Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one month past his 40th birthday, sat high above Los Angeles, his long legs poking out from behind a desk in the offices of the law firm of Bushkin, Gaims, Gaines & Jonas. He had been spending a great deal of time in those offices because, even while the Lakers were winning the 1987 NBA championship, Abdul-Jabbar was a very troubled man. Much of the more than $13 million in salary he had earned in 18 years of pro basketball had literally gone up in smoke when fire destroyed his Bel Air mansion in 1983. He had lost other large sums in a messy 1980 divorce and through his own and his women friends' extravagances. Worse, he had become entangled in a web of investments so complex and damaging that a team of Bushkin lawyers had spent months trying to extricate him. Last year they filed a lawsuit against Abdul-Jabbar's former business manager, Tom Collins, and others to recover damages alleged to total no less than $59 million.
Yet Abdul-Jabbar didn't give the appearance of being troubled. He seemed, as always, uninvolved; one could only guess what was going on inside that balding head, where some private music always seems to drown out intrusive sounds. At this moment he was lost in a book of artsy photographs of Ferraris. In this ultrachic office straight out of L.A. Law, he was oversized and, in worn jeans and faded T-shirt, underdressed, especially alongside his latest adviser, a 34-year-old Bushkin lawyer named Leonard Armato. Armato now does much of the speaking, if not the thinking, for Abdul-Jabbar.
"The idea that Kareem is broke and desperate for money is a fiction," Armato says. "Kareem can quit playing basketball for the Lakers today and never want for anything the rest of his life. Kareem feels it's time to speak out and set the record straight. He's been hurt because people haven't been told the truth."
The truth may or may not come out in the unfolding of the lawsuit against Collins, who for 12 years was Abdul-Jabbar's close friend, agent and business manager. In it Abdul-Jabbar charges Collins and 11 of his employees and business associates with improprieties ranging from breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract to fraud and negligent misrepresentation, most of them in connection with real estate deals that Collins engineered in 1984 and '85. Abdul-Jabbar contends that Collins involved him in those deals without fully explaining the risks. He also alleges that Collins arranged bank loans in such a way that Abdul-Jabbar was left personally liable not only for his own share of the investments—about $1.6 million—but also for some $7.4 million put up by other partners, among them Collins and NBA stars Ralph Sampson, Alex English and Terry Cummings. In August '86 Collins countersued Abdul-Jabbar, claiming that the player owed him $382,000 in commissions and fees.
Abdul-Jabbar has spent more than $1.2 million in the last year buying his way out of deals that went sour. He has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Yet because he is an exception—a star athlete who has stayed at the top of his game for nearly two decades—he will survive his financial troubles. He has a $4.5 million home, land in Hawaii and lucrative contracts with Adidas and Campbell Soup. He is president of a jazz recording company. In June the Lakers extended his one-year, $2 million contract to a two-year, $5 million deal.
Collins isn't doing nearly as well. Slightly more than a year ago he was handling about $7 million per year in client income and pocketing perhaps $500,000 a year in commissions. Now he has lost his house in Encino and nearly everything else. He lives with his wife, Nancy, and their three children on a ranch he has owned for four years in Ignacio, Colo. The bank recently foreclosed on his mortgage, and Collins will soon be forced to move once again. He's away from home three days a week while he works in his brother-in-law's meat market more than 300 miles distant.
The deals Collins cooked up for Abdul-Jabbar had not produced any income by the middle of 1985, at which time he started to get suspicious. But the deals themselves were not so much the issue when Abdul-Jabbar fired Collins in January '86. The real issue was, quite simply, trust.
Abdul-Jabbar has always been wary. From the time he was the eighth-grade phenom Lew Alcindor in New York, he was tugged at by strangers. Sometimes they burned him. By the time he graduated from Power Memorial High, he had learned to be careful.
The few people he did trust, he trusted fully—even blindly. When he got involved in the study of Islam, he allowed his Muslim spiritual leader, Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, to choose his Muslim name—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar means generous, powerful servant—and even his Muslim wife, Habiba. Because Abdul-Jabbar didn't know the first thing about handling money, he also let Abdul-Khaalis select his business manager, a Wall Street lawyer named Bob Owen. These relationships all ended sadly: The marriage to Habiba broke up in 1973 (they were divorced in '80). Abdul-Khaalis was jailed in '77 for leading a murderous siege on the national B'nai B'rith headquarters and two other buildings in Washington. Owen died of cancer in '80.
Owen had done all of Abdul-Jabbar's financial planning and budgeting. His investment strategy was strictly conservative. He steered Abdul-Jabbar into a real estate partnership with Bill Cosby and helped him buy his first home and one for his parents. "Owen didn't make me a hell of a lot of money," says Abdul-Jabbar, "but he didn't lose me a penny. I was very comfortable."
The death of Owen left a void. "When Bob died, I didn't know what to do or where to go," says Abdul-Jabbar. His $1 million salary with the Lakers in 1980 was among the highest in the NBA, and he was living in his Bel Air mansion with 23-year-old Cheryl Pistono, who would become the mother of his fourth child.
Many of Abdul-Jabbar's financial dealings were now being handled by Collins, whom he had met in the mid-1970s at a tennis club. Collins was a fledgling agent who had gotten his start by hustling up athletes to appear at local shopping centers. He was a sincere, religious man who frequently quoted Scripture in discussing his business philosophy. He had spent a year as an FBI trainee, worked as a bank teller, managed a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant and had done market research for Dun & Bradstreet.
"I never had dreams of being an agent," says Collins. "I wasn't really a sports fan." But one day in the mid-'70s he read an article about a former ABA and NBA player, Bird Averitt, who had had some financial problems. Collins could not understand how such a thing could happen. He picked the brains of sports agents and money men and began acquiring clients. For a while he handled neither big names nor big money. Then gold medal-winning Olympic decathlete Bill Toomey became a client. Laker guard Lucius Allen and L.A. general manager Bill Sharman followed. Then came Abdul-Jabbar. "What made me choose Tom?" Abdul-Jabbar says. "Naivetè made me choose Tom."
But surely Abdul-Jabbar must have checked Collins out, must have asked some people about him?
"Nobody told me anything," Abdul-Jabbar says. "I just assumed Tom knew what he was doing. I felt insecure going out and trying to find somebody new. He represented a lot of athletes, there hadn't been any complaints that I was aware of, so I just decided that the status quo was fine."
The agreement he signed with Collins on Nov. 15, 1980, is a stunning document, Exhibit A in Abdul-Jabbar's lawsuit. In nine simple paragraphs it essentially gave Collins the right to do anything he pleased with Abdul-Jabbar's money. He was free to sign checks and take out loans in Abdul-Jabbar's name. All Abdul-Jabbar expected in return was that Collins provide him with monthly reports.
Once Abdul-Jabbar signed that 1½-page paper, he barely gave it another thought, and for the next two or three years everything seemed to go smoothly. Abdul-Jabbar's salary climbed above $1 million. "And then little things started happening that should have let me know that something wasn't right," he says.
He wasn't receiving his monthly statements, a fact Collins does not dispute. But Abdul-Jabbar scarcely noticed. He was breaking up with Pistono, and his emotions were in turmoil. He didn't become aware that the statements were missing until he tried to find out from Collins how much of his money Pistono was spending.
Abdul-Jabbar decided to let it ride. "With all that was going on in my head, I was willing to let Tom go on minding my business, simply because it was not something I felt I needed to worry about at the time." Collins claims he held the statements back from Abdul-Jabbar so that Pistono wouldn't get her hands on them and see just how much Abdul-Jabbar was worth. In the Bel Air house fire, several precious and largely uninsured rugs from Abdul-Jabbar's collection, rugs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, were destroyed. The house was insured, but he spent more than $2 million above the insurance proceeds to rebuild it. Then he got a notice that his taxes for 1982 and '83 had gone unpaid. "Tom made it sound like a bureaucratic snafu and, you know, I accepted it," Abdul-Jabbar says.
In 1984 and '85 Collins put together several limited partnerships involving his clients. One investment, according to court documents, was in a product called Heavyrope, a weighted jump rope that was manufactured by a small firm in Michigan. Collins put up $230,000 of Abdul-Jabbar's money, plus $145,000 of Sampson's, $120,00 of English's and $60,000 of Cummings', and led Abdul-Jabbar to believe that he would own an interest in the manufacture of Heavyrope and its distribution rights. One night in the summer of '85 he had dinner with Charlie Scott, the former NBA guard who was also a Collins client and another Heavyrope partner. Scott had gone with Collins to meet the manufacturers in Michigan and now, according to Abdul-Jabbar, Scott told him, "We don't own the patent. We don't own anything. We have a very weak license."
"Tom was snowing us," says Abdul-Jabbar. "What he had been saying didn't add up to the facts."
Collins acknowledges having made some mistakes in the Heavy-rope affair, although he still contends that a major distribution deal was near when Abdul-Jabbar pulled out. If Abdul-Jabbar was uncomfortable, Collins suggested, maybe he should have an independent audit of his account. It wasn't until just before Abdul-Jabbar finally broke with Collins, in January 1986, that an audit was made and Abdul-Jabbar became fully aware of the details of financial transactions and accounting practices that he claims Collins never told him about. Sums of money would be moved from the account of one Collins client to that of another without either being told. Abdul-Jabbar unknowingly lent Sampson $575,000. Under terms of loans that Collins arranged with the Bank of California and other banks, each limited partner was liable for the full balance, and Abdul-Jabbar's obligation came to around $9 million. Abdul-Jabbar said he was shocked to learn about that debt but was told by Collins, "Don't worry about it. Everybody's involved in that."
"But not everybody had the profile I had here in L.A.," says Abdul-Jabbar. "I had the deepest pockets of all the investors, so if there were any problems, the bank would go for the person with the most money."
There were problems. There were alleged construction cost overruns and alleged shoddy management of real estate properties. When Abdul-Jabbar let it be known that he wanted out of Collins's various arrangements, the Bank of California and the California Overseas Bank called in their loans, virtually all the deals collapsed and almost every property either went bankrupt or sank deep into debt. English sued Abdul-Jabbar, claiming he was owed money; the papers were served on Abdul-Jabbar in the Laker locker room in Denver after a game last February. Abdul-Jabbar countersued, saying that he was the one owed money. English was served in this suit as he sat on the bench during a game at the L.A. Forum in March.
To this day Collins claims that all the deals were good ones, that they went sour only because Abdul-Jabbar pulled out. He insists that Abdul-Jabbar was less likely to be hit up for the $9 million than were Sampson, English or Cummings, all of whom figure to be earning big basketball money even after Abdul-Jabbar retires. Collins claims that Abdul-Jabbar knew as much about the deals as he wanted to know; that he just wasn't interested and didn't want to be bothered with the details; and that his visits to Collins's office rarely lasted more than five minutes. Collins also claims that he insisted that Abdul-Jabbar sign every document involved in the real estate deals as protection, while Abdul-Jabbar says that all or most of the deals in question went through in his name but without his signature.
So Abdul-Jabbar has started fresh again, in the twilight of an extraordinary career, with new people to trust. He says he has learned to sign all of his own checks and to watch over his advisers. He has learned the hard way that an athlete has to take responsibility for what is being done with his money. "It's been a crash course in business school," is how he puts it, "and I've paid steep tuition."
From the time he was a grade-school phenom, he was tugged at by strangers. The few people he did trust, he did so fully—even blindly.
Because he is a star athlete who stayed at the top of his game, he will survive his financial troubles.
Collins claims that Abdul-Jabbar didn't want to be bothered by details; he seldom stayed in Collins's office for more than five minutes.