If you're anything like me, there's nothing you enjoy more than listening to someone who's wealthy and famous complain about his fabulously privileged life. Luckily, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar popped his head up this week to satisfy our appetite for public displays of self-absorption. Over the past 48 hours Kareem has rolled out a one-man media campaign that appears to have dual purposes. One is to promote a movie he wrote and narrated that's hitting Netflix this week. (I refuse to mention the title.) The other is to scold the Los Angeles Lakers for what he perceives to be a pattern of disrespect toward him. Item one on Kareem's list of grievances? That there are statues of Jerry West and Magic Johnson outside Staples Center, but not one of himself. Oh, the humanity!
The anti-charm offensive began Wednesday morning, when The Sporting News published excerpts of an interview with Kareem in which announced he feels "slighted" that there's no huge metal edifice crafted in his image outside Staples. He followed that up with a statement, issued through his business manager, claiming to be "highly offended" by "the total lack of acknowledgement of [his] contribution to Laker success," and then with a series of bizarre tweets in which he complained of "a total lack of respect from the supposedly wonderful Laker family." On Thursday he did a series of TV and radio appearances to elaborate on these topics.
The organization's response makes clear that they're as confused by all this as the rest of us. On Wednesday, team spokesman John Black said that the next Staples statue will be of Kareem and that Kareem's known this for a while. On Thursday, he told Mason & Ireland on ESPN Radio:
We were very surprised, we found it to be puzzling.... [W]e've been reading about it and seeing it continue to grow and we are surprised and puzzled about what it's all about and where it's coming from.
On the issue of whether Kareem's been serially disrespected by the franchise, Black told the Los Angeles Times:
I have not found one person [with the Lakers] who doesn't like Kareem. Overall, I'd say the Lakers have been pleased to have him back in our organization the last several years, and we are proud of having him as part of the Lakers legacy.
Best I can tell, everyone seems to agree that as long as the Lakers are in the business of handing out statues, Kareem deserves one. He was a star of five Laker championship teams and is on the shortlist for the best Lakers of all time. It used to be that retiring a jersey was the highest honor an NBA team could bestow on one of its greats, and I personally would've been OK sticking with that system, but fine. We're now in a world where a statue represents an even higher state of canonization, so sure, let's give one to Kareem.
But that's all beside the point. What's rubbing many people the wrong way is that Kareem apparently thinks he deserves our pity. This is a guy who became famous on a global scale, not to mention sensationally wealthy, by playing a kid's game that he could dominate largely because he was born with DNA that blessed him with a high concentration of fast-twitch musculature and almost superhuman height. Yes, he worked very hard at his profession and absolutely made the most of his natural gifts. But a lot of people work hard. Every one of us would've loved to make piles of cash playing basketball, except that we didn't grow to be 7-foot-2. As sports fans, we don't begrudge players the rewards that flow their way for playing games well, but basic decency suggests that they shouldn't rub our noses in it. If you can't be genuinely humble, at least go through the motions.
Is it fair that Jerry West and Magic got their statues before Kareem? Who could possibly care? Did anyone waste a single neuron thinking about this before Kareem brought it up? The list of people whom the world has treated less fairly than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is about seven billion names long. When the Lakers assured him he was getting his precious statue, that should've ended the conversation.
What's worse, the manner in which Kareem has voiced his complaints has combined outright lies with a passive-aggressive tone most of us haven't used since high school. He claims there's "a total lack of acknowledgement" for his contributions to Lakerdom, which is laughably untrue. His name and number hang from the Staples rafters, which would seem to constitute a form of acknowledgement. When he retired, the Lakers gave him a Rolls Royce, and Jerry Buss paid to have a lighted tennis court installed at his home in Hawaii. I, as I assume is true with most of you, own neither a Rolls Royce nor a tennis court. To have those things given to you free and then claim publicly that the giver never did anything nice for you requires a truly awesome blend of gall and self-entitlement.
When pressed on Thursday to explain how exactly the Lakers have dissed him, the examples Kareem offered ranged from the trivial to the very, very trivial. To wit:
"I had to take a cut in salary. At the same time they tell me I had to take a cut in salary they're paying the [head] coach $10 million-$12 million a year."
In response, John Black explained to the Times that the pay cut reflected Kareem's lesser role in mentoring Andrew Bynum. As Kareem's schedule and workload lightened, so did his paycheck. That's reasonable. The Lakers aren't running a charity.
And Kareem, want to know why Phil Jackson was making over $10 million a year? Because he's Phil Jackson and that's his going rate. If you want to make similar coin, there's an easy way to do it. Just go out and win 11 NBA championships as head coach, and you'll be able to name your price. Oh, and you know who else the Lakers asked to take a pay cut, about one year ago exactly? Phil Jackson.
"When I first announced that I had aspirations to be a coach, I got no help from them."
It's not clear what form of "help" Kareem expected. The Lakers don't owe him lifetime employment. Their mandate is to hire coaches who'll give them the best chance of winning. If Kareem initially didn't fall into that category, well, that's life. Welcome to the American job market. Most of us have to hustle for gigs without much help from former employers.
Of course, the Lakers did eventually hire Kareem as a special assistant coach, and his time with the Lake Show has been his longest coaching gig by far. If this is how he treats teams that offer him a first step up the coaching ladder, it's not hard to see why more organizations aren't lining up to put him on the payroll.
"We were flying on a plane back from Orlando two years ago and they put me in a tiny little seat that I couldn't be comfortable in and there were empty seats up there where coaches sat, which is where I usually flew with the team."
And on that fateful day, Kareem became the first and only person ever to be uncomfortable on a cross-country flight.
"I didn't get any of the perks or any of the playoff shares."
Take it away, John Black:
He does have a provision in his contract where he does get a playoff bonus ... [and has] for the last six years. But his title is special assistant coach; he's not a full-time assistant coach and never has been. Brian Shaw, Jim Cleamons, Frank Hamblen and Chuck Person are assistant coaches. Kareem is not, nor has he ever been, one of those.... I'm not at liberty to discuss the amount, but Kareem's playoff bonuses are a negotiated part of his contract.
Kareem's response? "I wasn't aware of that when I signed my contract." OK, well, feel free to read it next time.
Honestly, he was doing better when this was just about the statue. He's handled this about as badly as possible and he's guaranteed that his statue unveiling, when it happens, will be the most awkward in history. But whatever. I'll break out a torch and welding helmet and build the thing myself if it'll get him to stop talking about it.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.