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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.
Specifically, he 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 comes up.
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."
Last weekend 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."