WASHINGTON — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is like a ship that has been on a perilous journey. Not merely afloat, this ship is heading strong toward port, its streamers rippling. It has some distance to go, but it's coming in with all its power and a new glory. What a finish!
Less than two weeks ago, the Lakers punctuated their championship season by signing the ever-productive, 7-foot 2-inch Abdul-Jabbar to an unprecedented contract--$5 million for two seasons, including $3 million for 1988-89. By then, he'll be 42 years old; nobody has lived that long--20 seasons--in the National Basketball Assn. He's the NBA equivalent of a 19th-Century survivor who on every winter birthday sticks his foot into the Atlantic.
He's become as charming a story, too. By the time most hard-to-approach athletes mellow, they're long gone--being gone, if not forgotten, helps the mellowing. With Abdul-Jabbar, he's been playing so long, throwing what looks to be an eternal skyhook, that events have changed his view of life as a burden. If this were a tabloid seen in supermarkets, the headline might be, "Kareem Chills Out."
"I don't see the burden as such a problem--the burden has always been there," he said during a visit to Washington this week. "But I can enjoy what I've achieved now instead of resenting the fact that I had the burden.
"I think it's been said that my inability to enjoy my achievements has made it impossible for people to enjoy me. Because I'm having all this success and I have a scowl on my face, and nothing to say, just very inaccessible, standoffish.
"And that's changed. And I think I've benefited from it, and people who've appreciated me as an athlete, they like what they see even more."
The burden of being Abdul-Jabbar always seemed as large and ominous as himself. As a shy, gangly adolescent growing up in New York City, he was the focus of his high school team; he was expected to be more mature than he was--he was unhappy. At UCLA, he again was the reluctant focus--of three national championship teams. He was criticized for refusing to represent the United States in the 1968 Olympics.
Off court, he put himself into the hands of Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, who taught him the tenets of Islam. Later, he became estranged from Abdul-Khaalis over their views of Islam. In 1973, Abdul-Khaalis' family was murdered by Black Muslims in the 16th Street NW house that had been bought by Abdul-Jabbar. In 1977, Abdul-Khaalis and others took over three buildings in Washington. The last time Abdul-Jabbar saw Abdul-Khaalis he was in jail.
In 1983, Abdul-Jabbar's Southern California mansion burned to the ground. "I lost everything I owned. All I had after that fire--I was on a road trip--was what I had in my suitcases.
"I had always seen myself as not being materialistic, and that was quite a test. I learned a lot about myself. I saw that I lost some things, but things don't make your life wonderful. Nobody had gotten hurt." The flames forced the woman he used to live with, Cheryl Pistono, to escape through a window with their 2-year-old son Amir. (A bachelor now, he has three other children from his earlier marriage). It was Pistono who had "challenged" him to view life differently, which prompted his 1984 autobiography, "Giant Steps."
"I think writing it really helped me accept myself," he said, "because I had always assumed that people didn't like me or that people didn't understand me. I had to come to the realization that I was a big part of that; I could change that. And after telling everybody all of my sins and indiscretions, I still had fans out there. That let me know people can accept me with all the bumps and blemishes. At that point, it made it a lot easier to open up to the press."
Pistono helped him mend his relationship with his parents--they are now living with him temporarily while relocating in California--and turned him on to his public. "These people like you," she told him. He began signing autographs, giving interviews, smiling. He can smile almost as broadly as teammate Magic Johnson; while Johnson has dabbled with an Abdul-Jabbar-like hook shot that came to fruition in Boston with a winning shot in the last seconds of the championship series' Game 4, Abdul-Jabbar seems to have observed the width of Johnson's smile.
"She saw what was being written about me and she knew me and she knew they didn't add up," Abdul-Jabbar said. "She just challenged me to try to do something about it because she said it was in my hands to change it. . . . It was more adversarial than anything else. And it didn't have to be. Once I saw that, I changed my attitude, and things got a lot better."
"It seems foolish that it took me 30 years to consider it," Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his book, "but I had been pretty self-absorbed in my little niche. . . . I started looking at faces in the crowd and realizing that there could be lots of friends up there. . . . "