by Troy Sparks
Froedtert Hospital, one of the leaders in advanced medicine, pulled off the task of bringing the NBA’s all-time leading scorer to town to be the keynote speaker at their Heritage of Hope celebration, Saturday, May 14.
With the help of Kathleen Sieja, their media relations manager, and Deborah Morales, the representative for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and executive producer of his new movie, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I scored a major victory for a sit-down, one-on-one talk with him that Friday afternoon.
To talk to a living sports legend and NBA Hall of Famer in private for 20 minutes was priceless.
We talked about his days in Milwaukee as a player, how he manages his condition of chronic myeloid leukemia, memories on his identity as a black person in America and his outlook on life as a person then and now.
I tackled those issues with Abdul-Jabbar in a question and answer session as we sat down to chat. This is the first of a two-part interview with Abdul-Jabbar.
TS: How did you get hooked up with Froedtert other than being a keynote speaker?
KAJ: You know, a lot of people, when I went public (with announcing that he has leukemia), it became news to a lot of people involved in medicine, and Froedtert was one of those people (who was surprised). And because of my association with the Bucks and everything, it all seemed to make sense.
TS: What was your relationship with the team as a player back then and the fans and also the city of Milwaukee and what is your relationship now with the Bucks, with the fans and the city of Milwaukee?
KAJ: I live in Los Angeles now, so I don’t get back here that much. I’m in touch with John Steinmiller definitely.
And the former owner, Wes Pavalon, he just passed away two years ago.
He and I have maintained our relationship throughout, you know, ever since the time I played for the Bucks. It was a 30-something year relationship when he passed away.
I got a chance to see him and sit down and spend some time with him.
His home was out by West Bend. So I went out there and visited with him and came here to Milwaukee and hung with him a little bit when we had the 40th anniversary of the founding of the team.
TS: Throughout your career in the 1970’s, who was the hardest person that gave you trouble on the court?
KAJ: I don’t want to sound arrogant. Very few people gave me any trouble on the court. I’d say that Wilt (Chamberlain) was formidable, but I managed to deal with him.
I think the guy who defended me the best was Nate Thurmond. A lot of people beat on me and said that they played good defense, but Nate actually did play good defense.
TS: Who did you have trouble defending?
KAJ: The guys that can shoot the ball well, the centers that can shoot the ball well, like say, from the top of the key, would force me to come out and play defense on them because I played my best defense deep in the key.
So if I had to play against Alvin Adams, (Phoenix) played a high post offense, I had to come out from my position and guard him at the top of the key. Dave Cowens, same problem.
He can make that push shot that he shoots. I had to go out there and contend with that instead of trying to stop layups and people scoring deep in the paint.
TS: You don’t see too many back-to-the basket centers out there. Now they want to shoot a lot.
KAJ: Everybody wants to shoot three-pointers . . . The fans like it.
TS: Since you retired as a player, you have been pretty active. Is (leukemia) slowing you down, or are you able to keep a normal lifestyle?
KAJ: I’ve been able to live my life more or less like I want to live it. I got to go see the doctor every couple of months.
I get my blood checked regularly. I have to take medication. But, I know, if I do those things, I can just go about my routine without having to worry about too much.
TS: I want you to tell me about your philosophy on life now compared to when you first came into the league, with Milwaukee, and then going to L.A. and since your retirement?
KAJ: I still believe in living more or less the way I always did. I’m still trying to learn things. Nobody can say that they know everything.
You gotta continue to be humble and understand that you’re a student of life until you don’t have any more ticks left on the clock.
TS: It seems like you’re in pretty good spirits these days. Back then it seemed like you were a very angry young man.
KAJ: I wasn’t angry. I was concerned about what life was like in America for black Americans. When I grew up, we were dealing with the Civil Rights movement, and that really shaped my view on things.
TS: In your book, “Black Profiles in Courage,” you mentioned as an 8-year-old seeing a picture of Emmitt Till
TS: In Jet Magazine.
TS: You said that it made you sick, and that’s when you realized that you were a black person instead of a regular person.
KAJ: That was traumatic, you know, cause I didn’t know why (white men) did that to him. What had (Till) done that they would do something like that?
Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have the words to explain it to me in a way that I can understand.
TS: You’re on the Today Show. Joe Garagiola interviews you. You didn’t want to play in the 1968 Olympics.
TS: So then, he’s asking you why you didn’t want to play, and you’re telling him that you didn’t feel like it was your country. He tells you to go back to Africa. How did that make you feel?
TS: It made me feel that he was ignorant. But, I probably used the wrong choice of words, you know, because America definitely is my country. But, I didn’t think that my citizenship should be questioned.
Part Two will appear in the next column.