Swanson: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar no longer No. 1, but he’s still making points
LOS ANGELES — After Tuesday night, they’re going to stop introducing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as “the leading scorer in NBA history.”
He wore the title well for almost 39 years, longer than its new owner LeBron James has been alive. But considering how many other descriptors Abdul-Jabbar has available to fit on a business card – if he needed one – I don’t think he’ll even miss this one much.
He’ll always be a Lakers legend, of course. And a six-time NBA champ, and six-time league MVP, 19-time All-Star. At UCLA, a three-time NCAA champion and twice the collegiate player of the year. And if you want to include the identifiers that really count, a thought leader, social justice champion, a best-selling author – and a prolific one, having written autobiographies and mystery novels and, fittingly, history books.
An intellectual giant – and not because he’s 7-foot-2.
He sat on the baseline on Tuesday night at Crypto.com Arena, folded into a front-row seat to see James eclipse his 38,387 career point total, finishing the game with 38 to tack on a few more to the all-time tally in a 133-130 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. When the record fell, late in the third quarter, Abdul-Jabbar rose and made his way onto the court, where he hugged James, posing with the kid from Akron who had just added the title of “leading scorer in NBA history” to his hefty collection of accomplishments and accolades.
Among those, James has the distinction of having a metric named for him: LEBRON (“Luck-adjusted player + Estimate using a + Box prior + Regularized + ON-off.”) That makes sense to the most analytically inclined, but for everyone else: It’s basically a statistical attempt at holistically evaluate a player’s impact.
I say we petition for another newfangled stat. Let’s call it CAP (Championships + books Authored + Points scored).
And I’d bet all of my meager fantasy sports winnings ever that equation would score Abdul-Jabbar so far ahead of anyone who’ll come after him that no one else will have even an outside shot.
There are readers in today’s NBA. Last season, the Clippers’ Reggie Jackson was neck deep in “The Count of Monte Cristo”; Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris has a book club; Golden State’s Klay Thompson is an avid newspaper devotee. James himself frequently has a book in his hands, always an appreciated boost for literacy – even if there’s scant photographic evidence of him ever getting past the first few pages.
There are brilliant minds bouncing around the league, too. Fast thinkers and shrewd businessmen – both of which describe James, who also happens to have seemingly superhuman recall about the details of basketball games.
And then there’s Kareem.
A Renaissance rebounder. The Sherlockian with the Skyhook. An elder statesman whose wisdom is so, so necessary.
Abdul-Jabbar has said he might have pursued music if he hadn’t been so good at basketball; he knew Thelonious Monk, having babysat for the musical genius’ drummer, Ben Riley.
A voracious reader, like his father, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., the Juilliard-trained jazz trombonist and transit police officer in New York, Abdul-Jabbar is well-versed on any number of subjects – including Sherlock Holmes. He devoured those stories as a Milwaukee Bucks rookie and began listening for clues about opponents from ball boys.
He joined Bill Russell and Jim Brown and a handful of other Black athletes at the famous 1967 summit in Cleveland, coming together in support of Muhammad Ali and his decision not to fight in the Vietnam war.
Then, with racial tensions boiling over in America the next year, he boycotted the Summer Olympics, declining to play for the gold-medal-winning team: “I really, really wanted to join the team,” he’d write later in a book about John Wooden. “… But the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country.”
He also took issues with the International Olympic Committee’s president, Avery Brundage, who’s said to have backed the Berlin games in anticipation of future business contracts with the Nazis. “I couldn’t bring myself to work under the supervision of someone like that,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote.
Those principles earned Abdul-Jabbar the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama and, later, a disparaging note from President Trump – and also a dismissive shrug from James, whom Abdul-Jabbar chided for posting a meme questioning COVID-19 vaccines.
He uses Twitter, but he approaches the world’s issues with academic rigor befitting a serious scholar, and so he avoids social media’s algorithmic pitfalls that seduce so many others.
As a player, he was never particularly friendly with the press, even though he is press, having worked for a Harlem newspaper in his youth and had his thoughts published since in everything from The Hollywood Reporter to the New York Times, the Orange County Register to WebMD – and most often these days, on kareem.substack.com.
He makes his points now – on politics, culture, entertainment and even sometimes sports – with words. And it’s hard to say he’s a better writer than he was basketball player, but …
Read Abdul-Jabbar on a survey about the spread of antisemitic views in the United States: “I’ve always held out hope that this hard candy shell of prejudice would be licked away by the wet tongue of time until we reached the tasty center of equity and mutual respect. Prejudiced old-timers whose intellectual arteries have hardened would be replaced by younger generations of rational thinkers not tethered to dumb traditional thinking. But this new study has eye-gouged my hope.”
Or, in Newsweek, on the never-dying G.O.A.T. debate: “Finally, the GOAT question, which runs through the media like a nasty STD: ‘Who is the Greatest of All Time?’ The game has changed so much over the years that there is no leveling rubric to take into account the variables. … It’s like asking, How big is the horn on a unicorn?”
Funny that one of basketball’s unicorns might ask.
Abdul-Jabber might not be the greatest scorer of all time anymore, but the man still isn’t missing much.