Senior editor John Papanek Well remembers his first brief meeting with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back in 1975. "I introduced myself in the tunnel as he came off the floor in Cleveland," says Papanek, who was then SI's pro basketball reporter. "He regarded me the way he did most press people back then. Aloof is the word that comes to mind."
Five years later Papanek, who by then was our NBA writer, was assigned to do a lengthy profile of Abdul-Jabbar. He was granted one interview, which took place at the Westwood Marquis Hotel in Los Angeles. Though that went well enough, Papanek was surprised when Abdul-Jabbar offered to continue their conversation the next evening at his house in Bel Air. There Abdul-Jabbar and Papanek discovered a mutual love—jazz, specifically that which emanated from the saxophone of John Coltrane. "Our record collections were almost identical," says Papanek. "I think that's when everything clicked. He decided to trust me." The result was an article, A Different Drummer, which appeared in our March 31, 1980, issue.
Recently we called upon Papanek to interrupt his primary duties—overseeing our baseball coverage—and once again to write about Abdul-Jabbar, this time as part of the 19-page special report on sports agents that begins on page 74. To unravel the story of Abdul-Jabbar's pending $59 million lawsuit against his longtime agent. Tom Collins, Papanek talked with Abdul-Jabbar and drew on an interview with Collins by writer-reporter Armen Keteyian.
"While I was working on the story, it struck me that Kareem's relationship with Collins was similar to his relationship with me," Papanek says. "He's a very private person, but when he decides to trust someone, he stops asking questions."
Papanek's interest in music goes beyond just listening. He has played clarinet and saxophone since he was eight, the latter most recently in a rock 'n' roll band that includes several other SI staffers. Another interest is travel. In July, Papanek and his wife, Jackie Judd, rented a villa on Capri, off the coast of Italy, where they ran into recently retired baseball star Rusty Staub. "He said he was on his first summer vacation of his life," says Papanek. "We hit it off over many plates of linguine." Back home in Manhattan, Papanek found time to play a mean first base for the combined SI-UPI team of the New York Press Softball League, even while suffering the frustrations of his newest passion, golf. "If I don't start to get better," he laments, "it's going to be an old passion very soon."
Saxman Papanek hit a trusting note in Kareem.