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Bill Plaschke / NBA ALL-STAR GAME

Kareem Looks for His Shot Again

February 15, 2004|Bill Plaschke

The Invisible Giant walks quickly through a crowded Staples Center tunnel Friday, no flashing bulbs, no entourage, no reason to stay.

"The league seems to have turned its back on me," he says.

The Invisible Giant looks around at the All-Stars headed for parties, the legends heading for TV gigs, the flunkies streaming around him as if he were a lamppost, and shrugs.

"There just doesn't seem to be a place for me in basketball," he says.

It's as odd as a giant wearing goggles, as uncomfortable as guarding the sky hook.

The NBA's all-time leading scorer, on the NBA's all-time biggest weekend, in his own backyard, is very much alone.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Remember him?

He showed up last week at the unveiling of a statue in front of Staples Center.

Both he and Magic Johnson won five Laker championships, yet the statue was of Magic.

He showed up again at a career celebration at the Shrine Auditorium.

Nobody in league history had a statistically better career than Abdul-Jabbar, but the night was for Magic.

"Magic was more than a basketball player," Abdul-Jabbar says. "I just did my job and went home."

Now, 15 years after retirement, there is no job, there is only home.

Abdul-Jabbar was in the background at the statue, offstage at the Shrine, buried on the bench as an honorary coach during the rookie-sophomore game, a sidekick on the dunk contest's judging panel.

While several of his Showtime teammates are in television or on NBA benches, Abdul-Jabbar is writing books and wondering.

He wants to be a coach, but his only full seasons of coaching have occurred on an Indian reservation and in the U.S. Basketball League.

He wants to be appreciated as one of the great players ever -- folks, he was the greatest -- but does anybody even mention him in the same breath as Michael Jordan?

"It saddens me," Magic Johnson said. "Yes, he's in the background, but not just this weekend but just in basketball, period."

And why?

Because he is being held to a standard that, if applied to athletes today, would result in the blackballing of approximately half of the professional sports world.

Folks don't think Abdul-Jabbar is a nice guy.

And he agrees that sometimes he wasn't.

He wasn't always accommodating with the public. He wasn't often kind to reporters.

If there were a statue erected of Abdul-Jabbar, it would feature a warily cocked head and eyes that looked right through you.

In some young stars of today, this is considered cool.

With a gray-whiskered guy like Abdul-Jabbar, it has made him unemployable.

"I did not connect with fans, I realize that now," he says. "It was part of my personality. I was shy. I didn't like the attention. It was a mistake."

Plopped in the middle of the gregarious Showtime family, this personality was more than a mistake, it was post-career fatality.

For one glorious decade, while all around him were laughing, Abdul-Jabbar was scowling, and he has been paying for it ever since.

"It was my fault," he says. "And now I have to live with it."

*

Remember, in 1979, when Abdul-Jabbar made the winning shot in San Diego in Magic Johnson's first game as a pro?

Remember how Johnson grabbed the big fella and danced around as if they had just won the championship?

Remember what Abdul-Jabbar did next?

He pushed the kid away. He scolded him. He said, "We still have 81 more of these to play."

That image followed Abdul-Jabbar throughout a career in which he was the curmudgeon on a team full of cut-ups.

Abdul-Jabbar could be so difficult, even the late Chick Hearn was rarely thrilled to interview him.

"I missed an opportunity to make a lot of friends, I realize that now," Abdul-Jabbar says. "I didn't think it was part of my job. Maybe it was. That was my mistake."

A local reporter once retrieved a forgotten overcoat and brought it cross-country to Abdul-Jabbar at the All-Star game in New York.

When Abdul-Jabbar failed to thank him immediately, another reporter turned it into a story.

His legend for surliness grew, and, by the time he retired, the NBA had seemingly made a decision.

"I took about three years off because I was burned out," he remembers. "Then when I tried to get back in the game, it was too late. Nobody would have me."

He wants to coach big men, but some say he can't communicate with big men.

He wants to run a team, but some say he could never handle the public scrutiny.

"I know why nobody will hire him," one general manager says. "But I'm not saying."

He landed on the Clipper bench several years ago, for a few months as an assistant coach working with Michael Olowokandi. But Olowokandi wouldn't listen, the Clippers changed head coaches after the season and Abdul-Jabbar, though some say his demeanor had improved, was out of a job.

He hasn't had a serious interview with an NBA team since.

And, no, since his retirement, perhaps the best player in Laker history has never worked one day for the Lakers.

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