Commentary

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shows small side

The NBA great's recent tantrum about respect reveals a lifetime of insecurity

Updated: May 20, 2011, 12:13 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- He has been a giant since the day he entered this world 64 years ago. Thirteen pounds and 22 inches at birth. Six-foot-8 by the time he was in eighth grade. A legend on both coasts before he ever played a game for John Wooden or caught a pass from Magic Johnson.

His size and his stature became as much a part of his identity as the game he played so well and the city he always stayed so near to.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has always been a giant of a man.

Until now. Until this silly, sad episode over statues and hurt feelings that has left him standing only two feet tall.

In the past 48 hours, Abdul-Jabbar has revealed a lifetime of insecurities and fractured, perhaps forever, a lifelong relationship with the Lakers.

While his tantrum may have begun innocently, because a reporter simply asked him why the Lakers hadn't yet honored him with a statue outside Staples Center, his tone grew angrier and more bizarre by the hour.

[+] EnlargeKareem Abdul-Jabbar
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty ImagesKareem Abdul-Jabbar's recent outburst about respect has left the Lakers stunned and saddened.

"What prompted me has been a steady diet of disrespect from the supposedly wonderful Laker family," Abdul-Jabbar wrote via Twitter on Wednesday night.

"Its not about a getting a statue because I'm over it - its about RESPECT! Lakers have given me the absolute minimum of respect."

By Thursday morning he sounded like a man trying to line up allies and start a war. A sad, unhappy 64-year-old man lashing out, no, crying out for attention.

"My tendency is to grin and bear it because I figured there must be something happening that I don't understand and this is being done out of necessity," he said on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning."

"Once I got the idea that that wasn't the case and it wasn't, I figured maybe it was time for me to speak out. I've never been this vocal about anything. I've always tried to stay out of the fray and not be an object of controversy. It doesn't suit me, but something needed to be said."

Really? Did it?

According to the Lakers, who've been absolutely stunned and saddened by the tantrum, Abdul-Jabbar has been told he would be honored with a statue next season.

He's simply upset about his place in the order of Laker greats to be honored. In reality, the order was far less personal than you or Abdul-Jabbar might imagine. Magic Johnson was first -- just seven years -- because it was his idea. Chick Hearn was second, because his wife Marge was well into her 90s and dreamed of seeing her late husband honored. Jerry West was third, because he is older than Kareem and because of his distinguished history as both a player and general manager.

Abdul-Jabbar was supposed to be next.

He also has been employed by the team as both an assistant coach and special assistant coach over the past few seasons.

That, as we know now, wasn't nearly enough for him.

Which is understandable considering his resume as the NBA's all-time leading scorer and generous work with Lakers center Andrew Bynum, but not surprising if you've ever met him in person.

A lot of people have called Abdul-Jabbar names over the years. Aloof, rude, cold, private. I've always just believed he was misunderstood.

A man whose grace on the court belied his discomfort off of it. A man whose height made him a legend but cast him forever apart from the crowd.

A few years ago, when he revealed to the world that he was battling a rare form of leukemia, the Lakers were stunned both that he had kept his illness a secret for so long and that he would ultimately reveal it in so public a way.

I remember asking Lakers coach Phil Jackson at the time why Abdul-Jabbar has been so private over the years. I figured Jackson, a tall man who also came of age in the 1960s and '70s and shared Abdul-Jabbar's love of learning and listening, could uniquely relate to his plight.

"Height is a factor," Jackson said. "It takes you out of the crowd and puts you above it. I don't know if it makes you aloof, perhaps, but it does give you a different perspective on life and that's a big thing.

"The other thing is Kareem chose a different path. It was a path in which he changed a little bit the face of his personality from Lew Alcindor to being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

"Like Cassius Clay," Jackson said of the boxer who changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam, "it was a big change and it was a change that society had to adjust to.

"He's handled himself with that kind of dignity over his lifetime in which many incidents have happened, that created situations in which he's had to do that.

"His ability to negotiate through that traffic in life has been very admirable."

It was the kind of thoughtful answer Jackson occasionally gave that revealed as much about him as it did about the subject of the question.

Thinking back on it now, it elucidates clearly the difference between Abdul-Jabbar and Jackson.

They are both tall, shy men who love to read and wander and learn. They have both been outcasts in the basketball community. They both have a mind for much more than a game. They have both been champions.

Why then did Jackson become one of the game's all-time greatest coaches, while Abdul-Jabbar has never been asked to do more than mentor and assist?

Why has Jackson been able to walk away from the game with peace, while Abdul-Jabbar seems filled with so much bitterness?

The answer is as simple as it is sad.

Jackson has always been able to bring men together, Abdul-Jabbar has always stood apart.

One day soon, Abdul-Jabbar will get his statue. He richly deserves it, even after all this.

But the honor will be sullied. The validation it confers will feel forced.

It will be what he wants, but so clearly not what he needs.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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