Returning from a
road trip one afternoon last week, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar deplaned, took a few
quick steps across the apron at Milwaukee's Mitchell Field, climbed the stairs
into the terminal and headed down the concourse accompanied by a man wearing a
fur-collared beige car coat and charcoal trousers. Abdul-Jabbar's companion was
of medium height and medium build and had medium brown hair turning to gray;
what was distinctive about him was his shoes. They were black and had
unfashionably thick rubber soles that protruded perhaps half an inch all
around. They were the footwear of his profession, and identified him as clearly
as the badge in his pocket. The man was a cop.
was a detective from the Milwaukee Police Department and, like plainclothesmen
in Chicago and Detroit, he has recently served as a bodyguard for the Bucks'
center. It is a job he performs amicably and one Abdul-Jabbar accepts with good
humor, surprisingly so since the mere presence of the detective unavoidably
reminds him of the horrible events that led to the protection.
One month ago
seven persons, including five children ranging in age from nine days to 11
years, were murdered in a Washington, D.C. house that Abdul-Jabbar had
purchased for them. Because the three-story, $78,000 building is also the U.S.
center for Hanafi Moslems, an orthodox Islamic group of which Abdul-Jabbar is a
member, and because of information given by residents of the house who survived
the slaughter, both Abdul-Jabbar and the Washington police believe Black
Muslims were responsible for the murders. The Muslims, whose formal name is The
Lost And Found Nation of Islam, are a black separatist group founded in Detroit
in the '30s. The sect has many traditional Islamic trappings but subscribes to
beliefs that orthodox Moslems consider divergent from the teachings of the
Qur'an. If the motive for the Washington slayings was a religious one, then
Abdul-Jabbar, the most celebrated American orthodox Moslem, his wife and their
nine-month-old daughter could be future targets.
The threat to
Abdul-Jabbar has pushed into the background other events that had already made
this a confused, unhappy season for the Bucks. Following an exhibition game in
Denver, Guard Lucius Allen, who was convicted on a drug charge in Los Angeles
in 1968, was arrested after traces of marijuana were allegedly found in a bag
he was carrying. As he awaited trial Allen played well, and he managed to drive
thoughts of a second conviction and a possible jail sentence from his mind by
working hard on his already superb chess game. Two weeks ago the charge was
dropped because of insufficient evidence, and Allen showed his relief by
becoming one of the league's hottest players.
Two months into
the season another guard, Wali Jones, was put on indefinite medical suspension
by the Bucks, who claimed he had lost weight and stamina. It was subsequently
disclosed that at the same time Jones had been suspended for 30 days without
pay—his contract called for about $90,000 this year—for what the Bucks termed
"curfew violation and conduct detrimental to basketball." Those acts
have never been spelled out and Jones was later put on irrevocable waivers.
"We see no reasonable prospect of Jones returning to the level of
performance that we expect of him," said General Manager Wayne Embry after
receiving a doctor's report that asserted there were no apparent causes for the
player's supposed loss of weight and strength. The case has been appealed to
the NBA commissioner, and Jones is still seen occasionally at Bucks' games,
viewing the action from seats given him by former teammates.
Milwaukee has been
burdened by numerous other medical problems, most of them sprains or pulls that
have briefly knocked players out of the lineup or caused them to perform at
less than full efficiency. Coach Larry Costello says he has had his entire
roster intact for only one game. The principal victim of the nagging injuries
has been Oscar Robertson, who began the season with an aching toe, then
suffered a deep muscle pull in his neck and shoulder and last week played with
his thigh heavily taped to protect a damaged hamstring. For the first time in
his 13-year career, Robertson was not selected for the All-Star Game and some
of his opponents are even whispering the word "finished" when his name
It may well be
that his huge body, which made him too strong to stop and too heavy to handle
as a young player, has, at age 34, slowed Robertson down. Embry, who became the
first black man to hold a major managerial position in professional sports when
he took over as the Milwaukee GM last spring, is a former teammate of
Robertson's and himself a very thickly constructed man. "There's no
question that if you're more heavily built you're more susceptible to
injuries," Embry says. "I had a lot of pulls and back and knee problems
as I got older. They finally hurt so much I had to quit before I wanted to. The
secret is you've got to play lighter as you get older. Oscar's about the same
weight as he's always been. And when he's healthy there's no way he's finished.
Every player's physical abilities lessen to some extent or another when he gets
older. Oscar is such a smart player he can adjust to his limitations better
than most. He was once the greatest basketball player of all time and he can
still do an awful lot of things."
Robertson played like the Oscar of old, not an old Oscar, and the rest of the
Bucks, notably high-bouncing Forward Bob Dandridge, were doing a number of
things that made the Lakers and Warriors, two of the NBA's strongest teams,
feel a little over the hill. Even with Allen's thigh wrapped in a bandage
matching Robertson's and starting Forward Curtis Perry on crutches with a
sprained ankle, Milwaukee won impressively 109-88 and 135-108. Robertson was
injured yet again Sunday, spraining his ankle as Milwaukee lost to Boston. But
by winning two of three the Bucks remained among the NBA's classiest clubs
(their record was 41-18 compared with the league-leading Celtics' 45-12), a
status they have had all season despite the troubles they've seen.
But none of the
Bucks had to face problems remotely comparable to Abdul-Jabbar's. He has
effectively sublimated his worries on the court. Against the Lakers he had 29
points and 24 rebounds while holding Wilt Chamberlain to eight and 14 (see
cover). In the Golden State game, Abdul-Jabbar scored 28 points and
outrebounded Nate Thurmond.
Off the playing
floor, however, Abdul-Jabbar's concerns surface. "I'm not afraid for
myself," he says, "I'm afraid for my family. These [the murderers] are
not very brave people and they are very sick."