Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Last month, Kareem Abdul-Jabar was honoured with his very own statue outside Staples Center. He joins Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Chick Hearn, Oscar de la Hoya and Jerry West as one of those immortalized outside the downtown arena.
The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation would like to congratulate Kareem on this honor, and to remind the folks who are responsible for these statues that they're missing one . . . a Jim Murray!
Enjoy Jim Murray's 1989 column on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Kareem is Now Winning on Class.

MAY 14, 1989, SPORTS


Kareem Is Now Winning on Class

    He dominated his sport in the way few have in the long history of games men play. God made him more than 7 feet tall. He took care of the rest.
    It was said that if you sat up nights trying to design a sport that would more nearly fit his qualifications, you couldn't come up with a better one than basketball. But being a 7-footer is no longer nearly enough.
    In another time, another era, he would have been considered a freak. He might have been tearing phone books or bending crowbars in a circus. The 7-footers of another time had short, unhappy lives.
    But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was no runaway glandular case. He was just a perfectly formed, perfectly proportioned big man. The legs didn't end up under the
shoulders. He didn't clank when he walked. He didn't move like a prehistoric bird. He took quick sprinter's steps. He was graceful, agile, a 6-footer in a 7-foot body.
    He didn't play the game of the 7-foot bully. Most men his size rough up the competition, don't so much take the ball away from them as them away from the ball.
    This was not his style. He never shattered backboards, strong-armed rebounds, threw his weight — and his elbows — around. He played the full-court game. It was like watching a 7-foot Cousy on some nights. Everything but the behind-the-back dribble.
    His legacy to basketball is a shot he didn't invent, just reincarnated — the hook shot. There is a story behind it. When he was in college, the powers-that-be, frightened by his proficiency at it, outlawed the dunk shot. This was like outlawing the home run because Babe Ruth came along, but Abdul-Jabbar, then Lew Alcindor, lived with it. He went to the skyhook. "It ain't sexy — but it counts two," he used to say. Even in the pros, he seemed to be saying "I'll show you — I don't need the dunk." The skyhook became his signature shot, his trademark.
    He scored more points than anyone who ever played the game, 38,387 (43,900 if you count playoffs), and hardly any of them were what the trade calls "garbage points."
    Wilt Chamberlain had 31,419 points in his career but only a handful of them were more than 10 inches long. Laid end to end, Wilt's baskets would probably add up to a half-dozen good three-pointers. Kareem's would stretch across Rhode Island.
    He was almost a force of nature. But he was a team player. He never scored more than 50 points a game. He was never giving a solo out there. He was trying to win games, not trophies. He was not that easy to deal with. He was a man of monumental reserve. He wasn't haughty like a Bill Russell, opinionated like a Wilt Chamberlain, but neither was he a man you came up to clap him on the back and call him "Tiger." Even on court, he had this four-mile stare. He was aloof, suspicious, guarded. He was an only child and he carried this moat of privacy with him wherever he went. No man is an island, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gave it a good shot.
    When he changed his name, it was widely perceived as just another way to slap society in the face and give it a message — he rejected its values. Actually, it proved to be a deeply held religious belief.
    The world left him alone. People have always feared great size. Fairy tales are full of ogres and giants and Gullivers, and Kareem Abdul-Jabar was widely feared to be The-Creature-That-Ate-Basketball.
    He seldom smiled. He scowled a lot. He never courted the press. He was the first out of the locker room after a game. He was polite but no expansive. Television was afraid to ask him tough questions. He didn't inspire the hokey camaraderie. He was hardly everybody's pal.
    The facts of the matter were, he took criticism very well. He was reserved, not egotistical. He treated you the same whether you wrote flattery or censure. He didn't hold grudges. The only time his private life made the papers was when his house burned down or when eight people were killed in a home he owned in Washington, D.C. Religious fanatics are the most dangerous of God's creatures.
    Kareem was as sick about it as the rest of the country.
    The world tried hard to make him like them. The outpouring of gifts in every franchise city when he announced his retirement must have stunned him. It certainly did Doug Moe, a rival coach from Denver.
    "Here's a guy who has been pretty much a jerk his entire life," Moe said bitterly. "He's been one of the least-liked guys in NBA history — by fans, media, players."
    Yet rivals showered him with motorcycles, paintings, jazz collections, Oriental rugs, jukeboxes, sculptures, furniture, sailboats, surfboards — everything but his weight in diamonds. His teammates even gave him a new Rolls Royce.
    "What're they going to give Magic when he retires — Rhode Island?" demands Moe.
    Is Moe right? Or is the rest of the world?
    Well, Abdul-Jabbar showed up for work for 25 years, always on time, always in shape to play, always at the top of the key, the low post, wherever he was wanted. In a world plagued by drugs, alcohol, scandal, he maintained a positive image. You don't have to like him. You have to respect him.
    You're not supposed to be able to play basketball at the age of 42. Golf, maybe. Even baseball. Nolan Ryan can still throw one-hitters.
    But basketball is a game where you get 24 seconds to get up and down a hardwood court all night long. While guys are sticking elbows in your ribs and fingers in your eye and kicks on your shins and shoes on your toes.
    But you watch Kareem in the present playoffs and you have to shake your head. When he's on court, the game subtly changes. A kind of film seems to come over the eyes of the opposing team. Their shoulders slump; they almost start to pant. They get out of their game, lose their rhythm. Their centers get less aggressive, their guards more tentative. Kareem's team, on the other hand, reacts as if the cavalry just arrived. They go into battle singing.
    Around a ractrack when an old stakes horse beats a field of younger but lesser horses, they describe it as "winning on class." This, it seems to me, is what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is doing on his last go-round. Winning on class. Because, never mind that forbidding exterior, it's something he's always had plenty of.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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