Los Angeles Lakers fans must have hoped that their team’s implosio in the 2011 NBA playoffs during coach Phil Jackson’s likely last season was the end of this year’s Staples Center soap opera. As it turns out, that was wishful thinking.
Now, suddenly, the Lakers’ faithful are witness to a more bizarre melodrama. Their legendary Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has in recent days taken to Twitter and other media outlets to express his genuine displeasure that the Lakers have not yet erected a statue in his honor outside the Staples Center, where Magic Johnson, Jerry West and longtime Lakers announcer Chick Hearn are all bronzed, along with Wayne Gretzky and Oscar De La Hoya.
Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, has never been a charmer, and he would be the first to admit it. But his griping about the statue has already raised lots of eyebrows. “I don’t understand it,” Abdul-Jabbar told the Sporting News regarding the statue issue. “It’s either an oversight or they’re taking me for granted. I’m not going to try to read people’s minds, but it doesn’t make me happy. It’s definitely a slight.” In a statement, Abdul-Jabbar later said, “I am highly offended by the total lack of acknowledgment of my contribution to Laker success. I guess being the linchpin for five world-championship teams is not considered significant enough in terms of being part of Laker history.”
Among the slights, says Abdul-Jabbar: he was forced to take a pay cut as a special assistant coach in 2009 while Jackson earned $12 million per year (a Lakers spokesman has said Abdul-Jabbar’s responsibilities were reduced and that his salary was adjusted to reflect that). Former teammate Magic Johnson has been fully embraced by the Lakers. He even became part owner, though he sold his share last year. Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar says he feels like an outsider. “They just treated me like I was some stranger,” he tells TIME. On the flight back from Orlando after the Lakers won the 2009 NBA Finals, Jabbar, who is 7 ft. 2 in., says the team made him coil up in a small seat while there were roomier seats available in the area where players and other coaches were lounging.
Many observers are not going to have much sympathy for Abdul-Jabbar, who can seem like yet another retired star clinging to glory days and starving for recognition while the world moves on without him. The Lakers have indicated that Abdul-Jabbar is next in line for a statue, though he says he heard that promise two years ago. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to kick the man. “It’s not like I want a statue and I’m jumping up and down about that,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “It’s an accumulation of things. The principle of not being recognized is something that can really burn.”
In his six years as a special assistant coach, Abdul-Jabbar has received some credit for helping Lakers center Andrew Bynum develop into a low-post threat. And Abdul-Jabbar, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009 — it’s in remission — isn’t some ex-jock who just sits around at card shows, trying to profit solely from his name. He’s an established cultural figure, whose experiences encountering racism and subsequent conversion to Islam got people talking about race and religion. He has written six books, including several on African-American history, and has just produced a thoughtful documentary now available on Netflix, On the Shoulders of Giants, which tells the story of the Harlem Rens, a successful barnstorming all-black team from the 1930s. (And who could forget his immortal cameo as pilot Roger Murdoch in Airplane!? “Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.” )
When you think about it, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has another good reason to feel that his legacy has not been fully appreciated. After all, any statue commemorating him would also be a monument to the hook shot, the once prevalent but now all but forgotten big man’s signature move that he perfected. He scored 38,387 points in his NBA career, and he estimates that half of those were from his famous sky hook: Abdul-Jabbar would stretch his arm beyond the reach of any defender and flick a baseline shot with his wrist. When he received the ball, the whole world knew the hook was coming. Still no one could stop it. Yet since he retired in 1989, few if any elite players have made this virtually unblockable shot their go-to move. Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, for example, showed off his hook skills in this year’s playoffs, but he is not known for them. Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic can hit a hook, but his key move is the muscular dunk.
So where is the next Kareem? If his shot was such a lethal weapon, why has no one copied it? We live in a copycat word, whether in sports or in other walks of life. (Witness all those tablet computers.) “I think the reason is that when most young players are learning the game, they are being taught guard skills — dribbling, passing, shooting, defensive movements and rebounding,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “No one is teaching them how to play with their backs close to the hoop. In addition, the three-point shot has created a kind of lotto fever. All young players want to shoot it or dunk the basketball. That subtle kind of athletic maneuvering is something that is becoming a dying art.” Like Rick Barry’s old underhanded free throw, the hook shot is utterly uncool. If you try a few and miss, your peers may question your athleticism. Do you really have to try a trick shot from a 1950s news reel? It’s easier to just barrel toward the basket or try to trick your defender with clever footwork.
The sky hook’s disappearance defies all logic. You don’t have to be a 7-footer to shoot it — today’s big guards and fast forwards can get close to the basket and toss the ball over their opponents. Magic Johnson, for example, toyed with a “junior hook” during his career; he even helped the Lakers win a championship by hitting a famous hook over Kevin McHale and Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics in the final seconds of Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals.
In grade school, when he was relatively uncoordinated, Abdul-Jabbar started shooting the hook because he needed to score over older, bigger kids. “The sky hook is not a difficult shot, but you have to work on the fundamentals,” he says. “It really doesn’t take that long to learn. Once you get the footwork, and how to hold the basketball, down, you can shoot it. It just takes somebody showing it to you and then taking the time to work on it.”
Few have done so. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has given a gift to aspiring basketball players, a formula for astounding success. And all we’ve done is squander it. The least we (and the Lakers) owe him is a statue.