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Standing at seven feet, two inches, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already towered over most of the competition during his record-setting NBA career. His signature shot, the skyhook, released as he jumped into the air, made him almost untouchable.
Jabbar and the skyhook have now been immortalized in a new 16-foot bronze statue outside the Staples Center, home of the L.A. Lakers, the team where he played most of his Hall of Fame career. Reporter Roy Hurst has a rare interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and this profile.
ROY HURST, BYLINE: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is arguably basketball's greatest player. By the time he retired in 1989, he'd scored more points than anyone in the history of the game. To this day, his record isn't even close to being broken. Kareem did it with the skyhook, an unblockable, balletic shot that's sure to run up the scoring average for any of today's big men.
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: It's not rocket science. It's just all - it's footwork and release. Instead of looking at the basket, you're looking over your shoulder with the ball up here. A basketball shot is a basketball shot. You line it up and shoot it. That's it.
HURST: It's just that easy for basketball pros like Kareem. The surprising thing is the infamous skyhook has not carried on.
ABDUL-JABBAR: The people who teach kids in grade school how to play the game, they're not teaching them how to play with their back to the basket. That's the problem.
HURST: Playing with your back to the basket is a prerequisite for the skyhook. It's a challenging move, but teachable. Still, Kareem hasn't been able to pass along the world's most successful basketball shot, which he practically invented.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, I don't know if it's going to be resurrected. Certain things fall out of favor and out of fashion and don't get, you know, resurrected.
HURST: Kareem's own reputation may be the reason others behind him never came knocking for lessons. He wasn't seen as the most approachable sports star.
ABDUL-JABBAR: When you're involved in your career, you think, you know, everything is a hassle.
HURST: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 65 now, author of seven books. This year, he was named U.S. cultural ambassador. He's been winning the fight against leukemia, and he's willing to talk about how, during his playing days, he may have been his own worst enemy. When sportswriters weren't talking about his dominant play, they were whispering about his impatience, his intimidating glare and terse answers.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Because they want you to be, oftentimes - not always, but oftentimes - they want you to be a buffoon. You know, they wanted to have one-box-fits-all. They wanted to put all the black athletes - you know, and they don't speak well and they don't know how to read. And if you don't fit in that, I mean, what do they do with you?
JACK MCCALLUM: Well, I think Kareem was as difficult an interview as anybody there ever was, because he had kind of the perfect storm of things going on.
HURST: Sportswriter Jack McCallum covered Kareem in the '80s.
MCCALLUM: Number one, he looked like he didn't want to be interviewed. Number two, he really didn't want to be interviewed, and number three, he was one of the few guys you approached who was probably smarter than you.
HURST: In his prime, Kareem routinely avoided fans, refused autographs. He once blew off a kid's request for an autograph, and that kid turned out to be Ervin "Magic" Johnson, the guy who'd become his main collaborator on five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers.
What some may not have understood was this perceived attitude grew out of a shyness and a sense of isolation that started years before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got to the league. He was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr., grew up in an integrated neighborhood in upper Manhattan. By sixth grade, he was already six feet tall and expected to act like it.
ABDUL-JABBAR: That was really the most difficult part of it, people expecting me to be more mature and adult. And, you know, I wasn't. I was 12 and 13 years old.
HURST: Kareem was a quiet kid who liked to read a lot. But by age 14, he could already dunk the ball. That's when he started getting all the attention. He was recruited to Manhattan's Power Memorial Academy by Jack Donohue, one the best high school coaches in the country.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I was really lucky to have him as a high school coach.
HURST: Kareem led Power Memorial to a 71-game winning streak in three straight New York City Catholic championships. His career as a record-breaking basketball star had begun. But it was the civil rights era. Tension was in the air. Coach Donohue was white, and at times, Kareem felt objectified.
ABDUL-JABBAR: He mouthed off in a way, one time when I wasn't playing up to par that, you know, in order to motivate me, he said you're playing and, you know, he used the n-word. And it really destroyed a lot of trust that I had had in him. I have to say, absolutely and completely, he was not a racist. You know, he just - he was angry at my lack of focus and said the wrong thing.
HURST: Kareem went on to UCLA, where he says the legendary coach John Wooden saw him as more than just a black athlete. He was the top college player in the country but showed no interest in being a mainstream image.
In the summer of 1967, 11 black professional athletes made a show of support for Muhammad Ali's right to refuse the draft. Kareem joined them.
JIM BROWN: It was not politically correct to be there.
HURST: Football great Jim Brown organized the event.
BROWN: And everybody respected Kareem because he was a young, young guy - I mean real young. And he was just beginning his career. Out of everyone that participated, he had the most to lose.
HURST: The late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote...
ABDUL-JABBAR: No man is an island but Kareem gave it a shot.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
HURST: At an event outside the Los Angeles Staples Center, Kareem pulled the curtain on a new statue dedicated in his honor.
ABDUL-JABBAR: So here it is. I'm glad we got here before the pigeons got to it.
HURST: After the ceremony, he stood under the statue and over a mob of reporters. He took his time answering questions before his handlers finally pulled him away.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Now that I'm not playing and I've got more time, you know, I'm not so detached. You know, and, you know, I'm better at it now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're going to go two more questions, folks. Two more questions.
HURST: For NPR News, I'm Roy Hurst in Los Angeles.