The Los Angeles Lakers have had no shortage of legends dawn the purple and gold over the history of the franchise. One position that has been a staple of dominance for the Lakers has been at center with no one doing it better for Los Angeles than six-time NBA champion and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Kareem spoke with Lakers Nation over the weekend to talk about his new book, Coach Wooden And Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On And Off The Court, along with with a number of other topics. Jabbar talks at length about John Wooden, UCLA, Muhammad Ali, new Lakers regime under Magic Johnson, his thoughts on Ivica Zubac’s skyhook and if he’d take a role in the Lakers front office if asked.
Ryan Ward: You’ve recently written a book, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court about your UCLA coach John Wooden. You’ve had a lot of coaches over the years from high school through the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. And you’ve won championships with all those teams. What makes your experience with Coach Wooden so unique?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “He taught us about life and about being good people. That’s a valuable lesson.”
John Wooden was a man of many quotes that have inspired many over the years. Is there one quote, in particular, that is your favorite from your former UCLA head coach?
KAJ: “That’s tough. Some of them were pretty simple and very helpful. Some of them are more profound. It’s hard to pick one out. I think when he said, ‘Your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.'”
What are some of the other lessons that you learned from Coach Wooden that you were able to apply to your life?
KAJ: “The whole idea of dealing with the people that you work with. Being loyal to them. Being a good teammate. Being able to be in a situation where they’re there for you when that develops you know you’ve got something meaningful and something special.”
Muhammad Ali was also a sort of coach in your life in that he motivated some of your political activism. How did Ali inspire you as an athlete and an activist?
KAJ: “Absolutely. I think that Muhammad Ali was more teaching by example. He was able to show everybody what it meant to care about people and to really be about making them smile.”
The bulk of your success on the basketball court came under Wooden and Pat Riley. How were the two men different in their coaching styles and personalities?
KAJ:“Pat had a tough situation in that he had to learn on the fly. He was working in the broadcast booth and went from that to assistant coach to head coach in two years. He had a lot to learn in a short period of time.
“Coach Wooden started out coaching immediately as soon as he left Purdue. He played a little bit of professional basketball, but more or less got into coaching and training people immediately, so he had a lot more experience.”
UCLA basketball has become a force to be reckoned with again. Lonzo Ball helped lead them to the Sweet 16. What are your thoughts on Ball and his potential impact on the Lakers if the team can get him in the upcoming draft?
KAJ: “I don’t know. I didn’t see him play that much during the year. I only saw one or two games, but if he has the talent, I’m sure it will manifest itself over time.”
What do you think of LaVar Ball and his antics? Is he setting his boys up for failure on the NBA level with all the added pressure?
KAJ: “I think that’s really for him to sort out. Some people are very critical of that. I don’t know how it affects his kids, so it’s hard for me to assess that.”
The Lakers are going through some drastic changes with the front office overhaul. What do you think of the move to make Magic Johnson president of basketball operations and Rob Pelinka as general manager?
KAJ: “You can’t ever predict how things are going to go. So much of success from managers has to do with the fact that they end up being in the right place at the right time. Not so much to do with skill, so much to do with good fortune.”
Do you have an opinion on what the Lakers front office should do this summer? Possibly make a trade?
KAJ: “Any general manager needs to try to get as many draft picks as he can and have an idea of what the talent pool is like and who’s going to become a free agent. They have to pay attention to a lot of things, and then there’s always those players that pop up out of the blue. There’s no predicting it sometimes. It’s a hard business to do well in consistently.”
How do you feel about the Lakers’ young core of players? Is there any player that stands out, maybe one you think could be a potential star in the future?
KAJ: “Well, I think the Lakers have made some good choices. They haven’t had the opportunity to get the best of the best coming out of college, but with their draft choices, they’re making good choices. Hopefully, that will give them a basic roster that will benefit greatly when they can get the franchise better.”
No one in the NBA has been bold enough to try developing the skyhook, but Ivica Zubac is giving it a shot. What do you think of his all-around game and his skyhook?
KAJ: “I think he can put it to good use. Anybody can put it to good use if they know how to set it up. If he works on it, he will have the opportunity to use it effectively. He can definitely last longer if he has a go-to shot that people can’t block. I hope he’s able to use the hook shot to that effect.”
Have you been asked to help Zubac to develop the skyhook and would you be willing to help the team in that capacity?
KAJ: “No, not yet. I have to go in and talk with Magic. He asked me to come in, and I haven’t had time. It’s like a month since I’ve spoken to him about it.
“I am going to stop in to see him in the next couple of weeks and maybe work out something where I can help out the team. We’ll see if something makes sense.”
Your Showtime Lakers dominated during the 80’s with a fast-paced, unselfish style of basketball. Who comes out on top in a seven-game series between your Lakers and Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors?
KAJ: “We won’t ever know about that because the rules aren’t the same now. They don’t allow hand-checking and the physical play they allowed when I played.”
Is that the biggest difference: Hand-checking and the way you can play defense?
KAJ: “Yes. That is the biggest difference as far as I can see. It makes a big difference how the game goes along … they can’t play much defense because you can’t touch anybody.”
How do you feel about the disappearance of defense in the NBA and do you think it is hurting the game?
KAJ: “Yeah, well, I think it has changed the game … given the extra point you get shooting it beyond the three-point line that makes those players and those shots more valuable.”
After Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points and called it a career last year, he ended his playing career third on the NBA’s All-Time Scoring list behind you and Karl Malone. Kobe was 4,744 points behind even though he played 20 seasons. Do you think anyone will pass you for No. 1?
KAJ: “I don’t know. I played 20 years. It took me 20 years to do that. They make so much money now. Why would they want to play that long? They can play 12 years and buy an island and retire. Wonderful choices they have now. My hat’s off to them.”
What’s your take on LeBron James’ legacy? A lot of people are trying to make the argument he’s the best player the league has ever seen putting him in the conversation with you, Kobe, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan.
KAJ: “I think that LeBron is probably the best all-around player in the game today. He makes so many things look easy, and his leadership qualities are first-rate. Just the fact he’s a leader, and he gets his team to the Finals, and they win, I think that’s the criteria you want to emphasize because you can emphasize different types of criteria and who knows who’s great?”
Do you still have an interest in coaching in some capacity?
KAJ: “No, no. I think that opportunity has passed me by. I’m 70 years old now, and it’s not a time or place for me to be doing that.”
Would you consider a sort of front office with the Lakers if Magic came asking?
KAJ: “Oh yeah! I could help, and I certainly could help with the big men if they want to learn things from me or just pick my brain, I would certainly.”