Talking with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Part I
Wow. Where to begin this introduction? 38,387 points? 3 NCAA titles? 6 NBA titles, matching the league MVP tallies? 50 Greatest Players status and HOF membership? Or just the classic "Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes." Any way you slice it, summarizing the career of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar into a neat little paragraph is no walk in the park.
Fortunately, that won't be necessary, since "The Captain" was kind enough to put much of it into his words for the blog. I sat down with Abdul-Jabbar last week (Brian needed to be in San Fran for an ESPN The Magazine assignment we're working on) and discussed everything from Andrew Bynum's potential to Kareem's friendship with Bruce Lee. Needless to say, I wasn't hurting for questions to ask. Here is the first of two parts.
Andrew Kamenetzky: Well, your pupil Andrew Bynum had a heck of a night against Miami.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah. He got intense and he rose to the occasion. I was happy to see him respond like the way he did. I thought it was real competent and competitive response.
AK: How's he progressing thus far, in your mind? Before the season started, there was talk about him spending time in the NBDL and he's actually been capable in spurts of getting actual minutes. Is he further along than you guys thought when you drafted him?
KAJ: I don't know what the thinking was when they took him, because he got here before I did. But I certainly think he's starting to reach that point where he can handle the minutes. I don't know how quickly they want to bring him along, and that's totally up to Phil, Mitch and those guys. But he's learning the things that he needs to learn and I think it's good for him that there's not all that pressure on him to come in and be the savior right away.
AK: What specifically are you looking to work on with him, at this level?
KAJ: Basically, right now, we're just doing mechanics. And I try to get as much context that I can, but until he can get into the game and play and see what it's like on the court, that's difficult. We can set up things in practice more or less mimicking real situations. But it's not the real thing... But that's (still) good, because it gets him thinking about the reality of it. And when it occurs during game time and he's in there, he's shown that his responses are definitely improved.
AK: What do you see right now as his strengths and weaknesses?
KAJ: He hasn't had to try to stop anybody that's a real capable scorer for a whole game. He hasn't had a lot of game experience. I don't think he played a complete high school season. So he hasn't played a whole season yet... Rising to the occasion against various obstacles is still something that he has to learn and experience before he can be considered a real pro. But he's getting the basic mechanics down, and by being able to sit on the bench and see what happens, the learning experience is taking place.
I expect him to be a good shot blocker. He enjoys the challenge of trying to be a good defensive player. And that's good. You have to have a hunger for that. That's not something that just comes. Most guys just want to score. But he does have a desire to be an effective defensive player... He wants to help his teammates. I told them that his primary job after stopping his man is to prevent layups. And he has to learn how to respond to that situation, what the priorities are. It can be confusing at times, when you have to make a choice. You've got to go help and leave your guy open to take the layup away. That's what the team game is about. When he does that, he's supposed to get help from other guys, to help shut down his man that he leaves to block the layup. So we have to work on that in practice and then he has to experience that in the game.
AK: How has he been to coach?
KAJ: He's great. As far as I'm concerned, he was sent from heaven, in terms of his attitude. He's willing to learn and understands that he needs to learn some things. He's not hostile to what I have to say. He's willing to try. And that's all I can expect.
AK: Is that quality a rare commodity with young players?
KAJ: I think it is today, because a lot of them aren't used to being coached. (The way) most kids today learn the game today, they watch things and then they go out and try it themselves instead of being coached at grade school and high school, let alone college. And they come to the pros.
AK: Along those lines, Bynum is the last of the high school kids. Were you in favor of the age limit?
KAJ: Yeah, I was. I think it's real tough to take someone from high school and put them in a situation where they have to deal with professional adults. I just thought of what I would have gone through if I was 18 trying to come into the NBA. I don't think I could have done that. I'm very happy
that I went and had the experience at UCLA. It was the perfect transition for me as a human being and as an athlete. I think it's something that these guys miss out on.
AK: How closely have you worked with Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown?
KAJ: I work with Chris intermittently. He's a vet, so he has a little bit more leeway. Kwame really sees himself as a face up player, so he hasn't come to me very often for advice. But with Chris, it's not really about the mechanics. He's got all the mechanics down. He just didn't know how to use his talents as a big man. All of his coaches, and Chris has been coached (this way), they figured someone his size with guard skills is going to be great. Consequently, he's trying to use guard skills in a place where they're not effective. He's always trying to get the ball through the defense close to the basket and he gets stripped a lot. He gets his shot blocked because he's playing the game at the wrong level. Once I got him thinking about playing the game (up high), where seven footers have their advantage, he's picking it a step up now. He's shooting his hook shot now. He's got confidence. He's shooting it right and left handed. He's presenting a much greater problem for the defenses by drawing the attention that he does. He's helping the other guys out on the perimeter.
AK: Have you spoken with him about his issue with picking up fouls? It seems to me that his effectiveness is almost purely dictated by the amount of minutes he can stay on the floor.
KAJ: And the whims of the officials. He gets jobbed by the officials a lot. That's one thing that annoys me, because I don't think he gets a fair call from the officials a lot of the time. But I've worked with him on a few things. Just with positioning and where to be. And that's helped him a little bit. He can block shots. He just has to figure out where he needs to be and when to choose to go or stay. Situational things still are a problem for him.
AK: Is it along the lines of what some people call "reputation fouls?"
KAJ: Yeah. I think some of it has to do with that. He rarely gets the benefit of the doubt... I think it's gotten a little bit better these last few games. And I think that once he achieves just a little more success, he'll start getting the benefit of some of those calls.
AK: Since coming back from the injury, Kwame's been having a bit more success. He seems more confident and his defensive presence is getting a lot of attention. Do you notice anything different in him when he came back?
KAJ: I think his focus has certainly improved. And in terms of concrete results, the offensive rebounds and the defensive presence. He's keeping guys out of the lane and the other team from getting offensive rebounds. He's getting a little more aggressive in trying to score. I think that's the last area that he could show more improvement in. But he hasn't hurt the team. That's they key. For a while there, he was hurting us with turnovers and not taking shots when he's had the opportunity... The guys, I think they believe in him. And that certainly helps.
AK: You dealt throughout your career with the label of being "aloof" or "distant." And Kobe has had to deal with it, too. You've both been in the position of having to lead a team while dealing with that reputation. Have you talked with Kobe at all about the challenge of getting past it, winning over people, teammates, the media, etc.?
KAJ: No, I haven't had a chance to talk with him about that. I certainly relate to him because the press can be merciless. And for someone in his position, where so often success or failure is on your shoulders, that makes him even more of a lightning rod. But I think he's trying to handle it in a good way. I think he's turned a corner, because he's basically a good human being. He's not a bad guy. I think his basic essence will be known at a certain point. He'll be able to show, through example, what he wants to show the public.
AK: Is it hard finding that balance between maintaining your privacy and letting in the fans and public a bit about who you are?
KAJ: It was difficult for me because in college, I was always told not to talk to the press. That was a problem. I had that mindset. And it was hard for me to overcome. It took a long time before I got a grasp of it. And after I retired and had a chance to deal with it, I realized how I had affected people's lives. I had no idea.
AK: What do you mean, specifically?
KAJ: How much people enjoyed what I did. What they were willing to share with me. Just like, the people that I've admired in my lifetime, when I've gotten to meet them, what a pleasure it is to be around them. I didn't understand that I also had affected people that way and that's what it was all about. I always saw it like they were trying to pry. I was way too suspicious and I paid a price for it.
AK: That leads into another question. There was the horrible incident in 1983 when your house burnt down. All these fans started bringing you albums and different items to help replace what you had lost. Was that a real eye opener for you in terms of realizing the effect you had?
KAJ: Yeah. That really confirmed everything. And when Earvin got with the team and we started winning, all of a sudden, it was good press now. We had won a world championship and then that happened, and I saw that it extended to me. It wasn't just about Earvin and the fact that he could smile and deal with it in his way. He was very comfortable with it. And that was a big step in a continuing process.
To this day, I'm amazed that me just doing my job, something that I love, can engender that kind of support and affection. It's a pretty amazing process.
AK: You just mentioned Magic. People always talk about Lamar and his all-around game. Do you think they're asking Odom to pull something of a "Magic," flirting with a triple double every game?
KAJ: I talk to Lamar a lot, because I coached him when I was with the Clippers in 2000. I know Lamar pretty well. What I tell Lamar is, "Don't even worry about the stats." This team needs a leader. They need somebody to lead them out on the court. Kobe doesn't lead like that. Lamar has this unique personality and skills where he can be a team leader because he does so many things. He's like a Swiss army knife. He blocks shots. Rebounds. Assists. He can score. He's really a multi-faceted player. He's upbeat and he's emotional. They need an emotional leader like that... He has some competitive fire. I'm happy to see him emerge that way.
AK: The team is doing a lot better than many of the naysayers had predicted before the start of the season. Are you surprised at all that they've been this competitive?
KAJ: I'm not surprised. I thought that if we could get some kind of consistent play in the front court that we'd do well. If we didn't get consistent play from guys like Kwame and Chris, it was going to be a tough, long season because the crucial area of the game is right there in front of the basket. But they've risen to the occasion, them and Lamar, and it's made a big difference.
AK: What do you think the team needs to improve on if they want to guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs?
KAJ: If they get the ability to be a very good defensive team, that will take them a long way. At this point, they don't understand the concept as well as they need to. But they're learning. And when that gets to be a key issue for them as a group, they'll definitely take a step forward. (Defending) the pick and rolls and getting rebounds. A lot of loose balls that they don't get. Those drive me up the wall.
AK: What makes the pick and roll so hard to defend? Everybody runs it, so you would think defending it would be second nature. Yet it's so effective.
KAJ: Because there's always a little variation in the guys that are trying to perform it and the two guys that are defending against it. If there's any lack of attention to certain details, a good offensive player is going to take advantage of it. If somebody's a little slow or if they get lazy and they play way behind it, the offensive player can just pull up short, shoot the J. Or fake that, get the defense to over commit and then get the defense to break down by attacking the hoop. It's a game of little details.
AK: It's a bread and butter play, so you'd think there'd be a bread and butter defense for it.
KAJ: Sometimes the butter doesn't get across the whole slice. It exposes something.
AK: During the Showtime era, there were always reports of you and Magic not getting along at times, or not being particularly close. But it never blew up the way things did for Shaq and Kobe. Is that the result of you guys handling it differently? A different media age?
KAJ: Well, first of all, we never had any personal animosity. Magic's family more or less kind of adopted me. Magic's mother is a Seventh-Day Adventist and they're kind of a lot like Muslims in that they don't eat pork and stuff. When I first met her, we talked about that. And she said, "Well, I'm gonna take care of you every time you come through Michigan." And she always cooked for me. I felt like a part of their family. There's a generational gap, of course, but that was it. I was older and mature than Earvin. But in terms of our personal relationship, there was never any problem. There was never any animosity going on there. And professionally, he thought it was his job to get the ball to the scorers. Hey, I don't have any problems with that. So professionally, absolutely, there was no problems. And personally, there was no problems. There was the gap there because I had different interests. That's all there was. I think people would try to find something there that did not exist.
AK: Do you think the misconception came from you guys not buddying it up together at clubs or something?
KAJ: Probably. A lot of times, we'd be on the road, we'd often go to the movies together. I enjoy film and it's something in common that we had. We didn't like the same kind of music, but Earvin is a music fan, just like I am. Different era, different types. But there's nothing there that was a "problem."
AK: Did you guys ever joke about it, like "I guess we're not getting along, apparently." You must have been aware people were saying this.
KAJ: I wasn't aware of it personally because we had never any issues come to a head. I had the team over to my house once in a while for a meal and Earvin did the same thing. As I mentioned, we traveled in the Midwest to Earvin's mom and siblings. I got to know his family. I thought it went pretty well.
AK: After you had retired and you started hearing that it was "common knowledge" that the two of you didn't get along, were you taken for a loop?
KAJ: Yeah. I don't know where that came from. I have no idea where that came from, because there were never any incidents. The one incident was the game that I won in San Diego, his first professional game. I hit the shot and (he was all over me). And I told him, "Look man. We got 81 more games." But we laughed about it. It wasn't a thing where I had some type of hostile reaction to it. What I was saying was, "we can't go through these emotional ups and downs for 81 more games. We'll be a mess." What I learned in all that was it's okay to have fun and enjoy the moment. So there was an exchange there. It wasn't a conflict. It was just an exchange.
AK: How great a luxury was it to play with a guy like Magic?
KAJ: Hey, I was blessed twice, because I got to play with Oscar (Robertson) and then with Earvin. They are two of the best. Ever. How can anybody complain about being that lucky twice in your career to play with kind of excellence in the backcourt?
You have to be a team. We had great guys on this team. Jamaal Wilkes. Norm Nixon played on the championship team. Myself. But we weren't a complete team. And Earvin's skills and leadership was something that we needed in that position or we weren't going to make it to the top. He completed the picture. If you take any of those pieces away... Look what happened when I left the team. He didn't get to play for the world championship again, because I was also a key factor. So we appreciated each other that way. You know you can't make it unless all the pieces are in place.
AK: When Magic arrived, did you have a sense that the final piece was now in place?
KAJ: (In) training camp. I could tell. Jack McKinney was so savvy in figuring out how to use him. He had him figured out and the offense definitely ran. And our defensive schemes really enabled us to dominate immediately. I made it possible for Earvin to play in the backcourt defensively, because if he got beat, I wasn't letting people get layups. I was still a very effective shot blocker and taking the lane away from the defense. And if he got beat, with his size and rebounding skills, he could go find the center and keep the center occupied, so the center wasn't gonna be able to take advantage of me leaving him to take away the layup opportunity and plug the lane. That was the key to our defensive scheme. People haven't really talked about it that much. We really were able to compliment each other that way. It made problems for the other team's offense.
AK: Those Showtime era teams were so ridiculously deep with talent. How did you go about keeping a championship as the focus, without egos getting in the way?
KAJ: I have to give credit to Jerry West for just picking the right guys. Guys who had the right attitude and right background in knowing what team play was about. One draft, we could have gotten Dominque Wilkins, Terry Cummings, or James Worthy. Jerry picked the right guy. Now, of those three guys, if you picked Dominique, nobody would be screaming, "You screwed up!" Nobody's gonna say that. But Jerry picked the right guy for us. Again, we were blessed to have Jerry in our position and he knew what he was doing... James was absolutely the right guy.
AK: How does being a part of a team that strong and unified feel?
KAJ: It feels natural, like this is what something is supposed to be like. Like you feel when you're with your siblings or parents. This is a natural unit... We felt like that. Our professional desires were so similar that it was family.
AK: Having been a part of that, does it puzzle you to see teams squabbling over who gets the credit, stats, glory?
KAJ: Again, I think that's something that's a direct result of the lack of opportunities for people to go to a university and be coached and figure out what that's about. Figure out a few things about life before they become professional athletes.
AK: Was there a particular title during the Showtime era that stood out to you as the most special?
KAJ: 1985. The Lakers were 0-8 against the Celtics in World Championship play at that point. Plus, we had lost the year before that really left something sticking in our throat that needed to be cleared. Absolutely 1985.
(photo by Lori Shepler/LAT)