Of all the basketball games in his memory, the NBA's alltime scoring leader has a soft spot for one in which he didn't play at all. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalls sitting in the stands of Madison Square Garden as a knobby-kneed seventh-grader, mouth agape as he watched Bill Russell and the Celtics outmaneuver his beloved Knicks. "I wasn't sure I'd ever be good enough to be a Celtic," says Abdul-Jabbar, 56. "But as for my Knicks, well, they could use some help."
With four decades and a 1,560-game career behind him, Abdul-Jabbar is getting an opportunity to contribute to his original favorite team. A chance meeting with New York G.M. Isiah Thomas at a party during All-Star weekend in LA has led to Abdul-Jabbar's taking a job that will most likely include evaluating talent for the Knicks and coaching the team's punchless post players. "We were hanging out when Isiah said, 'You could really help us out,' " says Abdul-Jabbar. "It was music to my ears."
For years Abdul-Jabbar tried to land a job with an NBA team, but his standoffish, sometimes temperamental nature-3 worked against him (SI, Nov. 30, 1998). In October a league exec told SI, "His personality has been a problem. All that s—'s coming back to him." In the past six years Abdul-Jabbar has had anger-management counseling (after a run-in with a motorist) and coached in A high school and the USBL—where he won a title with the Oklahoma Storm. His NBA experience has been limited to half a season as a Clippers assistant and some consulting work with the Pacers when Thomas was coach. Last year he applied for the Columbia job and sent r�sum�s to every NBA team, but in most cases he didn't get a call back "I can see if people talked to me and felt I didn't have anything to offer" Abdul-Jabbar said. "But to not even talk to me? It's tough to deal with."
Thomas believes in Abdul-Jabbar's mentoring skills, and the master of the skyhook was hands-on at Knicks practice last Thursday, at one point taking forward Mike Sweetney aside to demonstrate drop steps. Says Sweetney, 21, "When I first saw him, it shocked me. I said, 'Wow' I think it makes you want to work harder, when an organization brings in a guy like that."
Until he works out the details of his contract, Abdul-Jabbar will remain in L.A. and travel to see the Knicks regularly as a consultant "Isiah told me to have my bags packed and ready to go," says Abdul-Jabbar. "I can't imagine a better situation."