In the 13th season of his professional basketball career, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who turned 35 last month, has found peace and security in the midst of fortune and fame.
"I'm not trying to gain anything as an individual. I don't need that," he said in an interview before the playoffs began. "I just want to be able to leave with some dignity and some respect."
Abdul-Jabbar wants another National Basketball Association championship and has led the Lakers to eight straight playoff victories. Los Angeles will play the Philadelphia 76ers in the first game of the NBA championship series Thursday night in Philadelphia.
"Winning the world championship is always the high point; it's what we all shoot for," said Abdul-Jabbar, who won the title with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 and with the Lakers in 1980. "Victory is the only intangible thing that makes this job glamorous."
He has been the league's most valuable player six times, more than anyone else, but he shrugs off the statistic. When they gave him the game ball earlier this year for surpassing John Havlicek's 26,398 points to become the third-highest scorer in league history, he gave the ball back.
"Wilt Chamberlain is the No. 1 scorer and he won two championships," Abdul-Jabbar said at the time. "Bill Russell must be down around No. 30, but he won 12 titles. It just isn't that important."
Abdul-Jabbar could conceivably pass Chamberlain's 31,419 points in 1984, but he says the record will not figure in his decision. He already has thought about retirement.
"I've been thinking about going to law school," he said, remarking that fellow UCLA graduate Bill Walton is now at Stanford Law School. "When I'm through, I'm going to have to be involved with business of one type or another and the law gives you a good background for a lot of that."
The decision to retire is one "I have to deal with year by year," he said. "At any point, I can get injured and that's going to stop the whole show right there." Once he retires, "I think I would probably have to take a long time, months or maybe more than that, just to relax, let everything I've done kind of percolate through. I've been playing organized basketball since the fourth grade. When I'm through doing it, I'm not going to want to do much of anything for a while."
As for politics, "People feel me out, you know, but I kind of stay away from that type of thing," he said. "Politicians don't impress me very much."
Among the low points of his last 13 years, he remembers his divorce, soon to become final after years of court proceedings; the 1973 massacre of his fellow Hanafi Muslims in a Washington, D.C., house he bought for them, and the 1977 occupation of three Washington buildings, led by his Muslim mentor, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis.
Several people were injured during that occupation, including then-City Council member Marion Barry, and one journalist was killed. "Seeing those people killed in D.C. was tough; seeing those people in D.C. take over all those buildings, resulting in that reporter's death, that was hard to deal with," Abdul-Jabaar said.
Are there any particular causes he is interested in now?
"Not really," he said. "I'm just trying to find a place where I can be comfortable. I don't have the pressure of having to survive. I could really not work another day in my life and survive, but that's not any kind of a life."
Some say Abdul-Jabbar's personal ease, which includes a tolerance for interviews he did not possess before, comes from his business manager, Thomas Collins, 35; his manager of endorsements, Stan Blum, 41, and the woman with whom he shares his large Bel Air house, Cheryl Pistono, 25.
Pistono and he have a one-year-old son, Amir. His three children by his previous marriage--Habiba, 9, Abdul Kareem, 5, and Sultana, 2--live in Los Angeles with their mother and he sees them, "but not as much as I'd like."
He has considered getting into the Oriental rug business, and is writing a book about this particular personal passion, which rivals his love for jazz and Arabian horses.
He says he has enjoyed his brief acting stints, particularly his role as the goggled pilot in "Airplane!", but dismisses it as a profession "you really have to devote your life to."
All talk of spending the last days of his career with the New York Knicks, once his dream, has ended. Lakers owner Jerry Buss has indicated he is ready to double Abdul-Jabbar's contract, now worth about $1 million annually and scheduled to expire next year, and that seems agreeable to him and his advisers. "Dr. Buss has expressed an interest in me training whomever they get to replace me and advising him, so I'm definitely open to that," he said.
Collins is concentrating on augmenting Abdul-Jabbar's riches, and helping him find a career that will engage an ex-athlete Blum refers to as "one of the smartest men I have ever met."
Abdul-Jabbar will visit China this summer with an NBA group, and a Canadian documentary is being discussed. A television series for children, with Abdul-Jabbar discussing art, history, music and sports with guests at his home, interests him, Blum said.
For years, Blum said, "People didn't understand him. People were afraid of him," particularly when he changed his name from Lew Alcindor after his conversion to Islam. "Kareem's very introverted and he keeps to himself, so people began to think he was a snob," Blum said. But he has become more open as he has seen what publicity can do for a man already in the entertainment business.
Already he arranges rock concerts in the Forum under the provision of his contract, which allows him occasional free use of the facility. Blum goes with him to television interviews and, "I'll watch and tell him his eye contact is not right and he's got to loosen up," Blum said. The strategy apparently has worked, for Abdul-Jabbar even appeared on one recent studio interview with son Amir on his knee.
He is left to enjoy, in the last few years of his professional basketball career, the thrill of a few more playoff games and the admiring stares of the young, 7 feet tall and otherwise.
At a recent practice, guard Clay Johnson, brought in on a 10-day contract from Billings, Mont., of the Continental Basketball Association, watched Abdul-Jabbar and joined the general kidding by practicing a few skyhooks. During a radio interview later, the commentator said: "You don't have any Kareems or Magics in the CBA."
"Well," Johnson said, "no Kareems."