Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Here’s To Your Health, Kareem

Abdul-Jabbar has leukemia; the college basketball season began last night. Abdul-Jabbar, when he was Lew Alcindor, was the greatest college basketball player I’ve ever seen.

There might be some who saw Bill Russell at San Francisco in the 1950s or Oscar Robertson at Cincinnati a few years after that who might argue that one of them was in Abdul-Jabbar’s class. Bill Walton was certainly great and so was David Thompson. But Abdul-Jabbar, who was Alcindor until changing his name in 1971, was—to me—in a class by himself.

I actually first saw him play when I was a kid growing up in New York. In those days, high school teams played in Madison Square Garden in preliminary games prior to Knicks home games. Alcindor played at Power Memorial and was a phenomenon that anyone who followed basketball in the city knew about. He was 7-foot-1 and he was unstoppable. I can remember getting to The Garden at 6:30 for the 6:45 high school starts to see Alcindor play.

When he chose UCLA and not St. John’s, everyone in New York was crushed. His UCLA teams were 88-2, one of the losses coming in The Astrodome when Alcindor played with a scratched eyeball against Houston and Elvin Hayes during his junior year. That was one of the first nationally televised college basketball games and helped put college hoops on the map. A couple of months later Houston and UCLA met in the Final Four in Los Angeles. I think the final score was 101-69.

I actually got Alcindor’s autograph—which I wish I’d kept because it would probably be a big deal nowadays—during his senior year when UCLA played in The Holiday Festival in the Garden. It was an eight-team tournament back then and St. John’s upset No. 2 ranked North Carolina to get to the final. During the third place game between Princeton and Carolina, the UCLA team came out and watched some of the first half. I scurried among the players—Curtis Rowe, Sidney Wicks, Lucius Allen among them—to get autographs and planted myself right in front of Alcindor as he got up to walk to the locker room. He was so tall my neck hurt to look up and ask him to sign. He did—and kept walking.

UCLA won the game easily and went on to a third straight national championship in March. Alcindor went on to lead the once-terrible Milwaukee Bucks to a championship in his second year and ended up winning six NBA titles and retiring as the league’s all-time leading scorer.

Of course there’s so much more to Alcindor than basketball. He did some acting (“Airplane,” among other movies); he’s written books and produced movies. He became very involved in the Muslim religion after his conversion and was also victimized by an agent late in his pro career which forced him to play a couple of years longer than he should have played. He tried television but wasn’t very good at it. He’s coached—including on an Indian reservation—and is now coaching with the Lakers.

I had one up-close experience with him. In 2001, when I was writing, “The Punch,” on the 1977 incident in which Kermit Washington almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich with one punch during an on court fight in Los Angeles, I had to talk to Abdul-Jabbar. He had been involved in a skirmish with Rockets center Kevin Kunnert that led to the fight that led to The Punch. I had tracked down everyone else involved in the incident, including Kunnert, who wasn’t thrilled about talking even 24 years later because he felt that Washington had unfairly made him into the bad guy. But I couldn’t get to Jabbar.

He had a movie production company at the time and I kept leaving messages there to no avail. Finally, I got lucky. One of Kermit’s close friends while he was in college at American University had been Josh Rosenfeld, who had gone on to be the Lakers PR guy during Abdul-Jabbar’s career there. What I didn’t know was that Rosenfeld was one of a handful of people in the world Jabbar trusted implicitly.

When I talked to Josh for the book he asked if I’d talked to Kareem yet. I told him I was having a hell of a time getting him to return my calls. “Let me take a shot at it,” Josh said. “I’ll give him a call.”

The next day the phone rang and a voice said, “Mr. Feinstein, this is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I’m told you need to talk to me.”

If you read the book, you’ll know the interview could not have gone better: Jabbar was, as you would expect, articulate and analytical. What I didn’t expect was his willingness to talk in detail about the incident, about what led up to it, about Kermit and about how he felt about what had happened. To be honest, I thought it was pretty gripping stuff.

Not long after the book came out, the phone rang again. The introduction was the same: “Mr. Feinstein, this is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”

My first thought was “uh-oh.” Athletes and coaches do not pick up the phone and track down a reporter after something has been written unless they’re upset. I took a deep breath and waited for the complaint. I had already gotten an angry call from Kunnert who had been very generous with his time and felt that—again—a member of the media, this time me, had “bought,” Kermit’s version of events even though I had quoted both sides of the story at great length.

“I read your book,” Abdul-Jabbar said....

Oh boy, here it comes…

“And I wanted to tell you that I thought you did an excellent job. I thought it was balanced, it was fair and it gave a thoughtful picture of how the incident affected all of us.”

I was stunned, not so much that Jabbar had thought I’d done a reasonable job on the book, I always hope that everyone I write about feels that way, but that he had taken the time to pick up the phone to tell me he felt that way. As I’ve said before, the number of athletes through the years who have done something like that can probably be counted on both my hands with a couple fingers to spare.

As always, I’m looking forward to college hoops season. Already freshmen like Derrick Favors and John Wall are being made out to be The Next One by all the various pundits. I can tell you this right now: they may be great, they may end up being very rich and very famous but I guarantee you they won’t touch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a player and I’m pretty damn sure they won’t touch him as a man either.

Here’s to your health Kareem. And thanks for a lot of memories, dating back to Power Memorial.


I’m sure it was apparent how much I enjoyed writing yesterday’s blog about Navy’s stunning win over Notre Dame on Saturday. (BTW, did anyone notice Charlie Weis absolutely proving one of yesterday’s posters right by throwing the kid who dared to question the defensive schemes right under the nearest bus?).

I think I enjoyed yesterday’s posts about as much as I enjoyed writing the blog. It was great to hear from Randy Bogle, who was the commandant at the academy when I was writing, “A Civil War,” and also hearing from people who clearly got how special Navy’s win was.

So here’s my question for today: what’s your all-time favorite upset, specifically one you witnessed in person. It might involve two junior high school teams but I’ll bet, regardless of what it was, it is one of those moments in your life that always makes you smile when you think about it.

Navy-Notre Dame in 2009 will be high on my list I can promise you that.


dcsooner said...

Have you ever talked to Morgan Wooten about losing to Power Memorial in NYC? My old boss was on that team and says DeMatha was beating them in the 2d half when the lights mysteriously went out.

joegish said...

Greatest upset I ever saw was 1984 Navy vs South Carolina at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. Ranked No 2 and Orange Bowl bound So Carolina came into Annapolis and got crushed. Navy made the front page of the Sunday Washington Post. It was Amazing!

cd1515 said...

Villanova-Georgetown, '84

Anonymous said...

In the early '90's there was a program, hosted by Richard Dreyfuss, called "Our World", which you may remember. A revloving panel of contemporoary noteworthies would discuss life in Ameica in the 20th century with the tapes of the discussions held in a time capsule to be opened in the year 3000 (By whom, I can't recall!).

Kareem was a frequent guest on the show. His eloquence, sensitivity and intelligence were exactly as you describe in your meeting. May he recover quickly and fully.

Favorite upset: Reds in four over A's, 1990. ptwiley

neil said...

I went to UVa undergrad, and then back for grad school. I went to many games as an undergrad, but rarely had time in grad school. However, I decided to go to one ... a Thursday night game versus Florida State. The game was a passing-fest, lasting almost four hours, and coming down literally to inches on the last play. We stood and screamed the whole time as Virginia stopped FSU at the end for FSU's first ACC loss. I didn't have a voice for days.

Matt Dick said...

As an NU grad and a 15+ year season ticket holder, I can confidently say that the 'Cats 1995 17-15 win over Notre Dame was the greatest upset of my life. It kicked off the wonderful 1995 season and the magic didn't end until Keyshawn Johnson caught 955 passes for 12,530 yards and 122 touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.


It seem impossible I know, but I recall *very* clearly that Johnson caught well over 900 passes in that game.

David Berman said...

Biggest upset was the 1981 New Jersey Group IV boys basketball semi-finals. A bunch of unknowns from Neptune High School beat a 27-0 Camden High School team that had two future NBA stars, Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson. I remember being glued to the radio in my bedroom to listen to the broadcast.

To this day, my friend Carl Liebert reminds me about spending 15 minutes recounting the game to him when I first met him at the Naval Academy.

I, too, remember that Navy - South Carolina game. It wasn't even really close, we just crushed them.

Will said...

Biggest upset I had ever seen in person was the George Mason Connecticut game in the NCAA tournament right here in DC.

JJ said...

Biggest upset....college football, Minnesota 16 Michigan 10...1978.


Naugatuck 7, Ansonia 6 - 1981

mitch said...

In the early 1960's Power Memorial with Lew Alcindor traveled upstate to Schenectady,N.Y. to play Linton High School in their annual Christmas tournament. Linton was a good local team but nothing like Power Memorial. Well, Linton beat them that day by 3 or 4 points and the locals called it one of the biggest upsets ever. And by the way, the star of that Linton team would years later be Lew Alcindors coach. His name was Pat Riley.

Anonymous said...

USA beating Soviets: '80 Olympics Hockey

thedean said...

Met Kareem once after an exhibition basketball game in Pittsburgh. As everyone was heading out for a night on the town Kareem was heading to the county jail to talk to the inmates. Hope he has a speedy recovery.
Biggest upset was when Pitt beat West Virgina two years ago in football to keep them out of national championship game. Was it Pitt's greatest victory? No, but it was West Virgina's worse loss!

kkratochvil said...


First, your blog is the one item I make sure I read each day!

Second, I've read several of your books now, but my favorite continues to be "The Last Amateurs", which is probably why this particular blog entry made me want to comment. College sports overall is the greatest of all sports to watch, due to wins (and the background story that goes with it) like Navy this past weekend.

Third, greatest upset I had the chance to be at: NU beating Kansas in basketball back in 1987. (NU is my alma mater) NU was able to beat the great Danny Manning in both '87 and '88 in Lincoln. (By the way, Danny Manning is probably the greatest college player I ever had the chance to personally watch play basketball. His skills, instincts and pure speed set him above all the rest of his time. I can't compare him to Alcindor, as be was a bit before my time and I never personally saw him play.)

How does this come full circle? Who was the coach of the NU basketball team in 1987 and 1988? Danny Nee, a former teammate of Lou Alcindor's at Power Memorial High School!

Anonymous said...

Not saying you cannot write or have the great ability to write. However please quit using Michael Jordan to pay your bills through Sporting News on your opinion piece. I like Sporting News and am really indifferent on what you think about sports but a few of your books I will read one day (I am 23). I am just sick and tired of sportswriters like yourself using Jordan to try and make a name for yourself. That was a few issues back and it was really a lackluster piece. By the way it is more like 24 or 25 courses he belongs to and he can do what he wants with his money he earned it. He has foundations sets up which include the Make-A-Wish component and can't we all do more? Leave the greatest basketball player alone and come up with other material to cash your checks.

treuby4 said...

Jan. 10, 1982: Virginia Tech beat Keith Lee's Memphis State team 64-56 in Blacksburg on the same day that Memphis State rose to its first #1 ranking. I have never been to an arena as loud. Took me 3 days to regain my own voice. A highlight of my student years at Tech.

case said...

thanks for the column on kareem
when there was a memorial service for his hc coach,jack donohue ,in nyc a few years ago , kareem gave the eulogy--he barely mentioned hoops , instead focusing on the influence that donohue had on him as an adolescent growing into a man
at the reception afterward , kareem spoke with anyone who sat down with him , was gracious and friendly--he stayed after most had left

as far as upsets--1966 holy cross at boston college in football
bc was the big favorite--for the second time in my 4 years at hc , we pulled the big upset--this time 3 of my senior classmates/friends were the keys--one intercepted the bc pass that led to the winning drive--the other two were the qb who threw the winning td and the end who caught it--known to hc fans as " the bomb "

Anonymous said...

I'm totally biased, but Navy's win over Army in 1950 resonates with me.

I was a first classman at the Naval Academy and we hadn't won a football game in my four years there (maybe we beat Princeton that year). Along came Army ranked maybe 4 in the Nation, Navy, of course, was unranked. Navy won 14-2! Sporty Bannerman set the tone early when aggressively wrestled out of bounds he popped a left cross to the chin of the Army player which the ref overlooked.

Dave (Sporty) Bannerman died last week, but he'll always be remembered for that punch and being part of the win.
Unfortunately, being a hero had its drawbacks when he got married after the game and some small-town reporter recognized the name and reported the wedding. Being married was against regulation and he was dismissed from the Academy before the first of the year.

This game is why I get nervous before any Army-Navy game; upsets can happen.