intelligent and insightful and angry and sullen and in his own way, wise.
The irony is that so many athletes today who have nothing to offer are media poppy seeds, they are everywhere, while Abdul- Jabbar, with so much to offer, keeps slinking away.
Look at that line at the top: “I had come all the way to California just to find I was a very old man.” Abdul-Jabbar wrote that when he was 22, in a three-part series for Sports Illustrated entitled “My Story.” How much more could he add? How old does he feel in California today?
“My story, my business,” he seems to say.
So there he plays, out there on the court, and there he sits in between playing — surrounded by reporters, looking like he’d leave his skin behind if he could crawl away unnoticed. The minutes pass. The silent gaps grow longer.
Suddenly a Lakers trainer yells, “The bus is here. Let’s go!” And Abdul-Jabbar smiles and quickly rises to full form, towering over the little people.
“Ah, deliverance!” he says, and high-steps his exit as if leaving a vaudeville stage. Even at 40, nobody takes the hook like Kareem.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is still enigmatic, aloof, a man unto his own very tall self.