The Lakers' road trip invited comparisons with the Dodgers' fateful three-game stay in New York. For Abdul-Jabbar, there was a welcome home tainted by newspaper raps that he no longer cared about playing basketball and that collecting his $625,000 salary, renewable at his option for the rest of his career, was his only concern. He had seemed sluggish in the three games, but practicing back in Los Angeles he looked spirited and ran hard.
"Look at him," said Don Ford. "I'm not Freud, but does he look like he doesn't care? It doesn't matter what people outside the team think. Most of them don't know anything, anyway. Kareem is no prima donna. He's like the rest of us. He's working as hard as anybody to turn this thing around."
"Some people make it sound like I do nothing to contribute to our team," Abdul-Jabbar said. "That's absurd. But that's the way they want it to look. It looks good in the papers. Obviously if we were in a winning situation all that negativity would turn around. The thing that makes it tolerable is that as long as I do what the coaches want me to do, I can put up with all the heat. Jerry and I have had it both ways. Obviously, it's best when we're winning."
If the Benson incident caused Abdul-Jabbar to be less intense in his play, it redoubled his determined crusade to stop violence in the NBA, which is tolerated, he feels, in direct proportion to the size of the victim. "Throw an elbow at a man who's 6'3" and it's called a foul," he says. "Throw an elbow at a man over 6'9" and it's called 'boxing out.' I remember as a kid seeing a picture in the New York Daily News of Wilt Chamberlain with four teeth knocked out. I felt very sorry for him. And I bet I was the only person in New York City who did."
While his broken hand was healing last fall, Abdul-Jabbar wrote a script for a documentary film on basketball violence. "It was produced entirely without the cooperation of the NBA," he said. He is now trying to sell the show to television, and, predictably enough, getting nowhere.
He has no intention of quitting basketball, pointing out that he is at his physical peak, yet he admits that after 22 years of playing the game and being regarded on and off the court as a freak, he toys with thoughts of other ways of life. "I definitely find myself thinking at times of different things I could be doing that would not be so oppressive to me," he says.
He long ago learned to cope with his size. "I've always considered my height a blessing," he says. "The last time I felt self-conscious about it was when I was 16 and Chock Full O' Nuts, the New York coffee-shop chain, wouldn't hire me because I was too tall. Too tall to wipe counters and mop floors!" He giggles. "And Jackie Robinson was a vice-president of the company! They were going to give black kids a chance. I was crushed.
"Privacy?" he says. "That's not a problem in L.A. People are used to seeing celebrities around town."
One day last week Kareem dropped into a sign shop to have a pet poem printed and mounted on canvas. The petite woman proprietor gaped in disbelief at his colossal presence.
"Hi, I'm Kareem," he said. They spent 30 minutes discussing the specifications for the job, the woman stealing up-and-down glances at every opportunity. "Here's my card," he said. "Give me a call when it's finished."