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.