Still taking care of business
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a force in basketball in the seventies and eighties. He has shown himself to be equally adept in the world of film and books too. Mathew Scott spoke to him during a recent visit
If there was one thing certain about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during his playing days with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, it was that the man could certainly take care of business.
In the 1970s and 1980s - that far-off era of basketball that's these days commonly known as 'pre-Jordan' - his 7-foot-2 shadow loomed large over the National Basketball Association.
At his best - and let's not forget he was at his best for a long, long time - Kareem was unstoppable. His patented sky hook remains, on reflection, a work of art.
Devised initially to counter a ban on slam dunks in college basketball - while Kareem was lifting UCLA to the 1967, 68 and 69 NCAA titles under the tutelage of the legendary John Wooden - it was simple in design, deadly in execution.
With a defender between him and the basket, Kareem would turn side on, creating some space for his arm (either arm) to arch up from down low. Clear of danger, the ball would float high, and it would usually float in. It was all net; no nonsense. And it is a shot that suits the man's character perfectly.
The rumours of course had preceded Kareem's visit to Hong Kong this week. As an interview subject he can be difficult, it is said. He can be aloof. He neither suffers nor tolerates people wasting his time, or impeding his progress towards getting done the job at hand.
In the days previous to arriving here he had cancelled a whole day of interviews at the last moment, and the PR agents circling the trip were flighty to say the least.
So it is with some trepidation that we enter the suite at Wan Chai's Grand Hyatt to find Kareem leaning back on a lounge, his legs stretching out long into the carpet.
A good sign is that he is smiling. An even better one is that he is quick to lay the blame for a sometimes poor public image directly on to himself.
'I don't think I handled things well early in my life,' he says. 'All I wanted to do was play basketball. I didn't want to talk to people, to the press. I didn't handle it as well as I could have. I was reticent to talk to people when I played, I just wanted to play.
'I think the common image was that I couldn't communicate. But time and, I think, at long last some maturity have helped me.'
As the press sheet reads, when Kareem walked away from the game in 1989 he left behind a legacy that will most likely never be matched. At that time he had scored more points, blocked more shots, won more MVP awards, played in more All-Star games, and lasted through more seasons than any other player in history (see graphic).
But he also worked his way into the public's conscious off the basketball court, becoming a successful author (his latest book Brothers In Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes was released last year), and made some spare change as an occasional actor.
And it was those skills - not basketball - that first brought him to Hong Kong, back in 1972.
What followed were some of the kung-fu genre's most memorable scenes, when Kareem took on an iconically yellow jumped-suited martial arts master named Bruce Lee in The Game of Death, which would eventually be released in 1978.
'I had started watching samurai movies during my first year in college. I enjoyed them and wanted to find out more about them so started studying martial arts.
Bruce was doing Green Hornet at that time, so he was in the States and it was suggested that I train with him,' says Kareem. 'Then once he returned here and started making movies we tried to find a way to work together.
'In the States he was a cult hero. The only people at that stage that knew about him were the people who had watched that show and that wasn't a lot of people.
'Then I came over here and he was like a rock star, he had blown everybody away with Big Boss.
'He always identified with the Chinese people and they recognised that, the common people. They identified with what he was doing. Being a black American there were similarities in they way we saw things and we became friends. He was a wonderful human being, there was so much more to him than just the acting. It was a pleasure to know him.'
But for Kareem, basketball has always come first and it was a dedication to the game that allowed him to play at the highest level for a staggering 20 years.
What's even more impressive is that fact that he did retire at the very top. In 1989 his 'Showtime' Lakers made it through to the NBA finals, although they were denied their third championship in a row by the Detroit Pistons.
'I think what made me unique was that I was driven each year to be at my best,' he says. 'I never really saw myself playing 20 years and the best part of my career was the second 10 years. And that was testimony to my yearly preparation.
'I was willing to do each year what had to be done for me to at my best. It helped of course that I knew there were no other jobs paying that well.'
And if it wasn't for mother nature waving her magic wand, Kareem's career might never even have got off the ground. Surprisingly, basketball wasn't his first choice of sports.
'I really wanted to play baseball,' he says. 'But I didn't have a whole lot of control of my fast ball and then once I got past 6-foot-8 everyone was saying 'maybe basketball might work for you'.
'It was a serendipity thing; I was able to see great players play while I was in high school in New York and that helped me develop. In the end I think I was the type of player they didn't like to see coming into the gym. I knew I could give them trouble.'
On reflection, he says his greatest personal triumph came during the 1985 final series against arch-rivals the Boston Celtics. Kareem was matched against hard-nut Robert Parish, and had his colours lowered in game one - the Celtics won 148-114, and Kareem had just 12 points and three rebounds.
The game was labelled the 'Memorial Day Massacre'. But things weren't to stay the same for long.
Kareem bounced back in game two - 30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists - and the Lakers went on to wrap up the series in six games - finishing the Celtics off on their own court in Boston. Kareem also picked up the finals MVP award.
'In 1985 I won the MVP and no one expected me to,' he says. 'In terms of team achievement, and personal achievements, that was right up there. To win on the [Boston] Garden floor, that was sweet.'
Kareem remains a keen observer of the game, and as well as delving into coaching - his trip to Hong Kong was part of an Adidas-sponsored Far East tour that took in coaching clinics in Shanghai - he keeps an eye on the comings and going and on the state of the game in general.
He has firm - and realistic - opinions on the modern-day trend of young players skipping college and throwing themselves into the high life of the NBA.
'I think it is unfortunate that they don't go to college, as that is really good for a young athlete, to put yourself in that situation and have to deal with things,' he says. 'I mean to just go and have someone hand you US$30 million, they will probably go and do something foolish. I know that I certainly would have done something foolish when I was 19.'
He sees some sense in the moves being rumoured that one day there might be an age-limit set for players. 'It might work, or something like a minor league to help them develop a work ethic,' he says.
'It would be good for them and good for the game. Right now the college game suffers because they leave and then they go to the pro game and they don't know enough so they struggle and no one really wins in that regard. Both games are being hurt so there has to be a way to help both camps.'
And, as always, his love of the game remains. 'Basketball allows for individual expression, and it's a good test of athletic ability your skills your endurance and that's why kids like it.
'In the end, I think people see me as someone who works very hard. My record is standing up to the test of time so there will always be people who respect what I did and that is a nice position to be in.'
AN ALL-STAR CAREER
Born: Lew Alcindor, August 16, 1947, New York
Weight: 267 lbs
High school: Power Memorial (NY)
Clubs: drafted by Milwaukee Bucks (1969); traded to Los Angeles Lakers (1975)
NBA all-time leading scorer (38,387 points)
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (1995)
NBA Champion: 1971, 81, 82, 85, 87, 88
NBA MVP: 1971, 72, 74, 76, 77, 80
10-time all-NBA first team
Five-time all-NBA second team
Five-time all-defensive first team
Six-time all-defensive second team
One of the 50 greatest players in NBA history (1996)