Talking with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Part II
As promised, here's the second part of my interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Like I said in Part I, so much to talk about, so little time. A staggering array of athletic, intellectual, and cultural significance, to say the least. Ridiculous understatement of 2006: "The Captain" has done a little living. But it's better hearing him describe it than me, so let's get right to it.
Andrew Kamenetzky: In terms of your coaching career, it's been a pretty tough road for you to get where you're at, especially for a guy with your credentials. How hard was it to persevere and believe you'd eventually get where you wanted to be?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: For a long time, I thought it wasn't going to happen. And then I had the opportunity in 2002 to coach in the the USBL (the Oklahoma Storm). And everything went the way it was supposed to be. You win a championship (in the first season). I had never been an X and O guy, but I did know how to keep the team together, keep them focused and do the things that they needed to do to win... That really gave me some confidence that I could handle an assignment if I got the opportunity.
AK: You're known for taking a very intellectual approach to life in a way that's different from a lot of sports figures. Did it bother you to see your communication skills questioned on such a level?
KAJ: It bothered me, but a lot of it was my fault. Just because of my whole history. I was just naturally suspicious. That's just something that I had to overcome. I was always felt that the less said, the better. You can't do that. And getting a head coaching job in Oklahoma really helped me see that... You really see how the coach is the interface for so many things. The team with the press. The team with the public. The team against other teams. You're right there in the middle of it and you have to be able to communicate and lead and make sure that certain things happen. That really made me understand what I hadn't been doing.
AK: Has it helped you on a personal level, in relationships outside of basketball?
KAJ: Yeah. I take the time now to deal with people. Before, I felt like I didn't have time and I didn't owe it to them. And I know, for myself, meeting certain people that I admired, the fact that they took the time to talk to me meant so much to me. And I understood that it goes the other way around, too. So it's definitely helped me a lot.
AK: Was there ever a part of you thinking, "Okay, I may not be the most verbal guy in the world, but I am Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. All-time points leader in NBA history. I might just be able to bring a little knowledge to a team."
KAJ: Oh, I always knew that. But teams aren't willing to take a chance and spend a lot of money on someone that's going to be a problem. So I had to get to a point where people had confidence that I could do this.
AK: Have you enjoyed it?
KAJ: So far, so good. It's so different now from when I played in it. It's hard to even imagine that the game is like this. Sometimes I think about how these guys would do traveling on commercial airlines. They're really spoiled. But that's evolution.
AK: Does anything else really stand out in your mind as different in today's game?
KAJ: I think the dilution of talent over such a huge area has made it very difficult for really great teams to really get together and stay together. There's just so many teams. Expansion. There's what, 30 teams now? That's a lot. When I was in high school watching the NBA, there were eight teams. Every team had guys on the bench that were very talented and should have been playing. It's gone from one extreme to the other.
AK: Is a head coaching job in the NBA something you're thinking about for the future?
KAJ: I would love a head coaching opportunity. But right now, I'm still learning a lot. It's been a great experience for me to see Phil Jackson at work and to see how he gets things done. That's been eye-opening and I consider it a privilege that he had the confidence in me to give me this opportunity.
AK: What do you see in Phil's approach that's so unique?
KAJ: Just how he makes the mental cohesion of the team the priority. If that's not there, stepping out on the floor with five talented athletes isn't really going to help you. From day one, he builds that, the whole concept of team, of being a unit. That's very important to him and I think that's one reason why his teams have been so successful... He expects his guys to be more than just athletes. You have to be more than an athlete to be willing to sacrifice for your team. For some individuals, it comes naturally. And other guys have no idea of the concept.
AK: When you were at UCLA, did you feel picked on when the NCAA outlawed the dunk?
KAJ: Of course. It was obviously something that they thought would limit my ability to dominate. It didn't help them very much. They gave it a shot... It didn't mean that much to me at all. The shots that I would have dunked, I made into layups and continued to dominate in all the other ways that I could... They thought they were taking weapon away from me. They didn't take anything away from me.
AK: When did you first start using the sky hook and when did you realize it could be such a weapon for you?
KAJ: Basically, I was in fifth grade when I learned the mechanics of it... And even in the fifth grade, I was the tallest kid in my school. And (I was told), "You're going to be a center. You're going to need to learn this drill." And (I learned) the George Mikan drill, the ambidextrous drill. So I started shooting it... I played against the older kids all the time. And that was the only shot I could use that didn't get smashed back in my face. So I realized the value of it really early in life. And by the time I started high school, it was second nature to me... It was very difficult for people to guard me, because I was ambidextrous.
AK: It's such an effective shot. Why do think it's become something of a lost art in today's NBA?
KAJ: When I learned it, it was going out of style... 50 years ago. People that have watched Dr. J and Michael Jordan, that's what they think basketball should be. Backing somebody down and shooting that shot... it's almost arcane. They don't think it's sexy. So it's fallen by the wayside.
AK: It must be great to see Bynum chomping at the bit to learn it.
KAJ: Right. And (against Miami), he got that dunk against by using moves I taught him, with his back to the basket. Those are things I specifically showed him. They still work... I was so happy. I was like, "Yeah! That's right." I was happy to see him use it at a time when it got very intense emotionally and physically. Every way. He went to the basics and used it and made a statement. He emerged a little bit.
AK: Can you talk a little bit about the documentary you're working on, "On the Shoulders of Giants," about the origins of basketball and how music and basketball shared the same stage and spotlight.
KAJ: It's still in pre-production right now, so I've been told not to say too much about it. We need to go a little bit further down the road... But my dad was a jazz musician. That whole connection is evident to me, because for the young guys, hip hop is the heartbeat of their generation. And it's always been that way.... Things have changed, but they really remain the same, at the same time.
AK: Was there ever jazz music ever running through your head when you were on the court?
KAJ: Certainly. A lot of people. Thelonious Monk John Coltrane. Miles Davis... I met all of those people that I just mentioned. In fact, I used to watch fight films with Miles at his house when he was doing his boxing training.
AK: He used boxing to help himself when he was getting off heroin, correct?
KAJ: Yeah. He trained as a boxer and that was what he did to get his body back up... There was welterweight that he really liked. I forgot his last name. His first name was Johnny. He fought around the same time as Sugar Ray Robinson and he always used to call him "little Sugar Ray." And he had a number of films of him that we liked to watch. And going back to my sophomore year, when we won the NCAA... we would talk.
AK: Did you pick up on a mutual appreciation on their end?
KAJ: Yeah. There were a number of those musicians who were big basketball fans. Lee Morgan. He really liked basketball. They'd see me at clubs and we'd talk. And it was just an honor, because I was coming to see them, and I was so honored just to be there and see them perform. Thelonious (Monk) liked basketball a lot. He died in 1982 and he had watched the Lakers win (a championship). He died in September or October, but he had watched us in the spring. And he was like, "That's Kareem. I know him." I had known him since I was in high school.
AK: You've also had a lot of success with acting. When "Airplane" was made, you had a reputation for being pretty serious. Were you surprised that the Zucker brothers thought you could be funny in a movie?
KAJ: I thought it was great to be able to spoof my image. I was serious about basketball because it was livelihood and something that I took a lot of pride in. I was overly protective of that. That's something that was sacrosanct. But everything else was open for discussion or to be spoofed... It was a fun process. The Zucker brothers had seen me play in when they were in high school. So for them, it was like, they were big "Kareem people." It was a lot of fun doing it.
AK: Have you enjoyed acting in general?
KAJ: Yeah, I have. But they don't write roles for seven footers. I've had to (go) to other end of it and trying to develop things. One of my history books, "Black Profiles in Courage," is something I'd like to get done as a documentary, especially for black history month. It illuminated the contributions of black Americans to American life. That's something I'd like to get done eventually. It's still timely.
AK: Did your friendship and training with Bruce Lee help you with your approach to basketball, either mentally or physically?
KAJ: Oh, definitely. Bruce, more or less, backed up what I had learned from John Wooden. The whole thing about being prepared and understanding your own skills. What you have to offer and what you don't have to offer. Channeling to your approach to everything specific. It was just an echo of John Wooden, from Hong Kong as opposed to Indiana. You have to be committed. You have to be prepared. You have to be willing to sacrifice to be totally prepared. To be in shape and understand the nature of competition. And he wanted to do that.
AK: How did you guys meet?
KAJ: I studied a little martial arts between my sophomore and junior years in New York. And when I came back out to L.A., I wanted to continue my studies. So I went to a gentleman that was publishing a martial arts magazine and I said, "Where can I go to study? I'm out there at UCLA." And he said, "Bruce Lee lives out there." And I was a little put off, because I had started the aikido, which is the Japanese style. And Bruce did Chinese style, so I was gonna have to start over. But he said, "No, no. Bruce is really unique, because it's an eclectic style. You should go have a talk with him." I called him and he invited me over to his house. We talked and immediately got be friends. And he liked the fact that I was a trained athlete coming through the door. It wasn't like I had to get in shape. And I was easily won over by the logic and approach to his style. We were friends from that day on.
AK: I had read somewhere that you wore # 33 as a tribute to the age Lee was when he died. Is that true?
KAJ: No. My wearing of #33 was a tribute to Mel Triplett, fullback for the New York Giants... We got new uniforms when I was in the 7th grade. And I was a football fan and Mel Triplett played in the backfield with Frank Gifford. He was basically the blocker. But he was my favorite player and he wore #33.
AK: Over the course of a career, you've reached a rare iconic status and recognition level. How has that been to deal with, on a personal level?
KAJ: It can be tough sometimes. People always want something and they want you to take time with something. And sometimes I don't have time. But I take more time now, even if it has to be where I have to explain that I don't have time. But I appreciate it a lot more now, so I understand that I do have to take the time, because I've affected their lives. There needs to be some kind of exchange. So that's how I try to deal with it. I try to be patient and realize that there's a responsibility there.
I don't have a lot of moments of anonymity that a lot of people that have reached my status (do). Al Pacino can put on a baseball cap and some shades and people won't know it's him. I don't have that luxury... I do a lot better now.
AK: I imagine it's a lot better being able to enjoy it more now.
KAJ: Just to get back a little bit. I didn't understand that responsibility (before). And like I said, I've paid for my lack of attention in that area. But hopefully, things are getting better.
(photo by Reed Saxon/AP)