Kareem Abdul-Jabbar chose to use his first name as the title of his second book, which means we're finally past formalities with the man who first wrote of himself in Giant Steps. In that 1983 autobiography, Abdul-Jabbar so plumbed his own private life that, in a last-minute panic, he tried to block Bantam Books from distributing copies shortly before its release date.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Giant Steps became a best-seller, and its author became a human being. As Abdul-Jabbar writes in his new book: "After telling everybody all my sins and indiscretions, my angers and fears and dreams, I still had some fans out there, maybe more."
Undoubtedly more. By the 1988-89 season, Abdul-Jabbar's last in the NBA, every team in the league was hosting a farewell love fest for the Los Angeles Lakers' captain. When he wasn't adding short irons and commemorative statuettes to his already substantial collection, Abdul-Jabbar was jotting down his thoughts on that final go-round of the league. Kareem (Random House, $18.95) is ostensibly that diary.
But because everyone knows how the story turns out—the Bad Boys from Detroit win in the end—Kareem, like Kareem, relies on a fairly mean hook to grab your attention. In the case of the book, that means an escalation of Abdul-Jabbar's long-simmering war with Wilt Chamberlain.
For the better half of two decades now, Chamberlain has been whistling Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better at his Bel Air neighbor, and in Kareem, Abdul-Jabbar makes it a duet for the first time. He rips the Dipper for a full three pages—in italics, no less—with words like these under the heading "An Open Letter to Wilt Chumperlame": "Muhammad Ali, he set the record straight on your attributes, saying to me, "Wilt can't talk, he's ugly and he can't move!' Which says it all. So when I dropped those fifty points on you at the Forum...I was just taking advantage of your weak defensive skills...."
And, "People will remember that I worked with my teammates and helped us win. You will be remembered as a whining crybaby and a quitter, stats and all."
It's a schoolboy's note that should never have been passed along. Worse, the yawping threatens to make the rest of Kareem read like a lame postscript. In fact, the book is anything but. Abdul-Jabbar can be as gracious in his tributes—notably to John Wooden—as he is juvenile in his jabs at Chamberlain. He also brings to his journal an all-too-uncommon awareness of the world outside the arena. When the Lakers visit Madison Square Garden, Abdul-Jabbar not only offers his thoughts on the home of the New York Knicks but also on the homeless living in the nearby, subway stations, aptly described as "New York's indoor Calcuttas."
When Abdul-Jabbar chooses to chastise, forget the platitudes or the predictable targets. Here are his feelings about the inflated image of basketball vis-à-vis education: "[Education is] not something that most American blacks have focused on. We have only been here three hundred years, and it's about time we figured that out." And on racism: "Black people get recognition only for urban crime and welfare fraud, with a little rhythm and blues and sports thrown in."
Kareem is also laced with lighter delights and wry observations, like those on Laker superfan Jack Nicholson, who keeps a silver tray filled with torn money on a table in his house. (The Joker invites friends to contribute to the heap.) But the book is clearly at its best when Abdul-Jabbar is offering that rarity among sports autobiographies—an unvarnished opinion.
With one exception, that is. You must keep in mind that Abdul-Jabbar made the most eloquent argument for his basketball supremacy when his forum was the Forum. Then tune out the woofing he does at Wilt. Enjoy the rest of the book. When Abdul-Jabbar clears his throat, he almost always is worth a careful listen.