Abdul-Jabbar Has Adapted To Fame, Fortune, Fans

By JEFF HASEN, UPI Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES -- The problem is that not even a rubber nose and a pair of plastic eyeglasses can disguise someone 7-foot-2.

'Last year, after the playoffs were over, I took Amir to see 'Return of the Jedi,' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said of a trip with his 3-year-old son to a Westwood, Calif., moviehouse. 'Before the movie started, I was sitting down and I got a standing ovation. That was rough.


'They were showing their appreciation. I just can't say it was horrible. It kinda put me on the spot, but they meant well.'

Abdul-Jabbar, the 36-year-old, six-time NBA Most Valuable Player, knows about being on the spot -- he's taken stands against the Olympics, been outspoken of his beliefs in the Muslim religion, and resented snubs he feels he has had to endure because he is black and decided to change his name from Lew Alcindor.


The Los Angeles Laker center now has another part of his life to defend. Two days before his recently published autobiography, 'Giant Steps,' hit the bookstores, Abdul-Jabbar's name appeared in national headlines when it was revealed he spent part of the book discussing his youthful experimentation with marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and heroin.

'I thought they would have a little bit more integrity than that,' he says of what he feels was the media's attempted sensationalism at his expense. 'It's one small part of the book and it's the only thing they decided to deal with. I didn't think that was right, but I guess they wanted to sell papers or something.

'Most of the people who have taken the time to read the book really can't understand it (the headlines). It (his use of drugs) would have had to be in there. You can't anticipate how people are going to deal with that. I kinda thought somebody would say something, but I didn't think it would be said the way they said it.'

The writer of a letter to the editor of a local newspaper said Abdul-Jabbar should have kept his admitted limited use of drugs a secret since a 7-year-old boy in the playgrounds might try to emulate the player's sky-hook and who knows what else.


'I'm going to be a role model whether I want to or not,' Abdul-Jabbar said. 'I just hope that 7-year-old, if he reads the book, will understand that there are dangers out there -- things that people will tell him are good for him, just like they did to me. My involvement with drugs came about from peer pressure, mainly, and curiosity. In the late 1960s, that was a big deal.'

In his book, Abdul-Jabbar admits using marijuana after high school, trying LSD in his freshman year of college, investigating cocaine the summer between college and the pros, and his one-time snorting of heroin while at UCLA.

The rented house is in Westwood, a few miles from the $2.5 million Bel-Air mansion that burned to the ground last February. Fifty yards off traffic-jammed Sunset Boulevard, a Mercedes-Benz sits in the driveway - a common sight on this block. Gardeners are working in the front yard, a dog is barking, but, other than that, there's no reason to notice the structure.

Unless you know Abdul-Jabbar lives there.

You take your shoes off -- there are expensive Oriental rugs covering the floor -- and enter. The living room has an unusually high ceiling and the mantel holds three or four photographs, including one of Amir. A painting of Abdul-Jabbar with a basketball is centered above, a few inches above the 1979-80 Maurice Podoloff Award which is presented to the MVP in the league. The name 'Kareem Abdul-Jabbar' is inscribed on the front.


Abdul-Jabbar has won six of those trophies, but it's the record books that speak volumes. He entered the season with 29,810 points, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain's 31,419 on the all-time list. He's second in field goals made; fourth in games played, field goal percentage, field goals attemped, and scoring average; fifth in minutes played and rebounds; ninth in free throws attempted; tenth in free throws made.

Yet he says he hasn't received his due.

Bill Walton has won one NBA title and has spent a career hobbled by injuries. Abdul-Jabbar has won three championships -- one of only 12 players in league history to win titles with two different teams -- and has averaged 79 games a season over his 14-year career.

'People tried to portray Bill Walton ... they tried to exaggerate his greatness,' Abdul-Jabbar said recently, relaxing in a chair in his den. 'Now he's a great player, but they wanted to make more of that because he was white. I didn't think that was right.

'He deserved the recognition he got. He earned it -- no two ways about it -- but it was just like no one else existed at the point when he emerged.'


Walton also had strong political beliefs and entered the league as a non-conformist, even playing with a ponytail.

'Bill was sort of counter-cultured,' Abdul-Jabbar said, 'but I don't think he was hassled as much because he was white.'

Abdul-Jabbar said he first realized the black-white difference when he was the only black in his high school class. Attending Power Memorial Academy in New York, the youngster from upper Manhattan played for coach Jack Donohue. The team won 71 straight games before a game made memorable because of what happened in the locker room.

The center says in his book that Donohue, upset at his team's lackadaisical ways, said Abdul-Jabbar was 'acting just like a nigger' to inspire him.

'We haven't spoken in years, but we don't have a hostile relationship,' Abdul-Jabbar said of Donohue, now the coach of the Canadian Olympic basketball team. 'It's not like we're not speaking or anything.'

Abdul-Jabbar gives Donohue credit for helping him learn how to win.

'He embarrassed us if we didn't live up to our potential,' he said. 'If I played well and we lost, I never felt bad. He never got on us for that.'

John Wooden, the coach at UCLA when Abdul-Jabbar played, had even more of an impact on his game.


'John Wooden's style was different than Jack Donohue's style, but the message was generally the same,' he said. 'Prepare yourself, give your best and you should be successful.'

Abdul-Jabbar admits he was only a part in Wooden's ascent to the throne as the 'Wizard of Westwood.'

'It's become a legend,' Abdul-Jabbar said of Wooden's feats while coaching the Bruins. 'He just did it better. We were very consistent in winning. When you win the NCAA seven years in a row, that's the stuff of legends. It only takes one game to eliminate a team. To do that for seven years in a row, 10 out of 12, that's greatness. I don't care how you define it.

'He masterminded it and he was able to adapt himself to a lof of different personalities. Wild-and-crazy ballplayers, you name it. He had to deal with that. He survived that.'

Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three consecutive NCAA titles and was the tournament MVP all three years. The Bruins were 88-2 during his varsity career, yet he made headlines when he decided to snub the U.S. Olympic Committee and not participate in the 1968 Olympics because of the 'abuse of black people.'

He said there are no regrets.


'None at all,' he said. 'That was my last political arena. I haven't gotten into politics since then. No, wait a minute, I sent Bill Bradley some money for his campaign. The only honest person I knew running for office, I had to send him money.'

Abdul-Jabbar has been called, among other things, moody, unemotional and a bore by the press. The animosity, he said, began during his first year in the league when the Milwaukee Bucks scheduled a news conference for him and failed to tell him in advance.

'I wasn't feeling good; we'd played the night before,' he said. 'I got to Detroit and I didn't know about the press conference. I just didn't want to be there and it was obvious. They (the press) jumped all over me for that.'

The sour relationship continued until recently. Abdul-Jabbar credits Cheryl Pistano, his girlfriend and the mother of Amir, with bringing out the real person. The two have been together for five years.

'Cheryl kept encouraging me to express myself to the media, regardless of what I thought of them -- that they might not understand or try to turn it the wrong way,' he said. 'She just felt that if I made the effort to express myself, and there were enough positive things I had to say, there were enough good people in the media who'd repeat it. She proved to be right.'


Abdul-Jabbar said he turned the ashes of his house into a learning experience. Lost in the fire were, among other things, trophies, valuable pieces of art, Oriental rugs, and his vast library of jazz records. A Los Angeles radio station replaced many of the albums, and Abdul-Jabbar said that accompanied a warm outpouring of support from the public.

'I was appreciated (before), I just wasn't aware of it,' he said. 'It takes a tough situation before people will come out and go out of their way because they all have their own problems, too. When you don't understand that completely, sometimes you lose sight of what's happening.'

The house is being rebuilt and, while he has a love-affair with Hawaii, he said Bel-Air will be his permanent home.

'Hawaii's a special place,' he said. 'It's something you have to experience. Until you've been there, it's hard to tell somebody. But it's clean air, sunshine ... the ocean is great.

'But, I came out here (California) and I'm glad I got here.'

A New Yorker by birth, Abdul-Jabbar said he could've been a Knick if the team wasn't sidetracked.

'They wasted their time trying to finess George McGinnis,' he said of the player whom the Knicks tried to sign even though they didn't hold rights to him. 'Remember, they got fined a couple of hundred thousand dollars. When I was getting ready to leave Milwaukee (following a trade demand), I definitely wanted to go to New York.'


Abdul-Jabbar said New York's Madison Square Garden used to be one of those 'special' places.

'Madison Square Garden committed an unbelievable sin,' he said, 'because they tore down Penn Station (to build the new arena). I thought that was sacrilegious. The place where the old Madison Square Garden was is still an empty lot. How many buildings are left in New York?'

Like New York tearing buildings down to build skyscrapers, the NBA has undergone a facelift thanks to teammate Magic Johnson's exploits as a 6-9 guard.

'That trend is going to continue,' Abdul-Jabbar said. 'For a long time, I was the tallest player in the league. Then came Tom Burleson, Mark Eaton, Ralph (Sampson). People are just getting taller.'

In 1977, Abdul-Jabbar got involved in a fight with Milwaukee center Kent Benson. He said it was a time when fisticuffs and enforcers were chic in the league.

'They (the press) were kind of glorifying roughing people up,' he said. 'We ended up with Rudy Tomjanovich (being slugged by Kermit Washington), what happened with me and Benson, and a couple of other things. It was really ugly. I didn't think they should promote that.

'Basketball is a great game. If you're a strong, muscular guy, you should be able to compete. Just the same if you're a quick, agile person. I think there's enough in the game to accommodate both styles of play without penalizing one type of player.'


Abdul-Jabbar said the best player he has ever seen is Oscar Robertson, who, he points out, had a season of averaging triple-doubles (double figures in points, assists and rebounds).

'It's like working with the best,' he said of Robertson. 'I'm not trying to take shots at Magic. Magic's an exceptional player and he'll always be a superstar because he's very talented. Oscar's talents were not the same. They're different ballplayers.'

Abdul-Jabbar said Ralph Sampson's situation this year is similar to the one he encountered when he joined the Bucks for the 1969-70 season.

'He came in on a last-place team (Houston) and they expected him to take it to the top,' he said. 'I was lucky because we immediately started doing a lot better. The Bucks did a lot better with me than they did without me. If the Rockets do a lot better with Ralph, then the pressure will be off. If he has a good year statistically, the pressure's off.'

Another center in Abdul-Jabbar's path this season is Moses Malone, the behemoth who led the Philadelphia 76ers to a sweep of the Lakers in last year's NBA finals.

'He's a great one,' he said of Malone. 'He's a dominant player. He's playing on an excellent team. They've been playing very well. They played well without him. Now that he's joined them, he's made them even more formidable. Injuries had more to do with the sweep than Moses, I think.'


Abdul-Jabbar, the 36-year-old, six-time NBA Most Valuable Player, knows about being on the spot -- he's taken stands against the Olympics, been outspoken of his beliefs in the Muslim religion, and resented snubs he feels he has had to endure because he is black and decided to change his name from Lew Alcindor.

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