Five months past his 65th birthday, years removed from his customary beard and goggles, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar remains one of the most recognizable men in the world, especially in a basketball-crazed town like Springfield, where he recently paid a rare visit to the Naismith Hall of Fame to present Ralph Sampson and Jamaal Wilkes for induction.
For Abdul-Jabbar, memories of Springfield are bittersweet. When he was inducted in 1995, his mother accompanied him, but she died two years later.
He is still rather uncomfortable in the public eye.
The manager at the hotel restaurant walks over to the table and assures Abdul-Jabbar that the eatery will see to it that he won’t be bothered by fans and autograph seekers.
An unknown party pays for his meal, someone who never came over to even greet or introduce himself.
When asked whether he has ever fully comprehended the public’s fascination with his physical stature, personality, and his vast interests, Abdul-Jabbar laughs and says, “No, it’s not like I am Halle Berry or something.”
But it’s his reality. Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, one of the greatest centers of all-time, a historian, author, and one of the handful of athletes from the 1960s generation undaunted by the consequences of being politically active.
He is a walking, breathing basketball bible, his brilliant mind carrying thousands of stories from his days at Power Memorial in New York, UCLA, the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, and a not-so-pleasant life after basketball. What’s more, he felt inclined to speak out when statues of Magic Johnson and announcer Chick Hearn were erected at Staples Center before his.
Abdul-Jabbar arrived in Los Angeles in 1975, the post-Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West era, and helped reestablish the Lakers as contenders before Magic arrived in 1979 and took the Lakers to greatness.
“Everybody that I talked to is happy to see it happen,” Abdul-Jabbar said of his statue, set to be unveiled this season. “It’s funny, for me, I kind of was like annoyed, and that’s why, last spring, I mouthed off about it. Once I got to that point, I was OK.
“Basically, I’m in the Hall of Fame and people appreciate my career. So now to have it turn around so quickly, it’s rather ironic.”
Abdul-Jabbar cherished his privacy during his playing days and was considered aloof and unapproachable, especially when compared with Johnson, who as a 20-year-old embraced the Los Angeles fan base, the lifestyle, and his leadership role with a large, toothy smile. Abdul-Jabbar remained rather introverted throughout his career, something that may have affected how he was embraced — or not embraced — following his 20-year playing career.
“It was kind of a trend, you know, at that time,” he said. “I remember when I started, I came in on the era when the press didn’t ask anything about your private life and that stayed out of the public. You did your thing and people related to you as a sports figure.
“That was 1969. By the time I got out in 1989, you’ve got Dennis Rodman running around in wedding dresses. And now another 20 years has passed and I think it’s reached some kind of balance.
“I was not trying to inject myself into that issue, but being as visible as I was, I had no choice but to have to cope with it.”
True appreciation for his accomplishments — six MVP awards, six NBA titles, owner of the game’s most unstoppable shot in the Skyhook — has come slowly. He has not been one of the game’s celebrated players, partly because of his reclusive style, and partly because his lack of brashness was misunderstood.
“No, it doesn’t make me bitter at all,” he said. “I feel better that I adjusted to it and realized my life doesn’t really have much to do with that. I have to live my life, that’s the most important thing.”
Abdul-Jabbar announced a few years ago that he had been diagnosed with leukemia, but he said it’s in total remission. In the past two decades, he has authored several books, including “On the Shoulders of Giants” about the pre-integration of the NBA and the evolution of the game during the Harlem Renaissance. He was one of the first premier athletes to embrace non-basketball hobbies, even authoring his autobiography during his playing career.
“I always tell people that’s what I would have done if I had to have a real job,” he said of writing. “I think it’s more rewarding than basketball because you leave a legacy. The whole interest I have in education, it allows me to make a statement about that and have it live beyond my lifetime. I’m very proud of what I have written and hope, as the years go on, that people relate to it and appreciate it.”
Growing up during the civil rights era and emerging as a prominent athlete during the late 1960s fueled Abdul-Jabbar’s thirst for education and political activity. He teamed with Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Bobby Mitchell, among others, to support Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse induction into the military. Political activity among African-American athletes was customary during those times; in baseball, Curt Flood sacrificed his career to achieve a semblance of free agency.
Many current athletes refrain from political activity for fear of losing endorsement dollars or marring their well-manicured images.
“I watched the civil rights movement unfold and that had a profound effect on me,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “I knew that black Americans had to overcome something that was formidable. It wasn’t just an inconvenience, it could cost you your life.
“We still haven’t recovered from the effects of slavery and Jim Crow, economically and many other ways, and at least now there’s been progress.”
As part of his quest to tell little-known stories, he authored “Black Profiles in Courage” in 1996.
Abdul-Jabbar understands current athletes who choose not to risk earnings and image to be more politically active.
“It all depends on what you value and what’s important to you,” he said.
But he does encourage them to become more educated in terms of handling money.
“When you come to the NBA now, and you are a top pick, it’s serious wealth,” he said. “The league is doing what it can. I was involved recently, just two weeks ago [in the NBA rookie symposium].
“You can tell, you see the guys with big earrings and big chains. It’s sad. Some of the guys who understand what’s going on plan to be businessmen.”
Conversations with Abdul-Jabbar are rarely limited to basketball. He is beginning a foundation that will help children become more educated and familiar with S.T.E.M. — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,
Abdul-Jabbar continues to be misunderstood. The difference now is that he is more willing to offer time to reveal his complex personality.
James astute off the court
LeBron James may have made some questionable decisions in terms of his public persona over the past few years, but he is definitely an astute businessman who has made sound decisions and can trust his inner circle. So it is not surprising that he has chosen to leave Creative Artists Agency to sign with his childhood friend, Rich Paul, who is becoming a certified agent.
James has formed a close-knit group of friends — dubbed the Four Horsemen — that includes Paul, who should quickly become a power broker in the agent game, weakening the CAA stable and giving credence to the anti-traditional route to becoming an agent.
It’s interesting how a group of younger cohorts is now branching out to form agencies, perhaps to offer competition to those larger conglomerates such as CAA, Wasserman Media Group, and BDA Sports. Paul now represents the game’s biggest star in James, who already has locked onto several endorsements and may be open to exploring acting roles.
Enough time has elapsed since the 2010 “Decision” to where James’s image has been repaired. He won an NBA title with the Miami Heat last spring and backed that up with a gold medal for Team USA at the London Olympics.
The next major issue for James could be free agency. He has a player option for the final two years of his Miami contract and could opt out following the 2013-14 season. James will be 29 and still in his prime when he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent, and it is uncertain whether the Heat will remain a title-contending team after two more seasons with Dwyane Wade already 30, Chris Bosh with the same opt-out clause as James, and most of the remaining roster aging.
James has given no hint that he wants to leave Miami, but with the Heat already having stashed away a title, the pressure to stay has lessened and there could be a handful of teams that would prepare their salary caps to make a run at James.
The departure of James from CAA was amicable, but it is a sign that these big agencies need to be aware of the emergence of younger agents who are peers with the players. Paul may have begun a new trend.
Seattle gets ball rolling
After years of futility and ineptitude, the city of Seattle voted to approve a $490 million arena plan fueled by San Francisco businessman Chris Hansen. The city did not make this easy, agreeing to the deal only after Hansen agreed to personally cover any expenses over budget.
Seattle has been without basketball since 2008, when the Sonics headed for Oklahoma City, and because of shabby leadership and ambivalence, it missed an opportunity to stick it to owner Clay Bennett, who agreed to pay the city $30 million if it devised an arena plan and did not have a new team within a year of the relocation.
Under previous civic leadership, Seattle failed to even come up with an arena idea. But Hansen has to be credited with putting the NBA and NHL idea back into the minds of those who swore off basketball when the Sonics left and commissioner David Stern seemingly aided the relocation to help his friend Bennett.
Over the past three years, the city realized that the only way to encourage the league to return was with a new arena. Both sides botched the issue the first time, and Stern now regrets allowing the Sonics to leave and also wants Hansen and Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer in the owner fraternity.
So what now for Seattle? Construction on the arena won’t begin until the city acquires an NBA team, and that could take a while.
The NBA will not expand, meaning relocation is the means to acquire the team.
The Sacramento Kings appear the most likely candidates, and it’s convenient for the league because the team would not have to change divisions or force realignment. But because the Maloofs essentially reneged on their agreement with the city of Sacramento, which devised a new arena plan that Stern endorsed, the commissioner wants to give the city every opportunity to retain the team.
He does not want the Kings to move to Anaheim and give the Los Angeles area three teams, so if the Maloofs agree to sell and are seeking a hefty profit, negotiating a deal with Hansen and Ballmer may be their best alternative.
So far the Maloofs haven’t shown the desire to sell, but eventually the Sacramento situation will have to be resolved. Until then, Seattle will wait, shovels in dirt waiting for the word. At least that’s progress.
LeBron James made a surprise appearance at the Hall of Fame ceremonies, much to the delight of many members, who appreciated a current superstar with the desire to learn about the history of the game. Chet Walker included James in his induction speech by saying how he, Bob Cousy, and Oscar Robertson fought for the right to free agency so players could take their talents to Cleveland. James smiled at the reference. He, along with future baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., were present to support Nike mogul Phil Knight, who was inducted into the Hall as a contributor.
The Brooklyn Nets obviously believe in reclamation projects with the signings of Andray Blatche and Josh Childress, each of whom did little for their previous teams. Blatche was shut down by the Wizards and then waived through the amnesty clause after a series of maladies and lack of focus. Childress returned from a two-year stint in Greece ready to contribute to the Suns but did little over two seasons, averaging a career-low 2.9 points last season. Childress is signed to a nonguaranteed deal and his career could be on the line.
The Celtics still have their $1.9 million biannual exception to offer a free agent and are waiting for the market to dry up on some quality veterans to add one big man to the roster. Chris Wilcox and Jason Collins are their two legitimate backup big men. Kenyon Martin is available and he would fit nicely into the Celtics defensive system, but he wants more than $1.9 million. And the Celtics have competition from at least five teams for Martin, who played last season with the Clippers . . . One free agent who just signed to remain in Los Angeles is Matt Barnes, who crossed hallways from the Lakers to the Clippers. The Celtics were not interested in Barnes, who has bounced around the league and is now considered more of an energy player than a true defensive stopper . . . A player to watch this season is Miami’s Jarvis Varnado, a former Mississippi State standout who has spent the past two seasons overseas. Because of the Heat’s salary-cap constraints, they weren’t able to sign a front-line center, but they did add Varnado with a minimum deal to block shots. He averaged two blocks with teams in Israel and Italy last season.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.