Kneel Before Kareem

by Paul Knepper

In case you haven’t heard, former Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is irked that the Lakers haven’t built a statue of him in front of the Staples Center. “I don’t understand (it),” the leading scorer in NBA history told the Sporting News this week. “It’s either an oversight or they’re taking me for granted. I’m not going to try to read people’s minds, but it doesn’t make me happy. It’s definitely a slight. I feel slighted.”

I know, it sounds ridiculous. But there are very few people in the world who can complain that there hasn’t been a statue built of them and actually be taken seriously. Abdul-Jabbar is one of them. I don’t intend to enter into a discussion as to what makes one statue worthy, though since the Lakers have built them for former players, it’s puzzling that Kareem hasn’t been included. Not only is he deserving, but there may not be a more statuesque image in sports than #33 releasing his patented hook shot.

There are currently five statues in front of the Staples Center: Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jerry West, longtime Laker announcer Chick Hearn, Wayne Gretzky and Oscar De La Hoya. Gretzky and De La Hoya played other sports and Hearn was an announcer. Abdul-Jabbar made it clear that he believes West and Magic deserve their statues. He believes he deserves one as well. Magic agrees with him. Kareem’s former teammate tweeted yesterday that he “deserves and has earned a statue, even before me.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s credentials are impeccable. He was the greatest college basketball player ever, leading UCLA to three national titles (at a time when freshmen weren’t eligible to play). He went on to win six NBA championships (five with the Lakers) and was named league MVP a record six times, as many as Magic and Larry Bird combined. The big man was selected to a remarkable 19 All-Star games and remains the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.

Abdul-Jabbar admitted that President of the Staples Center, Tim Leiweke, told him he would be next to receive a statue, though he’s not very optimistic. He tweeted on Wednesday, “Rumor has it that I will be getting a statue. A caveat for all my fans – don’t hold your breath. Lakers don’t care about me.”

Obviously, as the former Laker captain tweeted yesterday,”This is not just about a statue, its about being appreciated by the people that I worked so hard for. The statue was just the last straw.” Yesterday morning he elaborated on several incidents with the Lakers during a revealing interview on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike In the Morning.”

Kareem expressed bitterness that the team didn’t help him land a job when he first disclosed an interest in coaching in 1994. They eventually hired him as an assistant coach in 2005, though he was never one of Phil Jackson’s top guys and didn’t even sit in the front row of the bench with the other coaches and players. He’s angry that the team asked him to take a reduction in salary last year and was insulted when told to sit in a small cramped seat towards the back of the plane during the Lakers series against the Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals, though there were more spacious seats available up front.

In general, he feels like the franchise hasn’t compensated him the way they have other former stars. He stated on “Mike & Mike,” “When you look at what he [Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss] did for Earvin and what he’s done for me. Big disparity.” Magic was given part ownership of the team, an upper office position and was head coach for a short time, while it took Kareem years to get hired as a second tier assistant.

It’s difficult to argue with Kareem’s assessment that he’s underappreciated by the Lakers. In fact, he may be the most underappreciated athlete in American sports. He’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and his sky hook was the most indefensible shot the league has ever seen. Yet, he’s an afterthought in most discussions about the greatest basketball player of all-tome. No team’s willing to even consider him as a head coach and he’s not the subject of countless books and documentaries like his contemporaries Magic and Bird.

Unfortunately, Kareem brought this lack of respect and near banishment upon himself. He was distant and condescending toward teammates and coaches and his disdain for the media, the individuals who shaped his public persona, was legendary. Jordan understood the power of media. Magic’s statue is as much a testament to his smile as his game. Kareem, on the other hand, was known to read the paper while conducting post-game interviews.

Is it any wonder that team executives don’t view him as coaching material or that the media doesn’t reminisce about him the way they do with Magic and Jordan? Is it really surprising that Laker executives aren’t falling over themselves to build a statue of the likeness for a player who was almost universally disliked?

Kareem is very intelligent and introspective, so it was fascinating to hear him reflect on the perception people have of him during “Mike & Mike.” He’s self aware enough to recognize that “people think that I don’t like people.” He said he’s always been shy and reclusive, and in retrospect can see how that gave people the wrong impression. He also noted that his coach at UCLA, the legendary John Wooden, discouraged players from speaking to the press which led him to distrust the media and give them the cold shoulder. He admitted that if he could do his career over again he would handle things differently and now encourages his protege, Lakers center Andrew Bynum, to deal with the media in a more positive manner.

His demeanor during the interview with “Mike & Mike” reaffirmed Kareem’s description of himself. It was obvious from his body language and the way he fidgeted with his hands that he’s still painfully shy and uncomfortable doing interviews. I don’t think he smiled once during the nearly hour long interview, much of which revolved around a movie he produced called On the Shoulders of Giants, which he’s clearly passionate about.

Kareem may be justified in his belief that he’s underappreciated by the Lakers; the problem is how he chose to deal with it. He should have addressed his various grievances with the organization as they arose, instead of letting them build up until he exploded with anger over twitter. Calling out management publicly made him appear pompous, petty and somewhat cowardly. He also did himself a disservice by igniting this firestorm right before embarking on a media tour to promote his movie. He’s still a poor communicator and continues to rub people the wrong way.

Just about every basketball fan and member of the basketball media agrees that Kareem deserves a statue alongside Jerry West and Magic Johnson, and the Lakers will likely comply in the next few years. But what the big man still doesn’t understand, in spite of his self-reflection, is that the Lakers haven’t built a statue of him precisely because he’s the kind of man who would complain publicly that a statue hasn’t been built for him.

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