Los Angeles Lakers: Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com
Earvin Johnson wanted a hamburger.( He was a nineteen-year-old kid, fond of burgers and pizza and French fries and any other cuisine guaranteed to block the arteries. Sure, he happened to be sitting in the presence of Jack Kent Cooke, perhaps the world’s least likely man to ever order a burger of any sort. But, hey, Johnson was hungry.
Scratch that. Starving.
It was a warm May afternoon in Los Angeles, and the most dynamic player to grace college basketball since Louisiana State’s Pete Maravich a decade earlier was in town to figure out whether he should return to Michigan State University for his junior season or jump to a professional sports league that had been crippled by poor TV ratings, player indifference and a dwindling fan base. On the one hand, in East Lansing, Michigan, Johnson -- a local kid out of Everett High School -- was a king. He had been nicknamed Magic as a fifteen-year-old high school freshman and now, having just led the Spartans to their first NCAA men’s basketball title, he could not walk the streets without being mobbed. “He really was beyond reproach,” said George Fox, his high school coach. “Earvin could do no wrong.”
There was, however, the siren call of the NBA and specifically the siren call of Jack Kent Cooke’s thick wallet. On April 19, 1979, the Lakers and Chicago Bulls had engaged in a coin flip to determine which team would be gifted with the number one pick in the upcoming draft. Coming off of a 47–35 season, Los Angeles was in such a position because, three years earlier, the New Orleans Jazz committed one of the worst free-agent acquisitions in league history. The team signed thirty-three-year-old Gail Goodrich, a long-ago star on his last legs. At the time, league rules mandated that the Jazz had to compensate Los Angeles with players, draft picks or money. After much haggling between the Lakers and Jazz general manager Barry Mendelson, New Orleans agreed to part with its first-round picks in 1977 and 1979, as well as a second-rounder in 1980. “Gail was great,” said Bill Bertka, the Jazz vice president of basketball operations. “But he was older, and he came to us and immediately tore his Achilles. That didn’t make us look so smart. Especially when we lost almost every stinkin’ game in 1978-79.” (The Jazz went a league-worst 26-56.)
When Larry O’Brien, the NBA’s commissioner, prepared to flip the coin inside the league’s New York City headquarters, the Bulls and Lakers felt their futures momentarily hovering in midair. Executives from both teams listened to the toss via speakerphone from their respective offices.
“Chicago, do you want to make the call?” O’Brien asked.
“We’d love to,” replied Rod Thorn, the Bulls’ general manager, who was sitting inside the team’s offices on the thirteenth floor of a Michigan Avenue building.
“Is that OK with you, Los Angeles?” O’Brien said.
“Fine,” said Chick Hearn, the announcer, who also worked as an assistant general manager with the team.
“We call heads,” said Thorn.( A pause.(“OK, gentlemen, here we go,” boomed the deep voice of O’Brien. “The coin’s in the air…” Another pause. Another pause. Another pause.
“Tails it is!” O’Brien said. (Hearn let out a triumphant whoop.
“I was playing basketball at Venice Beach,” said Pat O’Brien, at the time a reporter for KNXT-TV in Los Angeles. “The news came over a transistor radio, and people started screaming. ‘Yes! Yes! We’re getting Magic! We’re getting Magic!’”
Howard was expected to follow the Lakers’ Hall of Fame lineage of centers but decided to leave L.A. less than a year after joining the team to sign with the Houston Rockets last week.
The two living legends in Howard’s old avatar, which he immediately changed after committing to Houston, have not taken the news well.
On Monday, Abdul-Jabbar chimed in on Twitter and Facebook and wrote, “Dwight Howard is a perfect example of the fact that ‘potential has a shelf life.’ Laker fans should be patient and allow Mitch & company to prepare themselves to do some serious work in the free agent market.”
O’Neal, while speaking at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, said he wasn’t surprised by Howard’s decision to take less money to leave Los Angeles for a smaller market.
"It was expected," O’Neal said. "We've all been in L.A., and not a whole lot of people can handle being under the bright lights. Everybody wants to do it, but when you get there, there are certain pressures. I think it was a safe move for him to go to a little town like Houston. That's right, little town. I said it."
Both O’Neal and Abdul-Jabbar were critical of Howard even before he decided to leave the Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar told the San Francisco Chronicle last month he met Howard only once and that Howard expressed an interest in learning from the former Lakers captain but he never again reached out to Abdul-Jabbar. “He's charming, he's charismatic, very nice young man,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Maturity-wise, he doesn't get it."
When Abdul-Jabbar was asked about teaching Howard the sky hook, he said, “At least he'd have an offensive move.
“He gets the ball on offense, oh my God, he doesn't know what to do. It's usually a turnover, people come and take the ball from him or tie his arms up. Offensively, he doesn't get it. Hasn't made any progress. We (the Lakers, when Abdul-Jabbar was a special assistant coach) played them in '09, and when I saw him this past season, he was the same player.”
O’Neal was just as harsh in his criticism of Howard when he was on ESPNLA 710 last month.
“He's too nice," O'Neal said. "I'm a connoisseur of giggling and playing and all that and making you laugh and playing with the fans, but when I cross that line, I'm ready to tear your face off. I don't care who it is. You could put one of my aunts or uncles out there, and I'm going to give him these elbows in their chest and I'm going to throw it down in their face. That's what you have to do. ... He's just too nice. If I was him, I would get into the same mood I was in."
Wilkes went on to share the story of his second year at UCLA, back when he was still known by his birth name of Jackson Keith Wilkes, when legendary coach John Wooden tested his shot.
"Coach Wooden called me over one day after practice early my sophomore season and said, ‘Come here, Keith. Let me see how you shoot that ball. I want you to shoot some shots around key.’ I was really confused by that and also terrified because you didn’t want the man calling you out about anything, especially around the other guys. So, I did what he said and he said he would rebound for me.
"Well, that really confused me. I thought he was going to call one of the other players to rebound for me. What I remember about that, every pass was just perfect. I said (to myself), I could get used to playing with this guy. And I was drilling it, because you know, my manhood, my credibility, everything was on the line I felt at that moment.
"So he called me back and said, ‘OK, how did you shoot that again?’ And I was really (thinking) like, ‘You just saw me shoot 40-50 shots, right?’ So I said, ‘OK, I go like this (Wilkes pulled his arms behind his head), I go like that (Wilkes moved his arms in a shooting motion).’ Then he said, ‘Well, does it leave your finger tips with (backspin)?’ And I thought about it and I said, ‘Well, yeah, coach.’ And he said, ‘OK, you’re dismissed.’
"Years later we laughed about it. He said he thought about changing it but my setup and my finish, he thought, was textbook and whatever happened in between he decided to leave it alone, and I’m so glad he did."
That funny-looking shot of his led to two NCAA championships with the Bruins, four more titles in the NBA (one with the Golden State Warriors, three with the Lakers), a Hall of Fame induction in 2012 and an upcoming jersey retirement at UCLA in January.
Here are a sampling of other quotes from Wilkes on the occasion of the ceremony in his honor:
On what it means to him:
"They’re saying no one will ever wear No. 52 again, and not only that, it will be in some lofty company."
On the timing of it, 26 years after he retired from the NBA following the 1985-86 season:
"I’m glad it happened while I’m still alive."
The pose for Abdul-Jabbar's statue, the sixth to be erected outside Staples Center and the fourth that is Lakers-related (joining Magic Johnson, Chick Hearn and Jerry West), was a no-brainer. What else could immortalize him than the vision of him raising up to shoot his signature skyhook?
The next Laker in line to receive a statue is up for debate. Will it be Elgin Baylor, who had a Hall of Fame career but finished playing in 1972, seven years before current owner Dr. Jerry Buss bought the team? Will it be Shaquille O'Neal, who is set to have his number retired this season after things got a little frosty between him and the franchise toward the end of his time in L.A.? Neither Baylor nor O'Neal seem as much of a lock to be honored with a memorial as Kobe Bryant does.
While Bryant's statue might seem preordained, the pose in which Bryant will be displayed in certainly isn't an obvious choice. I posed the question on Twitter during Abdul-Jabbar's ceremony and here are the most popular responses of what Bryant's statue should look like (along with a few of my suggestions):
• The "Kobe Face" (underbite) in Mamba mode while pumping his fist
• Standing in triple threat position, eyeing up the defender (a.k.a. the person who is observing the statue), getting ready to score
• Walking off the court with his index finger up in the air after his 81-point game
• Celebrating on the scorer's table after the Game 7 Finals win against Boston
• Shooting a fadeaway jumper
• Doing the "airplane"
• Jumping up after beating Orlando in the 2009 Finals
• Biting his jersey
• Popping his jersey
• The "Death Stare"
• The fist pump
• Screaming after the Phoenix playoff game
• Kobe with the fro guarding Kobe 24 (from @AceMoneyChi)
There were a ton of great suggestions on Twitter and no easy answer to go with. Do you go No. 24 Kobe or No. 8 Kobe? Fro or no fro? Have we already seen his statue moment or is it yet to come?
Go ahead and use the comment section to debate.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Voluntarily, of course.
Hosted by comedian George Lopez, the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Celebrity Roast will take place Nov. 17 at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, featuring appearances by many of Abdul-Jabbar's former teammates with the Showtime Lakers, including Magic Johnson.
The event also marks the beginning of the "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Experience," a multi-city tour featuring memorabilia from throughout his life and career.
The Hall of Fame center is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points. He played in 19 All-Star games and was a six-time MVP. Before entering the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar starred with John Wooden's UCLA Bruins, winning three straight NCAA championships. He was named MVP of all three tournaments, the only player in NCAA history to accomplish the feat.
LOS ANGELES -- Before Dwight Howard was introduced as the Los Angeles Lakers’ newest center last month, he took a quick tour of the team’s training facility. As he walked around Jeanie Buss’ office, he took a long look at the 10 Larry O’Brien trophies the team has won in Los Angeles since 1980 before gazing out her window at the retired jerseys on the walls surrounding the practice court.
When Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak introduced Howard during his introductory news conference, he wasted little time expressing the expectations placed on the six-time All-Star center.
“We're hopeful that 10 years from now,” Kupchak said, “we can add a jersey to that wall over there that says Dwight Howard.”
If Howard is to join the likes of fellow big men Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, later this season, Shaquille O’Neal with retired jerseys at the Lakers’ practice facility and Staples Center, he will have to deliver much like his predecessors in the paint did.
And much like Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal, Howard was acquired by the Lakers in what is considered the prime of his career and with the expectation of winning championships.
Is that a realistic expectation for Howard in his first season with the Lakers? Every situation is different, of course, but perhaps looking at how Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal contributed to the Lakers during their debut seasons with the team can provide a realistic idea of what to anticipate from Howard in his first season in L.A.
In considering the impact Wilt, Kareem and Shaq had during their premiere seasons here we looked at the change in the Lakers’ record; offensive and defensive efficiency; team offensive and defensive rebound rate; and team free throw rate -- all of which a dominant big man can influence tremendously.
We also looked at the field goal percentage of the other Lakers on the court (by taking the team’s field goal percentage and subtracting all the attempts by the big man) and the opponent free throw rate and shooting percentage -- under the theory that a dominant big man forces teams away from the basket, which should equate to fewer fouls drawn and more missed shots.
Chamberlain was traded to the Lakers on July 9, 1968, from the Philadelphia 76ers for center Darrall Imhoff (who Chamberlain scored 100 points on when Imhoff played for the New York Knicks), forward Jerry Chambers and guard Archie Clark.
Chamberlain became the first reigning NBA MVP to be traded the following season. Chamberlain led the league in rebounding his first season with the Lakers, averaging 21.1 boards per game, and field goal percentage (.583), as the Lakers improved their win total by three games and won the Western Division. Chamberlain’s rebound average in 1968-69 is the highest in club history.
While the Lakers held teams to 7.5 fewer points per game with Chamberlain, they also scored 9 fewer points and the team’s field goal percentage not including Chamberlain dipped by 2.7 percent.
Bucher asked Howard what, while looking back on the "Dwightmare," he'd do over if possible. The center insisted he has no regrets, that everything happens for a reason, and he ultimately wouldn't change a thing because the final result was positive. That being said, he still recognizes the chance to reclaim his image.
"This is a great time in my career," explained Howard. "I have a chance to start over. This is a clean slate. I'm gonna do whatever I can on the court, off the court, to just show people that this is who I am. I haven't changed. I'm the same person. I love to have fun. I love to smile. I love to joke. But when I step on the court, I'm gonna have fun. I'm gonna joke. And I'm gonna dominate. That's how it's always been."
I realize there are fans who'll chafe at this sentiment, as Dwight's taken heat over the years for not taking the game seriously enough. Some don't care for the impersonations, funny interviews and persistent grin. Personally, I think it's pretty difficult to win Defensive Player of the Year three consecutive years, lead the league in rebounds four times and carry a team to a Finals appearance without being fully invested, but that's just me. There are those who prefer players like Kobe and MJ who remain in "steely assassin" mode 24/7 and that's fine. Everyone is entitled to their own aesthetics.
But at the same time, a player is also entitled to his own identity, and cultivating an unnatural persona is often a recipe for failure. Hearing Dwight insist on being who he is reminded me of the way LeBron James mentioned on several occasions last season his concerted effort to bring back the joy to his game. When he left Cleveland, he was cast as the villain, and James made the mistake of trying to embody the persona chosen for him by fans and media. Unfortunately, NBA basketball isn't WWE wrestling, where good guys and bad guys are determined through a writer's meeting. This is real life, where being hated ain't fun. LeBron was transparently uncomfortable in the role of the heel, and one season later stopped playing the game from a place of spite.
Safe to say, quality results followed.
Similarly, I'm hoping Dwight remains comfortable enough to be himself in L.A. Under any circumstances, he'll be playing basketball inside a metaphorical fishbowl placed underneath a high-powered microscope. That's life as a Laker if you're Troy Murphy, much less a Hall-of-Fame caliber player arriving on the heels of a PR disaster. It is what it is, and it can't be changed. However, the transition will ultimately be made easier by Howard not trying to be someone he isn't. As Howard acknowledged many times in this conversation, you can't please everybody. Then again, being himself has played out pretty well for Howard over eight years in the NBA. Fundamentally, there's no reason to drastically change, and trying to might cause more problems than it solves.
The videos can be seen below by clicking on the "more" tab.
Jamaal Wilkes always knew this day would come. He never lost faith he would one day be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He just wasn't so sure if he would actually be around to see it.
"I was hopeful that it would come while I was still alive," Wilkes said Thursday night from Springfield, Mass., where he will be inducted Friday. "I wanted to enjoy it."
Wilkes retired from the NBA in 1985 and only now is receiving accolades for a 12-year professional career and a college career so impressive that UCLA Bruins coach John Wooden once singled him out as his ideal player.
On Dec. 28, the Los Angeles Lakers will retire Wilkes' No. 52 jersey, 27 years after he officially retired from the NBA. On Jan. 17, UCLA will retire Wilkes' No. 52 jersey, nearly 40 years after he helped the Bruins win back-to-back national championships.
"I knew once I got into the Hall of Fame my jersey would be retired. Although I knew that intellectually, emotionally the fact that the Lakers are going to retire my jersey along with all those great players I watched and played with, I still haven't grasped that yet. I haven't grasped UCLA yet, either."
One of the reasons it took the Hall of Fame nearly three decades to grasp the greatness of Wilkes' career is because he was often overshadowed by some of the great players he will be joining in Springfield and in the rafters of Staples Center and Pauley Pavilion.
The greatest games of Wilkes' career came on the biggest stages, usually resulting in a championship, but also coinciding with a bigger name having a legendary game that rendered his performance a footnote in history.
Wilkes' signature performance came during Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, when he had 37 points and 10 rebounds to help lead the Lakers to a championship over the Philadelphia 76ers.
That game was, of course, also one of the greatest games of Magic Johnson's career, as he started at center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played all five positions, and finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.
"That was probably the best game I've ever played, certainly in my top three," Wilkes said. "I think they were already expecting a Game 7 and overlooking us in Game 6. Without Kareem, we wanted to play faster, but we all had to rebound and we all had to chip in and get the ball off the glass. We knew it was going to be an up-tempo game. It was the only game I ever played in where I attempted 30 shots."
The show can be heard by clicking on the module and a list of talking points is below:
- (1:30): Basketball players are often reticent to shower the opposition with more than generic or obligatory praise. Thus, eyebrows raised when Chris Bosh of the reigning champion Miami Heat recently declared the Lakers the best team "on paper." Interestingly enough, Academy Award front-runner Kevin Durant, whose OKC Thunder squad took out the Lakers en route to reaching the Finals, seconded that statement.
Is this a case of gamesmanship or self-motivation from Bosh and Durant or just a begrudgingly honest assessment? In a world made of paper, are the Lakers really the best team?
- (10:50): Seven years ago, I conducted a wide-ranging interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but forgot to seek a critical bit of clarification about his role in 'Airplane.' This brain cramp has eaten away at my soul ever since. Kinda like the way not having a statue in front of Staples Center seemed to have eaten away at Cap's soul. That honor is finally (and deservedly) a scheduled event, but it's fair to wonder if Kareem's previous complaints will put a damper on the impending ceremony.
- (20:16): The Lakers loaded their roster this offseason, but with those stars comes the fear of clashing egos. Factor in the Lakers' well-documented history with this problem, and it stands to reason the media is licking its chops in anticipation of an implosion.
As part of its "Summer Forecast" series, 100 ESPN.com "experts" (quotation marks added since Brian and I are part of that panel) voted on which team would be most likely to experience turmoil this season. Not surprisingly, the Knicks led the pack with 41 votes. But in what might be considered a minor shock, the Lakers only received two votes. Whether that's because smooth sailing is expected or the talent on hand is simply immune to tension, the results caught BK by surprise.
(And speaking of surprises... Ramon Sessions: Team killer? It feels like one voter considered this a very real danger.
The date of the official unveiling will be announced at some point relatively soon.
The path to this moment hasn't exactly been smooth. Despite not having full control over the bronze-out-front process, the Los Angeles Lakers have said for a while Kareem would eventually be honored. Still, it didn't stop him from complaining about it on Twitter or to The Sporting News in 2011 that Jerry West's statue came first. "I don't understand [it]. It's either an oversight or they're taking me for granted," Abdul-Jabbar said. "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 don't care how many points a man has scored, how many rings he has won or how totally deserving of the honor he might be. Questioning why you have not yet been immortalized outside one of the country's premier sports and entertainment venues requires a certain chutzpah, and it's impossible to do without sounding petty. Particularly when the only three Lakers with statues before you are West, Magic Johnson and Chick Hearn. It's not as though Kareem was skipped over for Mike Penberthy.
The multi-talented, intellectual Kareem has always been a tricky personality, considered aloof while he played and never chummy with the media. His relationship with the Lakers (and the larger world of basketball) in retirement hasn't been easy, either. And, unfortunately, Abdul-Jabbar's earlier complaints have become part of the context of this honor.
It wasn't a good moment.
His contributions are indeed monumental, but it's naive to believe the unveiling of a statue will fully repair the relationship between Kareem and the Lakers, or allow Abdul-Jabbar to permanently set aside the ways in which he has felt slighted by the team and the game. But for one day, at least, the focus will land squarely on Kareem's incredible career.
LOS ANGELES -- Andrew Bynum sat in front of his locker with a scowl instead of a smile.
He was brief with his answers, short with his time and limited with his patience.
As Bynum took a page out of Kobe Bryant’s playbook of succinct, pithy answers during the playoffs, several reporters had to double-check the final box score in their hands and make sure there wasn’t a misprint.
The Los Angeles Lakers had just beaten the Denver Nuggets, 104-100, to take a 2-0 series lead in their first round matchup and Bynum finished with 27 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Was there something missing?
“I left a lot on the court today,” Bynum said. “I worked way too hard before the game to let that happen. I could have had a perfect game.”
Bynum couldn’t define his perfect game, but it was certainly more than the stat line he produced Tuesday night. He wanted to get at least another rebound and at least a few more blocked shots. After getting a triple-double in Game 1, Bynum isn’t satisfied with anything less than a double-double now.
“I just left stats out there. That’s about it,” Bynum said. “I left a double-double out there, I left some block shots out there, I left points out there. I left a lot of things out there tonight.”
Vote here: The Most Beloved.
When he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996, he always dreamed he would one day see his jersey retired alongside Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Gail Goodrich, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
As the Lakers continued to get eliminated in the playoffs early during his first three seasons in L.A. he worried it might never happen, and again thought his chance might have been lost when he was traded from the team in 2004 and finished his career with the Boston Celtics.
When the Lakers, however, announced they would retire his jersey next season, O’Neal said it was one of the highlights of his career.
“It means a lot to me,” O’Neal said. “I remember when I first signed with the Lakers, Jerry West told me to look up at the retired jerseys. He said either your name is going to be up there or you’re going to be a bust so it will mean a lot to have my name up there. That was always with me, especially when we didn’t have Phil Jackson and we were always losing in the playoffs, I was nervous I wasn’t going to be that good. Then we got Phil and we won championships and I was always hoping and praying my jersey would get retired one day.”
O’Neal, who was in Los Angeles this weekend to host the Cartoon Network Hall of Game Awards, says he continues to watch the Lakers regularly after retiring in June and enjoyed watching Kobe Bryant pass him for fifth on the NBA all-time scoring list earlier this season. He did say, however, he should have been much higher on the list but injuries and an inability to hit his free throws held him back.
“Kobe’s one of those athletes like Michael Jordan and Karl Malone that doesn’t miss a lot of games because of injury,” O’Neal said. “I missed 250 games and I averaged 24 points per game so that’s 6,000 points and I missed 5,000 free throws so I could have easily been at No. 2. Kobe’s never really hurt and he shoots a lot so good for him.”
I don't love his list -- Wilt Chamberlain (Legler's #4) fits better among the five greatest players in NBA history than the five best greatest Lakers -- and Jerry West, excluded by Legler, should be in the top 5. Still, there are two big notables. First, Legler has Magic Johnson ahead of Kobe Bryant for the top spot, but admits there is subjectivity and historical bias in play. Namely, Magic is elevated not just by his accomplishments but also Legler's respect for the NBA though the 1980's.
Johnson tops my list, too, but I've long thought the G.L.O.A.T debate is generational. For fans, say, 35 and over, it's tough to put anyone ahead of Magic, just as it was likely tough for the previous era to put Magic ahead of West. In time, though, I suspect more often than not Kobe will land at the top, because more "voters" will come the pool of fans who grew up watching him, and only know Magic from highlight reels.
Second, lists like these reinforce the almost absurd levels of success and star power of the Lakers' franchise, historically speaking. Pundits and fans alike routinely assemble Top 5's like this one, and Hall of Famers James Worthy and Gail Goodrich don't get a sniff. For many -- maybe most -- there's no room to squeeze in Elgin Baylor. Elgin Baylor!