In April '97 Abdul-Jabbar faced misdemeanor battery and false-imprisonment charges for allegedly having assaulted a motorist after a traffic dispute. The case was dismissed after he underwent anger-management counseling and paid $5,000 to a youth program. Then, last March, drug-sniffing dogs detected marijuana in his possession as he was making his way through the Toronto airport. Abdul-Jabbar claimed to customs officials that he used the drug to diminish the nausea that accompanies migraine headaches, from which he frequently suffers. He surrendered the small amount of marijuana he was carrying and paid a $500 fine.
To league insiders, both incidents seemed an odd way to impress potential employers. "These are two extraordinarily major things to overcome, especially at the same time he's saying he wants to coach," says Pat Williams, senior executive vice president of the Orlando Magic. "So the minute those two hit, boy, they were giant red flags. To start hammering on a motorist, no matter the reason.... And anytime the drug thing comes up, that's not good. Those are two very distressing signals."
But these weren't Abdul-Jabbar's only encounters with the judicial system. In November 1997 he brought a lawsuit against Miami Dolphins running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar, 24, another former UCLA sports star. Alleging trademark infringement, the elder Abdul-Jabbar objected to sharing his name in the marketplace with the younger one, who had changed his name from Sharmon Shah in 1995. In April the parties settled out of court when the football player surrendered rights to the name for commercial purposes. Although the agreement amounted to a victory for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to many the suit made him seem petty and ungenerous.
"The way it was reported in the paper," says the elder Abdul-Jabbar, "it was like I was an egotistical bully. I'm not the first person to have that name, and I won't be the last. But I am the one who's been marketing himself as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for many years. I had to protect that position."
"People in the league are going to look at all these different things before hiring him," says Jerry West, executive vice president in charge of basketball operations for the Lakers. "But I don't think there's any question that eventually someone will take a chance with Kareem. This is a uniquely gifted guy who also happens to be one of the truly great players ever to play the game. Kareem is just different, and I say that in a positive way. He's introspective, thoughtful and extremely bright, and he doesn't say an awful lot, which I think will be a plus. Add to that his knowledge of the game and the respect he'll command from the players, and you have the ingredients of a wonderful coach."
Perhaps even more than his legal problems, Abdul-Jabbar has had to battle his image as a moody, aloof loner. West has encouraged him to be more visible, to attend more Lakers games, but Abdul-Jabbar has followed that advice only to a degree. "He's uncomfortable with his celebrity," says his agent and close friend, Dominic Sandifer. "He sits down, and all of a sudden they flash his picture on the Jumbotron, and the whole place goes crazy. People chase after him. It's a parade—Kareem and then this crowd trailing."
When he played, Abdul-Jabbar seemed to wear a perpetual scowl. Reporters regarded him as one of the toughest interviews in the league, and he often rebuffed fans when they approached him for autographs. Even some of his teammates struggled to connect with him. "He's just a hard guy to know," says Kurt Rambis, who played for the Lakers for eight years and is now an assistant coach for the team. "One of the sad things about Kareem is that I don't think there are too many guys, if anybody, that he played with whom he stayed close to. He didn't seem to have any tight relationship with anyone."
On road trips when Lakers congregated in hotel restaurants and bars, Abdul-Jabbar remained alone in his room, lounging under a lamp with a book open in his lap. Before games, while teammates bounced around the locker room in a jangle of loud talk and nerves, he quietly sat at his locker with a piece of reading material, head bowed, like a holy man in meditation, lost in any time but the present.
"Most athletes who are members of a team aren't great friends," Abdul-Jabbar says. "When the team is a champion, people see the rapport down on the court and assume it extends to the players' personal lives. But that's not the case."
The teammate with whom Abdul-Jabbar seemed to have the best rapport was Johnson, but as Abdul-Jabbar admits, even that relationship was never close. "There's no problem between Earvin and me," he says. "It's not like we're enemies. But we didn't have much in common beyond basketball, and we still don't."