Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s

Jeff Pearlman writes in this 2014 book:

* Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hated white people.

Read that sentence again.

And again.

And again.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hated white people and, quite frankly, why wouldn’t he have? Born on April 16, 1947, in New York City, he was named Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. by his parents—Cora Lillian, a department store price checker, and Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr., a transit police officer and jazz trombonist who graduated from the Juilliard School of music and later played with Art Blakey and Yusef Lateef. Lewis entered the world weighing twelve pounds, ten ounces and measuring twenty-two and a half inches long—signs that America had received its latest future beanstalk.

Growing up in Harlem’s Dyckman housing complex, Lewis became increasingly aware that life for black Americans was painfully confounding. In his autobiography, Giant Steps, he recalled a boyhood trip with his mother to Associated, the neighborhood grocery store. “The store manager decided we were dangerous customers, or maybe he just felt like wielding a little power that day,” he wrote. “He intercepted my mother and told her to check her bag up front. The store was full of people with all sorts of baggage, but he was going to make us the example. My mother took this for what it was, another in a lifetime of petty harassments, and told the man that if he had to satisfy himself that she was no thief, he could inspect the package when she left.”

Lew Alcindor was not merely black. He was tall and black and painfully aware of the stares and the glares and the suspicious looks and the inevitable sight of store employees tracking his whereabouts. His first best friend was a white child named John. They were classmates at St. Jude’s parish elementary school who bonded over model airplanes and funny jokes. By seventh grade, however, an unspoken racial tension divided the two. One day, during lunch, John and Lew wound up in the principal’s office after a scuffle. As Alcindor left, he heard someone yelling at him. “Hey, nigger! Hey, jungle bunny! You big jungle nigger!”

It was John. “Fuck you, you . . . milk bottle,” Alcindor responded.

“It was the only white thing I could think of,” he later wrote. “It really pissed him off, but he didn’t come anywhere near me. We never spoke again.”

* Alcindor graduated junior high in the summer of 1961, and found himself growing apart from white friends. “They made it extremely clear . . . that I wasn’t at home in their crowd,” he wrote. He arrived at Power Memorial that fall, uninspired by the heavy-handed Catholic doctrine. Inside his new school, Jesus was white and Pope John XXIII was infallible and masturbation could result in an eternity of blindness alongside the devil. There was one lecture after another, mostly warning the students that they were sinners who needed to repent.

For a young man who absorbed books (he was addicted to Greek tragedies) and questioned doctrine, it was torturous.

Until basketball started.

* If Alcindor arrived in Los Angeles with particular misgivings about Caucasians, they were only magnified through increased study. Wooden, as open-minded a white man as Alcindor had ever met, embraced his young future star—but with certain limitations. “There was warm, mutual respect,” Abdul-Jabbar later said. “But because I was black, there was never this father-son thing. He couldn’t put his arm around my waist and introduce me as his boy.”

Alcindor began forgoing standard collegiate attire for caftans, dashikis and djellabas—Afrocentric garb ordered from Ashanti Fashions, located in the center of Harlem. An article with the headline FIENDISH IN THE VALLEY WITH LEW ALCINDOR AT THE LATTER’S SMALL BUNGALOW IN ENCINO appeared in West Magazine (a Los Angeles Times supplement), and portrayed him as an America-loathing racist bent on separatism. Asked to assess backup center Steve Patterson, Alcindor snapped, “A white boy from Santa Maria. That’s all.”

* As he dominated on the court, Alcindor turned increasingly divisive off of it. This was hardly the case of a man seeking out trouble. But with media scrutiny came exposure. With exposure came truth. With truth came scorn. Alcindor emerged as a symbol—along with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos—of the black athlete no longer merely willing to go along just to get along. He would play your sport and dribble your ball and accept your cheers. But he refused to be a pawn. On November 23, 1967, Alcindor was one of 120 attendees (and 65 collegiate athletes) at the Western Black Youth Conference, a meeting held inside the Second Baptist Church on the east side of Los Angeles. The matter at hand: Determine whether black athletes would compete in the upcoming Mexico City Olympic Games.

White media members tagged the gathering “radical,” and they were correct. Harry Edwards, a twenty-four-year-old professor at San Jose State and the movement’s leader, stood before the room and spoke his mind. “We’ve been put in the position of asking the whites for everything,” he said to an ocean of nodding heads. “We’re not asking anymore, we’re demanding. We’re fanatical about our rights. We’ve been put in the position of taking our case to the criminal. The U.S. government is the criminal.”

Midway through the session, Alcindor reportedly rose. “I was born in a racist country,” he said. “I laid my life on the line when I was born. I don’t have anything to lose.”

Alcindor boycotted, as did UCLA teammates Mike Warren and Lucius Allen. When they declined to participate in tryouts for the U.S. Olympic basketball team, J. D. Morgan, UCLA’s athletic director, told Sports Illustrated the decision was based upon academics—a lie. The real reason was Alcindor’s discontentment with the racial situation in America. “Kareem gets along OK with white guys, but you have to be a brother to get next to him,” said Sidney Wicks, a UCLA teammate. “He still resents the white hypocrites more than ever—the people who say one thing to your face and quite another behind your back.”

It was in August of 1968 that Alcindor made a bold shift, leaving Catholicism (which, to the dismay of his churchgoing parents, he believed to be racist in dogma) and making a confession of faith toward the orthodox Hanafi sect of Islam. He shaved all the hair from his body, took his Shahadah (a declaration of faith—La illaha ila Allah wa Muhammadun rasoolollah—that must be pronounced before a witness for one to be initiated as a Muslim) and, in his mind, began life anew. The move hardly surprised Alcindor’s friends, who knew of his interest in the writings and philosophies of the late Malcolm X. What did surprise them, however, was when he received a new name—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (meaning noble, powerful servant).*

So yes, at this point in his life, he hated white people. Hated them. But with a catch—not individually. Though he rarely befriended whites, he was open to discussions. His spiritual guide, a former Malcolm X disciple named Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, asked Abdul-Jabbar to look beyond skin color and understand that there were plenty of black sinners, too. Abdul-Khaalis referred to Malcolm X’s famous pilgrimage to Mecca, when a militant, anti-white religious leader came to see that race—while important—wasn’t the sole factor in understanding another human being.

“I had a very firm grasp of the concepts I didn’t like—white authority, unbending rules, false-faced people—but was much less certain where to draw the line in real life,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “I was wary, and angry, that I had to examine everybody I came in contact with—sort of an emotional frisking—because every touch could be a slap. All my whites for everything,” he said to an ocean of nodding heads. “We’re not asking anymore, we’re demanding. We’re fanatical about our rights. We’ve been put in the position of taking our case to the criminal. The U.S. government is the criminal.”

Midway through the session, Alcindor reportedly rose. “I was born in a racist country,” he said. “I laid my life on the line when I was born. I don’t have anything to lose.”

Alcindor boycotted, as did UCLA teammates Mike Warren and Lucius Allen. When they declined to participate in tryouts for the U.S. Olympic basketball team, J. D. Morgan, UCLA’s athletic director, told Sports Illustrated the decision was based upon academics—a lie. The real reason was Alcindor’s discontentment with the racial situation in America. “Kareem gets along OK with white guys, but you have to be a brother to get next to him,” said Sidney Wicks, a UCLA teammate. “He still resents the white hypocrites more than ever—the people who say one thing to your face and quite another behind your back.”

It was in August of 1968 that Alcindor made a bold shift, leaving Catholicism (which, to the dismay of his churchgoing parents, he believed to be racist in dogma) and making a confession of faith toward the orthodox Hanafi sect of Islam. He shaved all the hair from his body, took his Shahadah (a declaration of faith—La illaha ila Allah wa Muhammadun rasoolollah—that must be pronounced before a witness for one to be initiated as a Muslim) and, in his mind, began life anew. The move hardly surprised Alcindor’s friends, who knew of his interest in the writings and philosophies of the late Malcolm X. What did surprise them, however, was when he received a new name—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (meaning noble, powerful servant).*

So yes, at this point in his life, he hated white people. Hated them. But with a catch—not individually. Though he rarely befriended whites, he was open to discussions. His spiritual guide, a former Malcolm X disciple named Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, asked Abdul-Jabbar to look beyond skin color and understand that there were plenty of black sinners, too. Abdul-Khaalis referred to Malcolm X’s famous pilgrimage to Mecca, when a militant, anti-white religious leader came to see that race—while important—wasn’t the sole factor in understanding another human being.

“I had a very firm grasp of the concepts I didn’t like—white authority, unbending rules, false-faced people—but was much less certain where to draw the line in real life,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “I was wary, and angry, that I had to examine everybody I came in contact with—sort of an emotional frisking—because every touch could be a slap. All my reservations became conscious, each chance meeting with a stranger and every introduction by a friend became a potential source of pain. I read all gestures intensively, and terribly often found them racially hurtful, therefore personally unacceptable. People who tried too hard to be friendly were being patronizing racists; people who didn’t try hard enough were blatant racists. People I didn’t know weren’t worth knowing; people I did know had to watch their step.”

* “The truth is, the friction between Earvin and Norm went way beyond basketball,” said Cooper, who was close with both guards. “That situation went to the party life. They were fucking the same girls. That was a problem. Dr. Buss was best friends with Hugh Hefner, and that door was open to Magic. And Norm being known, until then, as the number one available bachelor in Los Angeles, as the swinging guy who liked everything, it was awkward.

“This was his team before, but he hadn’t won anything until Magic came along. So they’re bumping heads with girls, they’re fucking the same girls. They didn’t argue about it, but you could hear them talking about it—‘Well, man, you need to stay away from Peggy,’ and such and such. They were friends. Good friends. But then it became competitive with them over basketball and women. We used to call ourselves the Three Musketeers, because we did everything together, and now it was as if I was torn between two lovers.”

Added Ron Carter: “Norm was my friend, but he was cocky as all hell. He has zero lack of confidence, ever. On or off the court. He saw everything Magic did as a competition. For the ball. For playing time. For women. Who’s the coolest? Who’s the smartest? Me and Coop would sit back and just watch. They certainly respected each other. But there was this weird tension.”

* Everything started at the top, where Buss—fifty years old, but with the libido of a rabbit—paraded around town with women barely of age to drive. “Jerry loved the excitement of it,” said Rothman. “And the little nymphettes thought he could get them movie careers.” It was, to the uninformed, a disconcerting sight. Though Buss was certainly a handsome enough man, he looked downright grandfatherly alongside many of his women. Buss seemed to date a different person every week, and—before moving on to the next bubbly beauty—would snap a photograph and place the image in one of his dozens of scrapbooks. Every so often, upon request, he would break out an album and talk about the experiences. Many names he remembered. Many, he forgot. “Jerry once told me something I’ve often thought of,” said Lance Davis, Buss’s longtime friend. “He said, ‘Lance, people try and give me shit over the women I go out with. Why would I want to go out with an older woman when I can go out with one with a fresher, hotter body? Why wouldn’t I go out with a twenty-six-year-old Playmate with a hot body?’ Jerry said it kept him young and alive—and it clearly did. He was the king, and the Forum was his palace.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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