by Troy Sparks
This is Part Two of my interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from May 13 in Milwaukee.
TS: Coach John Wooden, he passed away last year. What did he mean to you, not as the relationship as basketball player and coach, but just in life. What kind of things did he teach you in life?
KAJ: He confirmed me that I had education. My parents instilled that in me, and I did very well in school. But coach Wooden really help me understand what it meant to my whole life.
You go through all that trouble to educate yourself. And it helps you in ways that you can’t foresee at this point. He pointed some of that stuff out, and he enabled me to have a better understanding of how to live my life.
Most coaches in the NCAA would give an arm, a leg or a favorite child to win the NCAA tournament. Coach Wooden didn’t care about that, and I can honestly say that.
The most important thing was that we graduated and to learn how to live a good moral life. That’s what he was all about. And that’s something I always appreciated from him. He walked it like he talked it.
TS: You were easy for coach Wooden to deal with. But he had his hands full with Bill Walton.
KAJ: Anybody with that much sense (connects index finger and thumb together) is gonna have a problem with Bill Walton (laughter).
TS: There was an offer to coach a high school team on an Indian reservation in Arizona. How did that come about, and when you approached those kids for the first time, did you talk about all the stuff you did as a ballplayer?
KAJ: I had made friends at the reservation because I went there to do some research on my book.
I was doing some research on the Buffalo Soldiers. The (Apache) tribe had a long history of dealing with black Americans.
And when they saw that I was curious about coaching, they said, “Come on. Help us with the boys team.” I’m the tallest member of the Apache tribe (7-foot-2).
TS: They offered you a dollar to coach the team.
KAJ: I wouldn’t have taken any money from them if they paid me one silver dollar.
(They actually paid him a silver dollar).
TS: So when you come in, and you meet these boys for the first time.
KAJ: I wanted to emphasize that sports was great, that they should have fun with it. It’s gonna keep you healthy, etcetera. But education is what’s gonna take you through your life.
They wanted to get that message across to the boys because too many of them did not pursue education. It’s very difficult for them to leave the reservation and go to college. They don’t want to do it.
The women in the tribe would do that. The women would leave and go to Phoenix, learn nursing or a trade or something like that.
They go and they participate in (getting college education) and then they marry someone from another tribe and they never come back.
They wanted to break that cycle where people bring skills back to the tribe and make life better back at the tribe. So they’re still fighting that battle but they’re doing better.
TS: So when you leave the reservation, did you have a different sense of thought about how people on the reservation live?
KAJ: It’s amazing. Everything that you know that’s bad on the south side of Chicago, people are out there in the middle of Arizona. (There is a) lack of educational opportunities, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy. All those things were on the tribe and it was like unbelievable.
TS: The Lakers were swept (in the playoffs). The actions that a couple of players committed on the court were really embarrassing to the organization.
KAJ: It’s unfortunate. Talk about being a little old school, (Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom) went a little bit too far back.
TS: Shouldn’t Kobe (Bryant) jump in and tell them that it wasn’t the right thing to do?
KAJ: He didn’t have the chance. That was spontaneous, especially Andrew. I know Andrew. I had a good idea of what was going through his head. He was frustrated.
The player he knocked down (Dallas guard Jose Berea) was embarrassing the Lakers because no one could stay in front of him. He caused so many problems that enabled him to run away with that game. It was (Bynum’s) pride at stake, and that’s why he acted out in a very unfortunate way.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I believe, is at peace with himself these days. Even though at age 64, it’s obvious that he has a better outlook on life since his retirement from basketball.
One thing that still irks him to this day is how the Lakers organization doesn’t show him the proper respect for helping them win five of their 16 NBA championships. The 1995 Hall of Fame inductee feels he deserves more than that from a class organization.
Abdul-Jabbar wants a statue of himself posted outside of the Staples Center. He told the Sporting News that he feels “slighted” by the Lakers.
“I don’t understand (it),” he said. “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.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s business manager said, “I am highly offended by the total lack of acknowledgement of his contribution to Laker success. I guess being the lynchpin for five world championships is not considered significant enough in terms of being part of Laker history.”
John Black, Lakers spokesman, said that the Staples Center has been there for 11 years and the team has statues of two of their greatest players outside of the arena. He said that Kareem has been informed that a statue of him will be built in due time, whenever they are ready to build it.
There are statues of Magic Johnson, Jerry West, the late Lakers broadcaster, Chick Hearn, hockey player Wayne Gretzky and boxer Oscar De La Hoya outside of the Staples Center building.