One of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game was honored last Friday with a statue outside the Staples Center, where his beloved skyhook will forever greet fans and patrons.
During his 20-year career, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly Lew Alcindor, played 14 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers, leading the team to five NBA championships. He is the league’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points.
Several former teammates, coaches and NBA players attended the unveiling ceremony, where speakers shared personal anecdotes about the seven-foot-two-inch Hall of Fame center.
Former teammate James Worthy said Abdul-Jabbar’s accomplishments and contributions to basketball could not be summed up in a single evening. He said that, as a young player, he anticipated Abdul-Jabbar to be a dominant individual in person, just as he was on the court.
“What you get immediately is a walking encyclopedia. You get a person who is extremely conscious about his surroundings, and willing to share those important characteristics with you. We used to talk about history,” Worthy said, referencing his attempt to get his degree while in the league. “Kareem never knew this, but he was my private tutor. …It was like having a big brother on the team.”
He said Abdul-Jabbar is a “true, deep-rooted person,” and during his playing days, Worthy would marvel at the skyhook. The former small forward said there was a methodology behind the skyhook that made it difficult, and sometimes painful, to defend.
“If you wanted to get your face reconstructed by trying to block it, your grill would be messed up,” Worthy said. “Kareem was just amazing. It was an art of science. …We love you, man. You’ve meant a lot to us.”
Hall of Fame point guard Magic Johnson said Abdul-Jabbar hated him as a rookie, specifically because he would jam to “Atomic Dog” at 6 a.m. He referenced his first game as a “crazy, emotional” rookie, when the skyhook scored the winning bucket against the San Diego Clippers. Johnson said he jumped into Abdul-Jabbar’s lap and hugged and choked him.
“He got me inside the lockerroom and said, ‘Rookie, don’t ever do that again.’ I said, ‘Kareem, if you hit a shot like that eighty-one more times, I’m going to jump in your arms eighty-one more times’,” he said.
Johnson thanked his former center for taking the Lakers on a ride to several NBA Finals appearances. He said Los Angeles can thank Abdul-Jabbar’s contributions for the existence of the Staples Center.
“You also taught us how to be a man and a professional, how to go about our job in a professional manner,” he added. “And you didn’t have to say no words. We saw you live it, and we wanted to be like you.”
Former Lakers coach Pat Riley mentioned the time he played against Abdul-Jabbar in high school. He said it was an honor to play against and coach him.
“It doesn’t make me special because I had those opportunities,” Riley said. “To me, it was an absolute privilege.”
He said he was also privileged to be part of the Laker family, and discussed the “incredible experience” he had coaching the team in the 1980s, when the squad was known as “Showtime”. Riley said the nickname was not just about “fun and games.”
“That was one of the hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest and, at times, the most disliked team in the NBA. …It was more than just a team that ran,” he added. “We used to run like the wind. You know, we used to fly with the best of them. We used to dunk in people’s faces. All of the players on that team … were not just athletic, they were competitive. We used to defend, we used to rebound and we used to get it out.”
He said “Showtime” was really about mental toughness, and although the team was known for its fast-paced offense, the heart of “Showtime” was in Abdul-Jabbar.
“When it got tough and when it came down to winning time, we used to go ‘fist up.’ And the ball would always go to Kareem. …And he always delivered for us,” Riley said. “He has been there for me, he has been there for us his whole career. He was our protector.”
Dr. Richard Lapchick had known the Lakers center since at least high school, and credited Abdul-Jabbar for playing a large role in him pursuing a career as a civil rights activist. He said Abdul-Jabbar is a true leader — in life and basketball.
“I define a leader as someone who stands up for justice and doesn’t block its path, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been doing that since he was a young man,” he said.
Lapchick said he attended a basketball camp in high school in which he noticed a group of Caucasian players harassing the one African-American on the court. He said he spoke up to one of the Caucasian players and told him to stop.
“He hauled off and knocked me out cold,” Lapchick said. “The black guy happened to be Lew Alcindor, and that’s where my friendship began with Kareem.”
He referred to Abdul-Jabbar as a “renaissance man,” and said that he is the most thoughtful basketball player he’s ever met. Lapchick said the Hall of Famer was a giant physically and as a human being, having stood up against inequality over the years.
“Kareem has stood tall on all those issues throughout his career,” he added.
Some speakers, such as NBA commissioner David Stern, former President Bill Clinton and Abdul-Jabbar’s son, Amir, could not attend, but sent their words through video. Clinton said the big man truly deserves the honor.
“To those of us, including me, who had the privilege of watching you on and off the court, you have been a real symbol of strength, an exemplary role model for our children, encouraging them to stay in school and follow their dreams,” Clinton said. “And your passion for uniting people of diverse backgrounds is why Hilary and the State Department made you Global Cultural Ambassador.”
Former broadcaster Eddie Doucette, who broadcasted games for the Milwaukee Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar’s former team, coined the term skyhook.
He said Abdul-Jabbar was one of the most intelligent men he’d ever interviewed, and he referenced the playoff game in which the skyhook won Game 6 of the NBA Finals for the Bucks.
“That was the greatest night because that term — skyhook — took off, and I can’t think of a more apt description for the greatest shot in the history of the game,” Doucette said.
Former Laker and general manager Jerry West said Abdul-Jabbar is an “iconic basketball star” who wasn’t afraid to play dirty when necessary.
“Kareem was the most selfless super player that I’ve ever seen in my life,” West said. “Never once did I hear him complain about a coach, about practice, and, more importantly at that time, his salary. That’s not who he was. He was a basketball player.”
Johnson introduced Abdul-Jabbar and helped him unveil the statue, saying, “I get to assist him one more time.”
The NBA’s all-time leading scorer said the unveiling ceremony was a humbling experience, and that he wouldn’t be where he is today without some great mentors, such as his grade school and high school coaches in New York, and, of course, the late UCLA coach John Wooden.
“You never understand how important these people are until they’re not there with you,” he said. “With coach Wooden, that didn’t really apply. I understood immediately what a great man he was, what a wonderful person he was.”
Abdul-Jabbar also thanked his teammates, his business manager and, naturally, Laker Nation.
“I saved that for last, because you guys overwhelmed us. Your love and appreciation for me has meant so much,” he said, referencing the support he received after his leukemia diagnosis. He glanced at his statue. “I’m glad we got here before the pigeons got to it, because we wouldn’t be having this much fun.”
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