By Tom Fitzpatrick
They will sentence Kareem Abdul-Jabbar within the hour.
The courtroom is in the old Phoenix Union High School.
“Where can I find Kareem’s courtroom?” I ask.
The receptionist on the main floor doesn’t have to check her chart.
“You mean that basketball player?” she asks. I nod.
“Down the stairs to the basement,” she says, making no effort to conceal her boredom. “Then go along the hall to the end of the building. You can’t miss it. Every television crew in town’s already waiting.” The steps leading down to the basement are steep and surprisingly long. I don’t remember going to a courtroom in a basement before.
And the only thing I remember about the subject of basements is that the terrified Czar Nicholas II of Russia was shot to death in one on July 16, 1918.
At the courtroom door, I see more than a dozen reporters and camera operators. This is one of those obligatory stories which every news organization thinks it must cover.
A celebrity has sinned. He must be punished not only by the court but the publicity engines of the media as well. The public’s lust for a measure of satisfaction must be satisfied. Certainly, nothing astonishing is likely to happen. Still, it must be watched closely in the unlikely event that Kareem, like the biblical Samson, were to tear down the walls of the courtroom in a rage over his sentencing.
All this serves several purposes.
There must be film for the evening news. There must be photographs and stories for each of the daily newspapers. So, in addition to all the usual local papers, reporters from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times are also on hand.
I’ve been to more courtroom sentencings than Giovanni Vigliotto has wives. Generally, this large a turnout comes at the verdict and sentencing points of a sensational trial: John Gacy, the serial killer, or Governor Otto Kerner, or the Conspiracy defendants in Chicago; John de Lorean in Los Angeles; Vigliotto, Robert Cruz, or John Harvey Adamson here in Arizona.
Kareem has drawn this crowd not for his crime but because he grew to be seven feet two inches and became a famous professional basketball player.
The charge is small beer. Fernando Nicolia of Rome, an accidental tourist with one of those horrible, whirring cameras, is in Metrocenter on vacation.
I must confess that my immediate inclination is not to sympathize with anyone like Nicolia, who thinks Metrocenter is a legitimate tourist destination.
Nicolia, who at 41 is about the same age as Kareem, spots a giant black man walking along the line of shops. The sight of Kareem with his shaved head amazes him. The Italian tourist becomes as excited as any American who has just spotted his first giraffe on the road heading out from Nairobi.
He points the camera and starts his machine. You can imagine Nicolia’s excitement. His neighbors back in Rome will be astonished at the size of this specimen he is collecting with his camera.
Kareem spots the amateur cameraman. For a lifetime, he has been hooted at, gawked at, even ridiculed by people just like this tourist.
Kareem walks toward the camera and gives it a shove, knocking it to the floor and making Nicolia think he has been struck by a runaway rhino. Kareem doesn’t bother to stop. He walks right out of Nicolia’s life. Normally, this would be the end of the story. There would be some huffing and puffing but that would be the end of it. Nicolia’s camera is in a shambles, but I figure that’s a fair price to pay when you use it to invade a stranger’s privacy.
Nicolia, who insists that he’s a basketball fan, does not go directly to the police. The first place he goes is to a lawyer. You sense that here is a man who knows something about money.
Only after a lawyer has been consulted is a report made to the police. The film of the incident is developed, and copies are made available to the press.
The snippet of Kareem stiff-arming Nicolia’s camera has been shown more times on Valley television stations than the Toyota truck commercial where the driver reaches the mountaintop and then leaps to the sky in exultation.
Kareem readily admits his role but explains that he hit the camera in a moment of reflexive action.
Now it’s time for posturing by Municipal Court Judge John Weihn and prosecutor James Dunham. They make the most of their opportunity.
Kareem strides slowly into the courtroom. He must duck way down to get through the door. It is as though we are watching a well-dressed giant entering a dollhouse.
All eyes are glued to him as he walks down the center aisle and sits in the front row behind his attorneys, Michael Kimerer and Garth Smith.
In addition to the media people, the place is packed by courthouse workers from all over the building. They have never seen this big a celebrity here before.
“It was a mismatch,” Prosecutor Dunham says. “Mr. Jabbar is a seven-foot two-inch professional athlete. Mr. Nicolia is five feet nine and 140 pounds.” Kimerer, the defense attorney, arises. He wears a beard and he is very calm.
Kimerer is the guru of Arizona defense attorneys. When the Suns’ drug case broke last year, it was Kimerer who masterminded the defense. “It was an unfortunate accident,” Kimerer says. Then he makes a concession. “It was probably a reckless act.” Judge Weihn orders Kareem to pay what amounts to a $500 fine plus another $850 for the smashed camera.
It is over. Kareem is free to leave for Los Angeles in the long, black stretch limousine waiting in the courtyard.
The reporters follow Kareem, who refuses to speak.
I stand at the doorway outside the building with Kimerer.
“People don’t realize that Kareem is really embarrassed about all this,” Kimerer says. “His father is a policeman in New York City. His grandfather was also a policeman. Kareem is a very law-and-order guy.
“He really feels he’s embarrassed his family.” Kimerer explains that Kareem was anxious to settle the whole thing before going to court.
“We had a meeting with the complaining witness,” Kimerer says. “He told Kareem he wanted $30,000. Kareem said fine, we’ll settle.
“The Italian then said he wanted $60,000. Kareem said no. He wasn’t going to submit to blackmail.” Kareem’s limousine pulls out slowly from the old Phoenix Union courtyard and onto the street.
He has played his last regular season game here in Phoenix. He will not miss this town, which he has always regarded as the only National Basketball Association franchise located in South Africa.
They honored Kareem before the final Suns’ game with Los Angeles. It was a curious ceremony. It was highlighted by a stunningly awkward moment.
Former Suns’ player Neal Walk, now confined to a wheelchair, came out on the floor to make a presentation to Kareem.
Walk was the player the Suns got in the draft twenty years ago instead of Kareem. He presented Kareem with a mounted coin with an inscription from John Greenleaf Whittier: “For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: `It might have been.’|” Sadly, the message on the coin tells us more about Walk’s misfortune than it does about Kareem’s long string of triumphs.
Walk has been confined to a wheelchair for three years. He lost the use of his legs during surgery to remove what turned out to be a benign tumor near his spinal column.
Out there on the floor in front of a packed house, Walk told Kareem he still considered it an honor to be selected second to him in the college draft twenty years ago.
Kareem was clearly stunned by Walk’s appearing beside him in a wheelchair. They had not seen each other since Walk retired from the game ten years ago.
“When you see something like that,” Kareem said later, “you really understand problems.” Making the lead speech during the ceremony was Suns’ coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. Surprisingly, Jerry Colangelo, the Suns’ president watched from a seat in the press box. One wonders why Colangelo didn’t take part.
After all, he was directly involved in the coin toss in which Kareem became the property of Milwaukee rather than the Suns.
Clearly, Colangelo never hears the music. Right now, he’s too busy schmoozing with Terry Goddard, finagling to get a new arena, to do the gracious thing.
Kareem goes out on a muted note. He has always been publicly petulant and unfriendly. As a player, his superb gifts won him respect but few friends because he was always such a crybaby.
As Denver coach Doug Moe said: “Kareem’s always been the biggest jerk in the league.” That’s true. But, for a long time, Kareem was also the league’s most valuable player.
During the presentation ceremony, Kareem went more than halfway with the crowd in an attempt to be gracious.
It was a packed house. Looking around, however, it was difficult to spot more than a handful of black fans.
Kareem thanked the Suns‘ fans for a set of custom-made golf clubs, even though he doesn’t play golf. He even joked about the possibility of receiving a “Get out of jail free” card.
Then, sadly, they started the game. Kareem made a sky hook early in the first period. But it’s clear his skills have eroded.
His reflexes have slowed just enough so that he is always an inch from doing the right thing. His legs are gone. He is playing a full-court game with a body now capable of playing only half-court. The spring has gone out of his legs.
Kareem has reached the point in his life when he plays like a 41-year-old.
But there are certain compensations: He still gets paid $2 million a year for doing it.
But it’s all finished now.
He won’t have to deal with the Gorilla anymore. Once, Kareem threatened to assault the team mascot who he felt was making fun of him.
Now there will be no gorillas or Italian tourists to disturb his equanimity.
I’ve followed Kareem from the beginning when he was Lew Alcindor of Power Memorial High School in New York City.
I remember a magnificent game he played when he was still at UCLA. John Wooden brought his team to play in the Chicago Stadium.
One of the worst blizzards of the century had closed down the city. But 18,000 fans mushed through snowdrifts to see him.
In those days even people who weren’t basketball fans felt compelled to see him play. I remember him in the NBA at Milwaukee, too. On any given night, with Oscar Robertson feeding him, Kareem could dominate any team in the NBA.
But he didn’t like Milwaukee, which he considered a racist city. Kareem demanded that he be traded. That’s how he ended up with the Lakers. With Magic Johnson feeding him, he’s had some awesome years.
Kareem is one of the big names in basketball history. And yet, there’s always been something missing.
It’s been impossible for fans totally to warm to Kareem because he never warmed to them. There is a bitter cloud around him just as there was with Bill Russell at the end.
Russell retired from the Boston Celtics and promised to go live the rest of his life in Liberia. At the most recent count, he is still among us and still largely discontented.
Like Russell, Kareem’s excellence as a player is beyond debate.
How do you explain it? Fans were and are enthralled by Julius Erving and Magic Johnson. They both possess a natural warmth that’s almost palpable.
There’s a coldness about Kareem. Sure, the deadly accuracy of his sky hook will be talked about for years.
But Kareem himself will be remembered as an aloof stranger who did not enjoy the company of other strangers. As a player, his general demeanor is a mirror image of Georgetown coach John Thompson.
I remember something Thompson once said that sums them both up: “I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t invite people to my house, and I don’t accept invitations to go to their houses, either.” On a sunny morning in late March, Kareem left Phoenix for possibly the last time. He sat alone in the back seat of a shining black chauffeured limousine.
There have been so many triumphant nights for him in the place they affectionately used to call the Madhouse.
But that humiliating courtroom scene is a terrible farewell to Phoenix. Kareem will carry it with him for the rest of his life.
The Italian tourist becomes as excited as any American who has just spotted his first giraffe on the road heading out from Nairobi.
“He told Kareem he wanted $30,000. Kareem said fine, we’ll settle.
[He] then said he wanted $60,000. Kareem said no. He wasn’t going to submit to blackmail.”
Kareem was clearly stunned by Walk’s appearing beside him in a wheelchair.
Kareem thanked the Suns’ fans for a set of custom-made golf clubs, even though he doesn’t play golf.
He even joked about the possibility of receiving a “Get out of jail free” card.
It’s been impossible for fans to warm totally to Kareem because he never warmed to them.