Abdul-Jabbar will finally get the statue he always wanted
outside the Los Angeles Lakers' home arena, and on Monday he sat down with his
former team's newest elite big man, Dwight Howard. Pretty much everybody agrees
that Abdul-Jabbar is the second-greatest living center, behind Bill Russell,
and it is impossible to get through two paragraphs of a story about him without
including the word "legend."
See? Last word, second paragraph. I made the quota, barely.
Yet for some time, Abdul-Jabbar has shown a curiously
passive-aggressive attitude toward the respect, or lack thereof, he feels he is
shown by the league and players of today. The news that an Abdul-Jabbar statue
will one day stand alongside figures of Magic Johnson and Jerry West included
the not-inconsequential detail that Abdul-Jabbar had openly lobbied for such a
statue at the most awkward time — the unveiling ceremony for West's statue in
2011. What is more, Howard had been a Laker for less than three weeks when
Abdul-Jabbar tweeted that the two All-Star centers "still haven't
met" but that "Lakers fans hope for the best always!"
Why Abdul-Jabbar feels the need to chase recognition is
anybody's guess. Roger Murdock suddenly is less amusing given that Abdul-Jabbar
honestly does seem as defensive as the character in Airplane. Abdul-Jabbar once said he would like to be remembered not
as a basketball player, but as someone with many talents and interests, except
he sure does seem intent on making sure everyone remembers him as a player.
By most accounts, Abdul-Jabbar was one of the most thoughtful
athletes of his generation, so it makes sense that he envisioned himself
sliding into the role of sage old man in retirement. It was a role George Mikan
filled well and which Russell inherited gracefully, and Abdul-Jabbar certainly
must have felt he was entitled to the same respect. But neither Mikan nor
Russell assumed their place overnight. Mikan was almost immediately seen as
obsolete in a faster, more athletic NBA, while Russell did not exactly endear
himself to Boston fans during his playing days or leave the Celtics gracefully
in the end. Mikan's statue was not built until nearly 50 years after his
retirement and now sits in a relatively nondescript location in the Target Center
concourse in Minneapolis. Russell, the greatest winner in NBA history, is still
waiting for his statue more than 40 years after he retired.
Abdul-Jabbar had only been retired for seven years when
Shaquille O'Neal joined the Lakers in 1996. From the 24-year-old O'Neal's point
of view, the sky-hooking gazelle did not have much to offer the slam-dunking
bruiser. O'Neal was wrong, of course, but rather than accept that kids will be
kids, Abdul-Jabbar took the slight personally and never had a real relationship
with the player who was essentially his successor in the chain of great Lakers
centers. (No disrespect intended to Vlade Divac.) Ten years later,
Abdul-Jabbar's fondness for Andrew Bynum seemed to ebb and flow with how much
lip service Bynum paid to his predecessor's greatness.
The thing is, Abdul-Jabbar does not need to do any of this. He
does not need the validation of any team, league or player — not when you
consider that he posted 70 games with at least 40 points in his career. His
accomplishments stand on their own, and through his dedication to yoga and his
religious faith, he always projected an aura of inner calm.
He needs that inner calm now. If Abdul-Jabbar feels
underappreciated, that is other people's fault for failing to recognize his
greatness. As Murdock attested in the cockpit of the big pretty white plane
with red stripes, Abdul-Jabbar busted his buns every night while dragging
[Bill] Walton and [Bob] Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes. What today's players
and fans think about him is of no more consequence than what Joey's dad thought
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