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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Sports

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once demanded out of Milwaukee. Today, he looks back on his time here with great fondness.

In Sports

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once demanded out of Milwaukee. Today, he looks back on his time here with great fondness.

In Sports

Abdul-Jabbar still ranks as the leading scorer in both NBA and Bucks history.

Kareem: The reluctant Milwaukeean


Athlete. Author. Filmmaker. Philanthropist. Pioneer. Mentor. Ambassador. Actor. Renaissance Man.

There are too many titles that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has worn in his now 65-years of existence to recall every one.

Reluctant Milwaukeean.

That is a title that Abdul-Jabbar wore for the first six years of his NBA career. And while he was adamant in his desire to leave, Milwaukee has always held a special place in Abdul-Jabbar's heart.

It just took him a few years to realize it.

"Live in Milwaukee? No, I guess you could say I exist in Milwaukee," Abdul-Jabbar said to a reporter early on in his career. "I am a soldier hired for service and I will perform that service well. Basketball has given me a good life, but this town has nothing to do with my roots. There's no common ground."

Looking back on those words, the NBA's elder statesman, who turned typical retirement age earlier this week, just shakes his head almost in disbelief that the brash, demanding, disciple of John Wooden would utter such things.

"I had to mature," he says today. "Certain aspects of being a professional athlete prevent you from maturing. Its unfortunate, but that is a fact. The insular life that you live and all of the time that you have to spend working on your craft to do it well, keeps you from learning certain things about human interactions."

But while regretting some of his statements regarding Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar says wishing to leave in 1975 had at least as much to do with the direction of the Bucks franchise at the time than anything else.

"After Oscar (Robertson) left, that created a big void," Abdul-Jabbar remembers. "You don't replace someone like Oscar. There was a specific amount of time and a number of players that we had to go through to fill that void. It just really didn't seem like it was going to happen within that first year after Oscar left. I don't think we even won half of our games."

In fact, the Bucks didn't, going just 38-44, and finishing the 1974-75 season under .500 for the first time since their inaugural 27-55 campaign of 1968-69. What was once one the NBA's most feared franchises had suddenly become an also-ran.

But the basketball story of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is just one chapter in one of the most complex novels of any American sporting life. That life, of course, began as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor in Manhattan in 1947 before changing his name May 1, 1971; the day after the Bucks won their only NBA Championship.

Abdul-Jabbar has written nine books, with subjects ranging from World War II, the Harlem Renaissance, and African American inventors. His film credits not only include his memorable role as pilot Roger Murdock in the (Shorewood natives) Zucker Brothers' classic "Airplane!" but also as the producer of documentaries chronicling the origin of professional basketball and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

But his most important project has been taking place for the past four years. The fight for his own life has taken center stage. In fall of 2007, the NBA's all-time leading scorer was diagnosed with a form of leukemia after feeling dehydrated and sluggish for several weeks.

The diagnosis shook the basketball legend. For the first time, one of the greatest athletes of a generation felt vulnerable to a disease that does not discriminate. Through an intense protocol of medication, Abdul-Jabbar is now in remission, although he is quick to point out that once someone has cancer, they can never feel fully cured.

Today, not surprisingly, he advocates others getting regular checkups. The studious icon now using his own battle with mortality as a teaching moment for the rest of humanity.

Through it all, and surprisingly to some, Abdul-Jabbar, the first premier athlete to demand a trade out of Milwaukee, views his time here as a blessing. His career here may have concluded more than a generation ago, but his memories of our city are indeed fond.

Abdul-Jabbar likes to tell the story of the end of his rookie season, after the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs by the Knicks in New York. As the team arrived back at Mitchell Field in the middle of the night, about 250 fans greeted them, cheering on their still-brand new franchise.

"That was just indicative of my time (here)," Abdul-Jabbar recalls. "Management was always great to me too. Wonderful fans. I have absolutely no bitterness about my stay (in Milwaukee) at all."

Today, at 65, the once fierce competitor relishes his role as an elder statesman in his sport and in the world community. And despite his complex and diverse persona, Abdul-Jabbar downplays the notion that he somehow is on a different plane that you and I.

"I just view myself as someone who has had the great fortune to have had so many opportunities to do so many things in my life, and I've tried to take advantage of them."

Talkbacks

Guyver_DarkHero | April 20, 2012 at 5:28 p.m. (report)

I most remember Kareem as the henchman Hakeem who fought against Bruce Lee in "Game of Death"

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