Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one month past his 40th birthday, sat high above Los Angeles, his long legs poking out from behind a desk in the offices of the law firm of Bushkin, Gaims, Gaines & Jonas. He had been spending a great deal of time in those offices because, even while the Lakers were winning the 1987 NBA championship, Abdul-Jabbar was a very troubled man. Much of the more than $13 million in salary he had earned in 18 years of pro basketball had literally gone up in smoke when fire destroyed his Bel Air mansion in 1983. He had lost other large sums in a messy 1980 divorce and through his own and his women friends' extravagances. Worse, he had become entangled in a web of investments so complex and damaging that a team of Bushkin lawyers had spent months trying to extricate him. Last year they filed a lawsuit against Abdul-Jabbar's former business manager, Tom Collins, and others to recover damages alleged to total no less than $59 million.
Yet Abdul-Jabbar didn't give the appearance of being troubled. He seemed, as always, uninvolved; one could only guess what was going on inside that balding head, where some private music always seems to drown out intrusive sounds. At this moment he was lost in a book of artsy photographs of Ferraris. In this ultrachic office straight out of L.A. Law, he was oversized and, in worn jeans and faded T-shirt, underdressed, especially alongside his latest adviser, a 34-year-old Bushkin lawyer named Leonard Armato. Armato now does much of the speaking, if not the thinking, for Abdul-Jabbar.
"The idea that Kareem is broke and desperate for money is a fiction," Armato says. "Kareem can quit playing basketball for the Lakers today and never want for anything the rest of his life. Kareem feels it's time to speak out and set the record straight. He's been hurt because people haven't been told the truth."
The truth may or may not come out in the unfolding of the lawsuit against Collins, who for 12 years was Abdul-Jabbar's close friend, agent and business manager. In it Abdul-Jabbar charges Collins and 11 of his employees and business associates with improprieties ranging from breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract to fraud and negligent misrepresentation, most of them in connection with real estate deals that Collins engineered in 1984 and '85. Abdul-Jabbar contends that Collins involved him in those deals without fully explaining the risks. He also alleges that Collins arranged bank loans in such a way that Abdul-Jabbar was left personally liable not only for his own share of the investments—about $1.6 million—but also for some $7.4 million put up by other partners, among them Collins and NBA stars Ralph Sampson, Alex English and Terry Cummings. In August '86 Collins countersued Abdul-Jabbar, claiming that the player owed him $382,000 in commissions and fees.
Abdul-Jabbar has spent more than $1.2 million in the last year buying his way out of deals that went sour. He has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Yet because he is an exception—a star athlete who has stayed at the top of his game for nearly two decades—he will survive his financial troubles. He has a $4.5 million home, land in Hawaii and lucrative contracts with Adidas and Campbell Soup. He is president of a jazz recording company. In June the Lakers extended his one-year, $2 million contract to a two-year, $5 million deal.
Collins isn't doing nearly as well. Slightly more than a year ago he was handling about $7 million per year in client income and pocketing perhaps $500,000 a year in commissions. Now he has lost his house in Encino and nearly everything else. He lives with his wife, Nancy, and their three children on a ranch he has owned for four years in Ignacio, Colo. The bank recently foreclosed on his mortgage, and Collins will soon be forced to move once again. He's away from home three days a week while he works in his brother-in-law's meat market more than 300 miles distant.
The deals Collins cooked up for Abdul-Jabbar had not produced any income by the middle of 1985, at which time he started to get suspicious. But the deals themselves were not so much the issue when Abdul-Jabbar fired Collins in January '86. The real issue was, quite simply, trust.
Abdul-Jabbar has always been wary. From the time he was the eighth-grade phenom Lew Alcindor in New York, he was tugged at by strangers. Sometimes they burned him. By the time he graduated from Power Memorial High, he had learned to be careful.
The few people he did trust, he trusted fully—even blindly. When he got involved in the study of Islam, he allowed his Muslim spiritual leader, Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, to choose his Muslim name—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar means generous, powerful servant—and even his Muslim wife, Habiba. Because Abdul-Jabbar didn't know the first thing about handling money, he also let Abdul-Khaalis select his business manager, a Wall Street lawyer named Bob Owen. These relationships all ended sadly: The marriage to Habiba broke up in 1973 (they were divorced in '80). Abdul-Khaalis was jailed in '77 for leading a murderous siege on the national B'nai B'rith headquarters and two other buildings in Washington. Owen died of cancer in '80.
Owen had done all of Abdul-Jabbar's financial planning and budgeting. His investment strategy was strictly conservative. He steered Abdul-Jabbar into a real estate partnership with Bill Cosby and helped him buy his first home and one for his parents. "Owen didn't make me a hell of a lot of money," says Abdul-Jabbar, "but he didn't lose me a penny. I was very comfortable."