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Now, More Than Ever, A Winner

Dec. 23, 1985
Dec. 23, 1985

Table of Contents
Dec. 23, 1985

Pro Football
Sports '85
Sportsman Of The Year
College Basketball
Photo Credits: Brian Lanker Archives

Now, More Than Ever, A Winner

For 20 years of enduring excellence and a championship season that ranks among his greatest, SI honors Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the traditional amphora given the Sportsman of the Year

Day by day, the echoes inside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's month-old house were dying. First his books and albums and Oriental rugs had arrived, followed by his paintings and furniture, then his children and their toys, and his mother and father. He draped himself across a sheet-covered couch and grinned. Two-twenty p.m. on an autumn Monday in the moneyed Los Angeles enclave of Bel Air could linger as long as it wanted. For the first time since he was a child he didn't want to be anywhere but the time and place he was in.

This is an article from the Dec. 23, 1985 issue Original Layout

How strange and good this felt. For the last 25 years it had always seemed he was marking time, not living it. When he was in high school he wished he was in college; in college he wished he was in the pros. In Milwaukee he missed the sunshine of Los Angeles; in Los Angeles he yearned for the jazz clubs and interesting people of his native New York City; in New York City he sought freedom from his parents and his past. He married and wanted to be single; he entered the arena and wanted to be alone.

His face reflected this discomfort—unlike many people who want to be somewhere or someone else, he would never mask it. He has made more field goals, 13,930 as of Dec. 15, scored more points (33,754), blocked more shots (2,815) and won more MVP trophies (six) than anybody in NBA history, yet his inability to enjoy the moment became our inability to enjoy him.

An unusual thing happened just as his career was about to die. Abdul-Jabbar didn't want it to. He wanted to go on living in his city, in his house and with his family, and he kept signing short-term contracts to extend his basketball life. He was prolonging the moment instead of shedding it, sensing the sacredness of each passing increment of time.

"Happiness may still come and go, but now I have inner peace, and that stays," he says. "I'm looking forward to life after basketball, but I'm in no hurry to move on to the next phase. I was talking to a girl in my yoga class about how I'm dealing now with celebrity and fans. She said, 'Oh, so you've decided to ride that horse the way it is going.' "

He rose from the couch. His mom was in the kitchen plotting a Thanksgiving Day meal, his dad in the hallway directing two men hauling in a piece of late-arriving furniture. He went upstairs to search for something, whistling a jazz tune. Two-thirty-five was a nice moment to live in, too.

Why judge anymore? When a man has played for 17 years, broken records, won championships, endured tremendous criticism and responsibility, why judge? Let's toast him now. Let's toast him as the greatest player ever."

A few hours after Pat Riley, the Los Angeles Lakers' coach, raised his water glass in that tribute last month, Abdul-Jabbar stepped onto the court in Denver and scored 32 points, almost single handedly wrenching the fate of the game from men 15 years his junior. The wonder that he was still playing had been eclipsed by the wonder that he was playing as well as or better than ever.

Last season, Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers in scoring for the 10th time in his 10 years with the club (22.0 points per game), had his most rebounds since 1982-83 and most points since 1981-82 and achieved the second-highest shooting percentage (.599) of his career. After the Lakers' embarrassing 148-114 loss in Game 1 of last spring's NBA championship series, in which he had looked as tired and dispirited as one might expect a 38-year-old player to look, he had shocked the Boston Celtics and the cynics by playing five of the most intense games of his life, capturing his fourth championship trophy and his second playoff MVP award. While doing this he laughed and shouted his joy, capturing America.

"Six or seven years ago I thought he was not a good player," admits Denver coach Doug Moe. "He didn't seem to have the interest—he wasn't there. He's 10 times better now; he hasn't played any better in his career than in the last two years. He's 38, and he's a bitch."

What has kept the fire burning into a record 17th NBA winter? Part of it is his new acceptance of the world, part the world's new acceptance of him. For a decade and a half, Abdul-Jabbar was so effortlessly talented and tall that nothing he did on a basketball court could really impress us. Then age made him seem human and every skyhook became a fresh wonder. He had defied the mechanism of buildup and teardown through which America feeds its celebrities. Warm ovations greeted him; like a plant too long deprived of light, Abdul-Jabbar relished this late-autumn sunshine.

It could be argued that what he was doing was more extraordinary than what geriatrics such as Pete Rose were doing in baseball, or what George Blanda did in football. He was not a specialist performing a single function—kicking a field goal or hitting a single—but a 38-year-old man dominating in perhaps the most physically demanding team sport.

"As a player," says Riley, "all that remains for him now is to become known as the catalyst for the greatest team ever."

"As a person," says Abdul-Jabbar's friend Rod McGrew, a former jazz disc jockey, “everything in his life is finally coming together. This may not be grammatically correct, but he's about to have the greatest rest of his life of anyone you could imagine."

On a cruelly cold night in Portland, Ore. last month, Abdul-Jabbar stood inside the doorway of a restaurant waiting for a taxi, hemmed in by who and what he is. Three women shivered outside, waiting to intercept him. On his right, every bar stool had spun 180 degrees so the customers could gawk, one of them pulling a chair to within a few feet of him, mounting it and squinting at him, trying to comprehend existence at that altitude. One diner boomed, "That's Jabbar, I know it is, that's Jabbar!" while another pestered him for a prediction on the next night's Laker-Trail Blazer game.

The hostess took pity. "Why don't you come back here behind me?" she suggested, motioning to the empty corner behind the hostess stand.

"No thanks," he said. "I'm all right here."

Could anyone understand all the mistakes and inner pain, all the loneliness that had to be lived through in order to evolve to this simple sentence: "I'm all right here"? The story of Abdul-Jabbar is a backward cliché, American fame in reverse. Isn't one supposed to arrive in Hollywood innocent and carefree, ride the wheel of fame and fortune, then climb off it bitter and isolated? Abdul-Jabbar had come to Los Angeles already sullen and wary as a UCLA freshman at 18, slowly unloaded his anxieties during the ride and was far more like a little boy as he was about to get off the wheel than he had been when he stepped on.

Ever since the great hormonal cataclysm of puberty, Abdul-Jabbar had felt among people like a man from another planet, had stewed in the self-consciousness that came with being 7'2", black and an object. He was the person who sat on the edge of every crowd, noticing the mud on one man's shoes or the nervous tic under another's left eye, always observing and analyzing the moment because he could not let go and live it. After having coffee with a female classmate whom he genuinely liked, he could not understand why he could barely bring himself to speak with her again. Reporters approached him with mindless questions and often found themselves staring into the small of his back. His retreat had to be greater than that of other alienated men because people kept coming at him with schemes and requests. They wouldn't leave him alone on the periphery to work out his pain.

On Jan. 31, 1983, while Abdul-Jabbar was with the Lakers in Boston, a fire started in some wiring behind one of the walls of his eight-room Bel Air home. The call to the fire department went out quickly enough to have saved the house, but its fireproof roof, designed to prevent outside flames from penetrating to within, had the opposite effect, turning the house into a raging furnace. Cheryl Pistono, the woman he lived with then, and their 2-year-old son. Amir, escaped, but the fire annihilated Abdul-Jabbar's material existence—possessions valued at $1.75 million. He flew back home, kicked around some ashes, fingered a few blackened remains. "It was a neat statement on life," he says. "It was gone."

It was not unlike what had been occurring more slowly and subtly inside the 7'2" structure his soul occupied. A giraffe like teenager, the only child of an overprotective mother and a stern, stoic father whose silence he resented, he grew up in the racially flammable air of Harlem in the '60s, asbestos covering his feelings so they could not be torched from without. And every bad feeling that got trapped inside stayed there until it scorched him.

At UCLA, he boycotted the '68 Olympics in protest of America's treatment of blacks. He changed his religion from Catholicism to Islam and, although he wouldn't go public for three years, his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Muhammad Ali had done similar things, but he also was able to wink and the world winked back. Abdul-Jabbar stiffed everyone with his eyes, even well-meaning people who wanted to be his friends or even just to tell him how much they loved the arid suaveness of his skyhook.

Some of that look on his face was reflexive camouflage, some of it was conscious cool. He had roamed New York City's jazz clubs as a teenager, studying musicians who blew their lives through their horns, letting none of it leak through gesture or expression. He saw Sonny Rollins slink behind a column on the bandstand of a club called the Village Vanguard, only his wailing saxophone protruding, and here solved to find the basketball equivalent. "Now that was the coolest, “he says. "I'm a child of the bebop era, it became part of the rhythm of my life. To me that was presence. Dizzy Gillespie would understand. You go all the way back to the great black kings in West Africa—esteem came from presence. That’s in me."

Little did he know how much that emotionless face and that casual performing style would haunt him. No matter what the stat sheet read, Abdul-Jabbar never looked to be working hard.

The very traits that made people dislike him, however, were those that would make him last long enough that people would finally revere him. By not sacrificing himself for loose balls or rushing downcourt on every fast break, he conserved his body for the long haul. Because he became a Muslim, he seldom consumed alcohol or meat, and he remained remarkably fit. Because he distrusted people, he shunned parties and always got his sleep. Because he did not think and act like other people—he was practicing yoga long before stretching became an accepted regimen in the NBA—he kept his legs flexible and strong while other big men his age became stiff-jointed and slow.

Somehow, this tall, strange man, striding upcourt with the big bald spot and the industrial goggles would endure long enough to demonstrate the foolishness of passing judgment too quickly.

The inner calm that has allowed Abdul-Jabbar to endure longer than any other man in the NBA did not come until the last years of his career. His young and short-lived marriage to Habiba—chosen over another woman by his Muslim spiritual adviser, Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis—and his relationship with his parents suffocated because of his wary silence. He separated from Habiba in 1973 and rarely saw their three children, who lived with her in Washington, D.C. His religious family disintegrated, too, when in 1973 Black Muslim gunmen murdered Abdul-Khaalis's three sons, daughter and second wife along with two grandchildren and another infant living in the Washington town house owned by Abdul-Jabbar.

In 1979 Abdul-Jabbar began living with Cheryl Pistono, who convinced him that by staying clenched, he was depriving himself as much as the world. Gradually he began to open, but the process was not smooth. A year after the fire, he left Cheryl and Amir. Personal and public stress continued to tighten the muscles in his upper back, closing off the flow of oxygen-carrying blood to his brain and causing migraine headaches that paralyzed him with pain.

The forearms and elbows that referees allowed younger, smaller, less gifted players to administer to him made him seethe—twice in his career he has broken a hand throwing punches in anger. Following the second occasion in 1977, after his punch gave Milwaukee rookie Kent Benson a mild concussion, he called basketball a "well-paying grind" and considered retirement. Of all pro basketball players, he seemed the least likely to become the grand old man of the game.

"People could not understand," he says. "They weren't interested in my life—just what I could do for their lives. It used to make me curious why I didn't get the kind of fan response other players got. Not that I was really looking for it. Being a '60s guy, I had immediate suspicion of anyone accepted by the Establishment. But for many of those years, I led my team in all the relevant categories, and we still couldn't win. and I'd be blamed. It increased my feeling of futility. It wasn't that I wasn't trying, but the joy of life was lacking from my game."

"The players tiptoed around him," recalls Jamaal Wilkes, the former Laker forward now with the Clippers. "There were lines you didn't cross."

Then came the house fire. Like the growing bald spot, it made him finally seem vulnerable, human. He was surprised when calls of support and sympathy came from around the country, when people raced up to him as he boarded a team bus to hand him a few jazz albums to help replace his melted 3,000-record collection. At the end of 1983 he published his autobiography. Giant Steps. All the secrets he had been harboring all his life he handed to the world in his book, defusing all their dark power. "All those years, I'd thought if they found out they'd think, 'That man is an ogre,' " he says. Instead, people shouted, "Hey, Kareem. I loved your book," as he exited NBA arenas.

He wrote a letter to The Boston Globe thanking the fans there for giving him a standing ovation when he broke Wilt Chamberlain's record of 12,681 field goals in 1983. He had appeared in a funny movie called Airplane a few years earlier, and then in a funny commercial with Chamberlain for TWA. Recently he has been seen standing up through the sun roof of a limousine and singing on another commercial, “Chocolate is scrunchous—when it crunches—that's why I love Nestle Crunch!" He and the world were at last exchanging winks.

No longer did he feel so threatened by the shallowness of modern America. "He realized he could be in it and not of it," says Rod McGrew. "Now he allows people to love and admire him. He doesn't sit in the corner and play backgammon at parties anymore. He'll get up and dance in the living room."

Politically, racially, religiously—humanly—he was softening. About Ronald Reagan, he says, “I’m not a Republican but I know I've been able to save some money since he came into office, so I'm not going to throw any rocks." And on blacks in America: "All the racial things that put people in a vicious cycle of poverty and ignorance have—in a legal sense, at least—been KO'd. Black people now have to see that they can improve—they don't seem to see this."

In 1983, his contract up, his house destroyed, his domestic life unraveling, his 15th season finished, it seemed time for Abdul-Jabbar to move on to another city, perhaps another career. After all, wasn't Los Angeles the place he had said was full of phonies back when he was attending UCLA? "I asked myself, Where do I want to make my stand?" he says. "I decided this was my home. There are good people and artificial people everywhere."

His relationship with Habiba, who had moved to L.A., was resolidified, and he became a true father to their children, Habiba, 13, Kareem, 9. and Sultana, 6. His relationship with his parents warmed; at a recent Laker game, between screams at the officials imploring them to keep the opposition off her poor boy, Cora Alcindor said she and her husband, Ferdinand—Big Al—might soon move from New York to be near him. "He's happy, he's easy to talk to again," says Cora. "He was always a kidder as a boy—now he's getting his little quirps in again."

"I'm looking forward to sitting down with him," says his dad, "so he can tell me stories about his life as a basketball player and I can tell him stories about my life as a policeman and jazz musician. We've never been able to do that before."

Before home games, Abdul-Jabbar now looked up at his children and parents in the stands, winking and waving to them. His eyes still became brown hailstones when strangers pestered him during meals for autographs—that was still a violation of self—but if they waited and approached him like a human being instead of a freak, he smiled and talked to them, and the boyish innocence of his face surprised them. "I found out there are a lot of nice folks out there, “he says. "There's no need to shun them. I've become a familiar figure, nota creature from a distant planet. I have a better grip on my life than ever. The migraines are disappearing. I'm learning to handle stress, how to accept that there are some things in life that can't be changed. There are still gaps in my life [one is a long-lasting relationship with a woman], but that will change. The key is patience, not wanting to rush anything."

Slowly, the joy of life was entering his game. When he was on the bench, he slapped five with his teammates and rooted for them openly. In an exhibition game two months ago against Boston, while Celtic coach K.C. Jones moaned to a referee, Abdul-Jabbar lounged under a backboard and played an invisible violin. In a game at Dallas, he launched a full-court layup-leading pass to a teammate, then called "Hey, Roger!" to get the attention of Roger Staubach in the first row and lifted both arms to signal a touchdown.

He made plans to create his own jazz label. Cranberry Records, and do more acting after here tired. But why leave basketball now, just when he finally felt he belonged?

Spiritually, Abdul-Jabbar was now ready to prolong the moment—but two decades in the NBA is not a metaphysical experience alone. The average player lasts 4.3 years. The human ankle and knee joints, no matter how light the soul they bear along, were not meant to pound up and down hardwood for more than 1,400 games and 2,500 practices.

This autumn, he changed his mind about quitting at the end of the current season and signed another $2 million, one-year contract that meant he would be playing at 40 during the 1986-87 playoffs. He reserved the right to change his mind next July, for Abdul-Jabbar must be certain the wear on his body does not compromise his performance. He remembers his disillusionment at watching a 40-year-old Willie Mays strike out on a passed ball and then slide into first base to beat the catcher's throw. "He should not have had to slide," he says resolutely. "There was something not right about that."

Abdul-Jabbar doesn't move quite as quickly or leap as often as in his youth, but he is a finer passer, knows how to get better rebounding position, has stronger legs and is surrounded by the most powerful cast of his career. His skyhook, of course, is eternal. Of all the weapons in sports, none has ever been more dependable or unstoppable, less vulnerable to time, than that little stride, turn, hop and flick from far above his head. Perhaps the greatest tribute to its complex simplicity is that the skyhook never became a trend. It will always be his.

"A normal shot is easier to triangulate," he explains. "The three corners of the triangle are your eyes, the ball and the rim, and most players shoot from near their eyes. But on the sky hook the ball is way up here, and that difference in triangulation keeps most players from getting the coordination of it. Magic Johnson has asked me to show it to him, but he has never been able to get it right. It's almost exactly like Zen Buddhism—you center on your inner calm and your target, isolate everything else until you and your objective become one."

The same way he had once made a study project of marijuana before ever trying it, Abdul-Jabbar stripped everything he did on a basketball floor to its essence and contemplated it, discarding conventional wisdom unless he could make it his own. The only pair of ankles ever to endure more than 16 NBA seasons was also one of the few in the league unbraced by tape or high-cut sneakers. "It's an old wives' tale that taping and supporting your ankles prevent injuries," he says. "Your skeletal system was built to absorb shock. If you bind your ankles, the stress is going to get transferred to the next available joint—your knee."

Last off-season, besides swimming and jumping a heavy rope, Abdul-Jabbar increased his session sat the Yoga College of India in Los Angeles to an hour and a half a day. Who else in the NBA but Abdul-Jabbar, when asked his position, might answer Janu Sirasana—the name of the yoga position at which he excelled? "Most big men would never consider yoga," says Laker forward Maurice Lucas. "They're too macho—their mentality is to overpower people, not finesse them. Most of them put on weight with age and develop knee trouble."

Abdul-Jabbar never had a major injury in his career except for the two self-inflicted hand fractures. He had the kinesthetic sense of a dancer, never making a superfluous move, always sure where his body parts were in space.

He used a simple form of meditation to block out pain and to prepare himself for games, sitting quietly and focusing on the calm inside him. It enabled him to handle the alternate doses of monotony and stress that begin to destroy the desire of most NBA players past the age of 30. "I don't know how he does it," says Laker general manager Jerry West, who retired at 36. "My last year or two I'd walk into the locker room before a game, not knowing how in hell I could possibly get myself up to play. My legs were dead, my ankles and body were sore. It would take someone to annoy me, to grab or elbow me during the game, to get me going."

"I won't be playing at 38—no one else will," says Magic Johnson, a six-year veteran at 26. "No one has the frame of mind and body that he does. He's the most beautiful athlete in sports."

The latter-day Lakers themselves have been heavy contributors to Abdul-Jabbar's durability. For the last six years they supplied him with 54 to 62 wins and a million Magic Johnson smiles a season, enough blowouts that he rarely has had to play more than 40 minutes a game. Robust forwards like Lucas, James Worthy and Kurt Rambis minimize his rebounding burden and protect him on offense. Riley thinks of the little things, like having Rambis in-bound the ball after baskets and stationing Abdul-Jabbar at the opposite end of the court on free throws, to save him thousands of strides a season. "Magic makes sure Kareem gets his 20 to 25 points a game, too," says Lucas. "If you're in his way. Magic will wave you out and get it to the Big Fella. Nobody else has a guard that takes care of him like that."

"The players treat him with a reverence now," says West. "You go in the locker room before a game and he's sitting there quietly, like an old lion with all his pride around him. When they need to be played with, he plays with them, and when they need authority, he gives them that."

"How can we take it easy when we see him out there working hard every day against 20-year-olds who are pushing and shoving and loaded with fire?" asks the Lakers' Mitch Kupchak. "Do you realize some of our guys were in kindergarten when he came into the league? He'll say things and guys'll have zero idea what he's talking about. Maybe he'll walk into the training room and spill out three or four lines from some book he's read. Maybe a piece of tape he saw set him off, we don't know."

In Game 1 against Boston in the NBA finals last Memorial Day, Celtics center Robert Parish beat him up and down the floor all night. Abdul-Jabbar finished with just 12 points and three rebounds, and the Celtics appeared certain to dispatch them for the ninth time in as many meetings in the NBA championship series. Snickers about Abdul-Jabbar's advanced age began again.

In the Lakers' video session the following morning, Abdul-Jabbar stationed himself directly in front of the screen instead of in his normal spot in the back of the room. Every time Parish outran Abdul-Jabbar, Riley punched the replay button, sometimes snarling, other times saying nothing.

The next day, during a frantic two-hour practice, Abdul-Jabbar whipped himself mercilessly up and down the court. "I said to him, 'Take a break,' " says Riley. “He said, 'No.' A little later I said, 'Mitch, go in for him.' Kareem said, ‘No.' After an hour and a half of straight sprinting on transition drills, I said, 'Sit down.' He said, 'No.' "

Abdul-Jabbar approached each player with a quiet message just before Game 2: "We may not win, but let's make it worthy of us." He hit the floor and scored 30 points with 17 rebounds, eight assists and three blocked shots. He averaged 28.4points the last five games, ran Parish into exhaustion, filled the lanes on fast breaks, dived for a loose ball and once grabbed a rebound, dribbled the length of the court and swished a sky hook. "I don't think he likes to be called old," said teammate Bob McAdoo.

"What you saw," says Riley, "was passion."

It's as if I have survived the whole cycle, life and death, and here I still am, “Abdul-Jabbar says, "I never thought it would turn out this way. Every summer, even when I was at UCLA, I'd tell myself I'd play four or five years, make a million and retire to the West Indies.

"Doc [Julius Erving] is getting mad at me—he wants me to leave first. Do you realize great players have come into the league after me—and gone? I fished out some Polaroids the other day of me and David Thompson and Lionel Hollins on a trip we took to China in 1982 for some exhibition games. I looked at them and thought, they're gone now. Oh, man. They're gone.

"This whole thing of longevity and performance interests me. People are just learning now how to get the maximum out of their time on earth. Hey, I'm out here in completely virgin territory. It's not to prove anything. I feel I've made my mark. After what we did against Boston, I can walk away from the game forever and no one can say anything about lack of championships or talent. Maybe some people think I should have quit after the championship, because it would be fitting. But life doesn't work that way. Cyrano de Bergerac was going to die sword-fighting 50 men—but he died after a piece of timber hit him on the head.

"I'm still playing because this is my professional life. The money is wonderful, and I'm still earning the wonderful money. Do I love basketball? You're asking me to describe the forest and I'm still in the midst of the trees. It's still tedium, the season's too long. But it still gives me fulfillment. I've always loved the physical beauty of the game. I appreciate now more than ever what basketball has done for my life."

He was going through these final paces like a man watching his son play in a certain light just before sunset and suddenly seeing him as he never has before, a man who has come to know nostalgia for the present.

In that game in Denver last month, Abdul-Jabbar hit 15 of 26 shots, including four skyhooks and a dunk in the final minutes, stunning 17,000 fans and lifting his team from a 20-point deficit. Finally, down by one point with three seconds left, he fired a hurried 20-foot jump shot that rattled around the rim—and out. A cluster of media circled him afterward, unsure how to approach him.

"Kareem, your game isn't falling off despite your age," stammered one.

"So far, so good," he said with a small smile, sipping from an orange soda.

"Hey, Kareem, I enjoyed your story in TV Guide," said another.

"Thank you." He grinned and pointed at one writer's clothing. "Hey, those are serious suspenders," he said. He turned to another. "I see you met my mom last night."

Someone asked about the last-second miss. "I got it off good. It just went around"—he traced it on the lip of his soda can—"and came off. That's life."

A Laker official came over and asked him to sign a few autographs just outside the locker room. Abdul-Jabbar nodded and followed him. Then he pulled on his long coat and walked out of the arena, full of a secret very few 7-footers or 5-footers ever learn. The minute hand on his wristwatch, on a frigid night in Denver after a one-point loss, advanced to 10:29. Oh well, that was a nice moment to live in, too.