Lakers Q&A: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 'I don't expect my relationship with the team to continue beyond this point'
Below is a Q&A with former Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who in an interview with the Sporting News expressed feeling "slighted" and "highly offended" over not having a statue honoring him outside Staples Center. Abdul-Jabbar finished as the NBA's all-time leading scorer, won six NBA titles (five of them with the Lakers), made history with his legendary sky hook and established himself, in the opinion of many, as the best center of all time. Abdul-Jabbar addresses that issue with the L.A. Times' Lakers blog and why there are other reasons he feels the Lakers' organization has disrespected him.
Since your interview with the Sporting News was published highlighting the fact that you felt slighted about not having a statue, what has been the reaction?
Most people have been surprised in their reaction to how I have been treated. It’s gone on for so long, I couldn’t really continue not to address the issue. I was interviewed by the Sporting News and they mentioned it in passing that they had seen me at the unveiling of Jerry West’s statue and they asked, “Where’s your statue?” I said, I don’t know. I’ve been told that I was going to get one by Mr. [Tim] Leiweke, but that was a couple of years ago. Nothing more had been said about it. He could tell I was annoyed by it and that’s how it got out there in the Sporting News. Once people started to know about it, I had to address the issue.
You tweeted last night, “It’s not about a getting a statue because I'm over it - its about RESPECT! Lakers have given me the absolute minimum of respect.” In what ways have you felt that?
When I decided I wanted to try coaching, the Lakers were one of the first people I contacted, and they had no interest in me as a coach. The reason I got the shot with coaching the Lakers is because Andrew Bynum said he thought he could learn from me. [Lakers General Manager] Mitch Kupchak mentioned it to Phil [Jackson]. Phil said, ‘That’s probably a good idea.’ That’s how it came around. If Andrew hadn’t said what he said, I wouldn’t have gotten a shot at it.
Have you talked with the Lakers since the interview was published?
I got a call last night from Linda Rambis. She called [my publicist] and told her my statue will be the next statue. That’s what she said. They’re trying to deal with this and put it behind us.
Did they specify a date?
Why have you sounded fairly skeptical about it?
The reason I felt skeptical about it is I heard this before from Tim Leiweke. The next statue was Chick Hearn and then Jerry West. It gives me pause there.
Lakers spokesman John Black told the Sporting News that any delay in your statue just pointed to the overall logistical nature of it. When the team announced Jerry West would get the statue, Lakers Executive Vice President Jeanie Buss told me you'd be the "natural fit" to be the next Laker with a statue. The way they explain this is, it’s more of a logistical issue than any slighting of you.
I don’t know enough of that from the inside. I’m on the outside. I can’t address that because I have no real accurate knowledge, and I don’t want to speculate on that.
Back to your views about feeling disrespected, besides the coaching opportunity, how else do you feel the Lakers have disrespected you?
A couple years ago, they told me they had to drastically reduce my salary. They told me I had to take a pay cut at a time they’re paying Phil $12 million a year. To me, paying Phil really well and they can’t afford to pay me, I wasn’t anything close to that. It’s hard to believe."
When was this?
Two years ago.
When you were a special assistant coach for Andrew?
Did they indicate any reason for that?
They just said they couldn’t pay me. I had to take a pay cut. I had just discovered leukemia at that point [in 2009]. The whole issue of my health insurance was very much on my mind, so I stuck around that point just for that reason.
How did your terms change?
There’s certain terms in my contract that I can’t discuss specifics of it. I don’t want to impeach that. The general outline of it was I had to take a drastic cut in pay. At the same time, that’s about the time they signed their ESPN Radio deal for $9 million, and they’re paying Phil $10 million to $12 million. I had to take a drastic cut in my pay. It was a bit disappointing to me. But I dealt with it because I needed my insurance at that point.
Was your role reduced as a special assistant or was the amount of time the same?
The amount of time was the same, but at that point, Andrew was coming into his own. He really was doing better and they felt they got everything they needed from me and I was expendable.
You tweeted to a fan, “I don't think at this point this can be rectified as this is the first time I have ever made my feelings public. Moving on.” Why can’t it be rectified?
The relationship is fractured. I said I got a call from Linda Rambis saying I will definitely have a statue out there. But there’s going to be a strike or a lockout, so the Lakers are clearing the deck. I don’t expect my relationship with the team to continue beyond this point. They don’t really value my presence there like they value other people. That’s fairly obvious. I can only speculate to what that’s about, but if you look at how they’ve dealt with Magic over the years and how they’ve dealt with me, there’s a big disparity.
During my playing career, I was essential to their success on the court so it was a different set of circumstances. They paid me well, and I thought I was valuable to them. When it got to the point where I was not a factor with what happened on the court, their need to be close to me or have me involved drastically changed. I kept to myself. I didn’t hang out with Dr. Buss. I didn’t have any animosity toward him, and I respected his space, and he more or less respected my space. But my lifestyle was my lifestyle. I focused on different things. Maybe that had affected how they dealt with me.
How would you characterize how fans have reacted toward you about this?
The fan support has been awesome. Overwhelmingly, they were on my side in terms of what I deserve. I remember when I announced I had leukemia, all the fans I’d see out on the street when I was out shopping or I was running errands, they all came up to me and said they were praying for me. It was tremendous support. The Lakers have felt different about it. Mitch absolutely expressed his concerns [about my disease]. He wanted to know specifically what I was going through, and I told him, and he said, I hope you beat it, and he was very supportive. But it seems like I’m on the outside. It really bothers me. The fans have been awesome. That’s why I say the statue doesn’t matter because I know in the minds and hearts of Laker fans, they appreciate me and think there’s no need for a statue as far as they’re concerned. They all know what I meant to the team, and I appreciate it.
But you have said the statue matters to you, and there is some sentiment from fans who think you’re overreacting to all of this, stating that having to wait to have a statue after Chick Hearn, Magic Johnson and Jerry West isn't a slight. Some have also said the nature in which you expressed your frustration over not having a statue sounded like sour grapes.
I understand that. But they had no idea on the background of my relationship with the Lakers. I thought I was gaining opportunities to coach Andrew. I did the best job I could. I got Andrew ready. I thought I was absolutely showing my value to the team and that I’d be treated better. Then all of the things I mentioned to you earlier, I didn’t get any of the perks or any of the playoff shares. They made me feel totally on the outside there. It’s a shame because those were my best professional years there as a player.
The Sporting News' interview quoted John Black making this statement about your contract regarding playoff shares: “He does have a provision in his contract where he does get a playoff bonus … [and has] for the last six years. But his title is special assistant coach; he’s not a full-time assistant coach and never has been. Brian Shaw, Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Chuck Person are assistant coaches. Kareem is not, nor has he ever been, one of those. … I’m not at liberty to discuss the amount, but Kareem’s playoff bonuses are a negotiated part of his contract.” Were you aware of the terms regarding your contract?
I wasn’t aware of that when I signed my contract. When I played, all the coaches on the coaching staff got a playoff share. Two years went by, and I didn’t get a playoff share. So I brought the issue up and then [was told] what you just mentioned that I was a special assistant coach and wasn’t eligible for it. That was news to me. I wasn’t aware of that. They told me I didn’t negotiate for it. I told them, I didn’t know I had to negotiate for it. I thought they would look out for me in that way, but they didn’t. It underlines the fact that they really didn’t care. That’s something that didn’t concern them at all.
Moving forward, do you have any interest in holding any position with the Lakers?
I don’t think that is a possibility at all. It’s not an issue I want to pursue. I want to move on. My movie ["On the Shoulders of Giants"] is doing very well. It’s going to be infinitely streamed into Netflix tomorrow. Everybody who has seen the movie had a good review of it. It’s something I hope to pursue.
Lastly, you said you made progress with your battle with leukemia. How are you doing right now?
I’m in total remission. The doctors tell me if I continue to do what they tell me to do, I will stay in remission. That’s a really good thing. They said if I had this 15 years ago, it would’ve been a death sentence. Now I get a chance to hang around for a little bit longer. That’s wonderful. I’m very thankful for the medical profession and all the people who have given their prayers and support.
-- Mark Medina
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Photos, from top: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Boston Celtics' Robert Parrish in a Dec. 11, 1987, matchup. Credit: Carol Francavilla / Associated Press. Abdul-Jabbar and James Donaldson of the Dallas Mavericks in a 1988 playoff game. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press