It has been less than a year since he retired his skyhook and goggles from public view. While you wouldn't say he has slipped into anonymity, he has become as inconspicuous in civilian life as is possible for a man who is 7'2", holds the NBA career scoring record and has the most identifiable bald head this side of Kojak's. Part of it is, people forget. These days—eight months removed from his last NBA championship series—he may not even be the best-known former Laker named Abdul. (Hey, hey, Paula!)
But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar prefers being out of the spotlight. The man who ruled the court with such imperial dignity moves through retirement with the same grace, avoiding most of the pitfalls of the do-nothing celebrity. Abdul-Jabbar has removed himself from the work force with enthusiasm. A day in the life, according to Kareem: "I take my son Amir to school, go to my yoga class, come back by 11 to do whatever business, have dinner at home, help Amir with his homework."
Abdul-Jabbar, who lives alone except when he has custody of nine-year-old Amir, which is every other month, is not the sort of guy to pester his old buddies down at the shop, either. In fact, he has not returned to the Forum to see the Lakers play—and to cause a commotion—and he seldom watches the games on TV. His retirement has really been just one big sigh of relief. He stretches out in his Bel Air home and luxuriates in his new sense of place and time. For what seems like the first time in his 42 years of life he does not have to be anywhere.
"From the fourth grade until last year, 33 seasons of basketball, playing or just getting ready to play," he says. "I've got time, time to do things. All of a sudden, it seems like a brave new world out there."
February 12, 1990
After so many years of motion, basket to basket and coast to coast, he has not yet grown tired of knocking around his mansion, a house he meticulously appointed and furnished. He permits no one to wear shoes in it.
To be sure, there are things to do beyond ferrying Amir to school in his Mercedes or Rolls. He also watches his other son, 5'7", 13-year-old Kareem—he lives nearby with his mother, Habiba Abdul-Jabbar—play guard for his school basketball team. And he visits with his daughters, Habiba, 17, a freshman at UCLA, and Sultana, 10. Abdul-Jabbar must start promoting his book, Kareem, which is an account of his final season with the Lakers. It is scheduled to be published next month. And this being Los Angeles, there is, inevitably, an acting career to pursue. For all his standoffishness as a high-profile player, Kareem has long been interested in working in movies and TV (he had several small roles in both during his playing days), and reporters who imagined his idea of a colloquy as "Yes," or, more likely, "No," may be surprised to learn that he's practicing far more expressive material.
He recently taped the Feb. 12 episode of 21 Jump Street, in which he appears as a former NBA player turned college athletic director. The show's writer and producer, Bill Nuss, was impressed with Kareem's professionalism. "He came in very well prepared," says Nuss. "He had obviously studied the script and had taken time to rehearse. I think he'll get work off this episode."
Kareem hopes so but admits his pickiness may stand in the way of his acting career. His dimensions, startling even by the standards of professional sports, are limiting in the performing arts, and the one role he was born to play, he refuses. "I won't play Kareem," he says. So far, though, most of the offers he has received have been to do just that. One producer wanted Kareem to play Kareem choking on a chicken bone. What, he couldn't play Wilt choking on a chicken bone?
Some of the endorsement opportunities he has been offered have also been easy to turn down. Apparently the hair-growth industry sees Abdul-Jabbar as a potential spokesman in the same way that Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda was long coveted by diet-product companies. A number of hair-growth companies whose products have come over the counter (and one that's still to come, involving mud from the Dead Sea) have tried to entice him to demonstrate how they can coax a few sprouts from his noggin. The folks from Grecian Formula, who perhaps hadn't done all the homework they could have, also wooed him.
Instead, Kareem has stuck to the tried and true, lending his name to L.A. Gear, a line of socks (suitable for Kareem's house) and a toy Kareem that shoots a skyhook. He could do all the public appearances he wants, but there are few he wants to do. Kareem is no more antic in retirement than when he was playing. "I've always been cautious and secretive," he said later, "so of course people thought I was strange." He believes he is opening up, but it is only by degrees.
Last year Kareem played abroad on a team sponsored in part by L.A. Gear, but he no longer wants to put himself in situations that reveal how thoroughly his competitive fire has been banked. In a limousine going home from a recent autograph session at a West Hollywood sporting goods store, he suggested he could appear as a player-coach, maybe do a one-on-one type of thing. "An exhibition, O.K.," he said. "A game, no."
That's another life. "There is, uh, no longer a sense of discovery," he says, referring to basketball. And there is certainly no interest in trying to satisfy a standard of performance he set decades ago.
"I turned on the news the other night, and there were these sports highlights, David Robinson just wearing somebody out. I thought, 'Yeah, let somebody else deal with him.' It was a great feeling."