Did he know that Johnson was HIV-positive before Johnson announced it publicly? "No, I didn't," Abdul-Jabbar says. Has he talked to Johnson since then about his health? "No, to be honest, I don't spend any time with Earvin. I run into him every now and then. But we don't talk."
One of his closest friends, filmmaker Richard Rubinstein, says Abdul-Jabbar is more approachable today than he was early on in his pro career. "When we first met, in the '70s, I was working on a documentary film [a series of profiles called The Winners] and wanted to interview him," says Rubinstein. "Everybody said, 'Don't do it. He doesn't want to talk to the press.' He was considered the ogre of professional sports. I asked him why he didn't smile or laugh at anything. I'll never forget how he answered. 'It's really simple,' he said. 'Nobody's saying anything funny.' "
During Abdul-Jabbar's playing days his Lakers teammates called him Cap, short for captain. "He wasn't a rah-rah type, or one who tried to coach from the bench," says Jamaal Wilkes, a teammate for eight years. "But he was such a consummate professional that he inspired everyone. He led by example."
When Abdul-Jabbar retired after the 1988-89 season, his teammates bought him a white Rolls-Royce as a going-away gift. "Since you've been carrying us on your back all these years, we decided to get you something that would carry you," Johnson said at a ceremony before Abdul-Jabbar's last game. Then the Lakers presented him with the $175,000 car.
Eighteen months later Abdul-Jabbar returned it to the dealer. "It was like driving a fire truck," he says now, seeming to attach no sentiment to the gift that a few members of his last team had chipped in more than $10,000 each to buy.
"I really don't want to say anything bad about Kareem," says Rambis, "but it's almost as if he has that athlete's syndrome of not being nice to people. You're so used to others going out of their way to be nice to you that you don't feel you have to go out of your way to be nice to them. It's really sad because I believe that if he were just nicer to people, the windows of opportunity would be huge for him."
Williams, the Magic-executive, was trying to be nice to Abdul-Jabbar when he approached him in February 1997 for an autograph during All-Star weekend in Cleveland. That year the NBA, celebrating its 50th anniversary, had published a glossy picture book paying tribute to the 50 greatest players of all time, and Williams was seeking the autographs of as many players on the list as possible. "They were all still living except for Pete Maravich," says Williams, "and even in that case I was able to get his widow to sign my book. West and Shaq weren't there, but I got everybody else—everybody, that is, except for Kareem. On three occasions I politely asked him to sign his picture for me. And all three times he declined, just turned me down flat. And it's not like I was some fan out on the street."
Fourteen months later, at a seminar in Tampa, Williams approached Abdul-Jabbar for a fourth time. "I said, 'I would be very grateful if you would sign my book for me, Kareem,' " Williams says. "And he said, 'You mean the one I didn't sign in Cleveland?' But he agreed to sign it, finally.
"Since then, I've thought a lot about that. Kareem is extraordinarily intelligent, yet for years he's had this wall built up around him. I don't think he lets too many people get close to him. It's probably a very lonely existence. But I think part of him wants to connect with people. I understand the dilemma of being Kareem. He's an enormous man who can't go anywhere on earth without being recognized. Nowhere. At least Michael Jordan can wear a hat, sunglasses and a wig and get by. But Kareem can't do that. Think of it. Think of not being able to live a day of your life without being recognized. Would you want that?"
Despite his fame and the attention his size brings, Abdul-Jabbar has managed to keep his personal life private. In L.A. he shares his house with his recently widowed father, Lewis (Al) Alcindor, a former New York City subway cop, and until this summer Kareem's son Amir, now 18, lived with them. Abdul-Jabbar had three children with his ex-wife, Habiba, one of them his namesake, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now a 6'6" small forward at Western Kentucky. Amir, a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, is Kareem's son with former girlfriend Cheryl Pistono. Then there's Adam, the last of his five children. "His mother is a woman from San Antonio," Abdul-Jabbar says. "It wasn't planned parenthood, but there he is. She and I never even lived in the same city."