“A lot of guys you stop playing and that’s the last you hear from them,” Abdul-Jabbar told The Desert Sun by phone Monday. “So I’m thrilled to be able to still be relevant.”
“Relevant” is a world-class understatement.
Abdul-Jabbar is happy to share his thoughts and words on myriad issues, whether in the pages of prestigious periodicals like Time Magazine or in any of the 13 books he’s penned, ranging in topics from basketball and black history to a series of fictional books and comics about Sherlock Holmes’ older brother. He’s even part of the writing staff of a reboot of the TV show Veronica Mars.
Now 71 years old, he’s as comfortable bouncing from job to job as he is hitting a 12-foot sky hook.
Speaking of the sky hook, would that even work in today’s NBA?
“It still works. If you can get me the ball in the post and take 40 years off of my life, of course, I could go out there and wear them out with it right now,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
But he says comparing eras, like how would his Showtime Lakers fare against today’s Golden State juggernaut is a fool’s errand. Rules changes, particularly the lessening of up-close-and-personal defense, make such comparisons impossible. It’s like comparing apples and bruised up oranges.
“The whole idea is to take as many high-percentage shots as you can,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “When they changed the rules that hand-checking is no longer allowed, well now those 35-foot shots will drop because you won’t have somebody hanging on your hip — and biting your ear and with a finger in your eye while you’re trying to shoot the ball. So a lot of those shots would never drop. It’s just different rules. People don’t take that into consideration.
“Can you imagine me playing now where you can’t muscle me the way they did? It’s crazy to try to compare. It’s impossible. And I’m not saying that those guys, Steph Curry and those guys wouldn’t be awesome talents just like they are now, they’d just be playing the game differently.”
One big distinction from when Abdul-Jabbar played (1969-89) to now are the number of 7-footers bringing the ball up the court. For the 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar, he said that’s fun to watch.
“I mean guys like (Giannis) Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant, 7-foot point guards that can burn and stop at 35 feet and shoot a 3? Holy (cow),” he said, politely requesting not to print the expletive he actually said. “I mean think of Philadelphia, they’ve got Ben Simmons as a point-power forward. What? And he’s not playing around. He can do it, man. Wow! It’s interesting to watch that part of the game now.”
And obviously, you can’t have a conversation with Kareem and not talk about the Lakers. And when you talk about the Lakers in 2018, you’re talking about LeBron.
What does one Laker legend think about LeBron being part of that elite Purple and Gold legacy?
“Well, when you add the best player in the game to your team, it’s going to help, obviously,” he said with a laugh. “It’s exciting. I don’t think it guarantees that they’re going to be in the Western Conference finals or anything, but it’s a great improvement. And fans are going to enjoy going to the games again, to see them win and have a chance to be competitive, and that was the first step that the Lakers wanted to take.”
Abdul-Jabbar also admires LeBron’s off-the-court accomplishments.
Kareem was never one to shy away from saying what he believed in when it came to politics or religion or social justice. It’s a tricky tight rope for a high-profile athlete to walk. Some all-time greats completely stayed out of social issues — Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant for example — while they played. Others have used their platform to speak out. Some times the climate of the time almost forces your hand to say something.
Abdul-Jabbar had a thoughtful take on LeBron and an athlete’s role when it comes to social issues.
“Here’s what I think about LeBron. LeBron is not only having the conversations, he’s put his wallet in the game,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He’s put his cash in the game both to be a businessman and to help his community. He set up a school that’s going to send kids to college in an underperforming district of his hometown.
“This is activism on a scale and with a focus that is so special that I can’t say enough about it. Wow! He could be sitting some place counting his money right now. I’m really proud to say that he’s an NBA player. You talk about a conscious and a vision and he’s got it.”