My Interview With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
To say I was nervous would be an understatement.
It was 11:30 a.m., nearly two hours before my scheduled interview with Hall-of-Famer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and I was already nervous and sweating. I had only gotten two hours of sleep the night before, and the four or five hours I was awake involved me quietly reciting possible questions in my head and trying to anticipate every single answer he could throw back at me. By the time I left the hotel, I was sweaty and repeating questions and answers in my head like Rain Man.
But now I was sitting at lunch with Chris, who was my contact and right hand man for the day, and my photographer, Amy. Chris had amazing stories about who he had met in L.A., why the restaurant he had chosen was great (and it was), and why he was such a huge college football fan. Amy was seemingly more engaging and less nervous than I was, so she was much more vocal during this conversation. When I did talk or have something semi-intelligent to add, I babbled, my lip quivered, and I continued to sweat at an unbelievable pace.
At one point during the conversation, I mentioned to Chris that I was nervous, and he gave me an incredulous look and asked why. He mentioned that as someone who had covered the NBA, I had surely interviewed some stars before. I realized he was absolutely right. I’ve interviewed Jermaine O’Neal, Jalen Rose, Grant Hill, Patrick Ewing, and even participated in a conference call with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Surely I shouldn’t harbor any nervousness for an interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, right?
Wrong. And wrong again.
As I explained to Chris, this wasn’t just any person that I was interviewing, this was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This man is the NBA’s all time leading scorer; he won the MVP six times; he was a NBA finals MVP twice; and he might as well have a patent on the skyhook. He was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest players; he was the first NBA player to play 20 years; the dunk in college was banned for nine years because of his dominance. The list of accolades this man has accrued are endless. And that’s just on the court.
Off the court, Kareem has been an activist for African-Americans, an avid follower of both jazz and African-American history, an author of five books, and one of the first major athletes (along with Muhammad Ali) to embrace the Muslim faith publicly. And of late, Kareem has become a spokesperson for the myeloid leukemia disease he was diagnosed with last December.
For me to even attempt to compare any other interview I’ve conducted in my brief journalism career would be simply foolish. This in no way minimizes the accomplishments of any other player, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a legend, an icon, and in my mind, this was absolutely the biggest interview I had conducted.
Therefore, I firmly believe my nervousness around this event was absolutely justified. Chris, Amy, and I wrapped up lunch, and headed to Best Buy to meet Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
As I walked towards the building, the first thing I saw was crowds of people waiting for a chance to meet Kareem. Some of the folks had been waiting outside for over four hours.There were seemingly hundreds of people lined up outside the venue to meet Kareem. On one hand, I was pleased that people of difference races, ages, and sexes, were lined up in the city where he played and coached for nearly 30 years, to see this man I admired so much. This appearance was to be Kareem’s first official public appearance, since his announcement that he had leukemia, so I’m sure that contributed to the sizable crowd as well.
On the other hand, the enormity of the upcoming events hit me when I saw the crowd. I realized that from this point, until I walked back to my rental car, I would officially be a part of this event. My nerves began to subside a bit, and my ego emerged from its hiding place. There was no way in the world that I could fly across the country from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, show up at this interview, and then fall victim to nerves. I had no choice but to deliver. I strode by the crowd and walked in the building where was I greeted by:
The smile on my face once I saw that sign, was quickly replaced with a frown, when I saw the next one:
Although I was at this event in a professional capacity to interview Kareem, there was definitely a personal element to this interview as well. In addition to my list of questions, my digital recorder, and my pen, I also had with me a paperback copy of Kareem’s autobiography, Giant Steps. This book was released in 1983, and a couple years later when I was 10 years old, my father bought me a copy. His intent was to introduce me to all sides of Kareem, not just the skyhook I would see on television from time to time.
I took my father’s suggestion and ran with it. I must have read that book over 100 times. I made notes in it. I spilled food and drink on it. I tore the binding, but miraculously, the book survived 24 years. As a result, I not only wanted to tell Kareem the story of this tattered book, but I wanted him to sign it as well. So you can imagine the disappointment I felt when I learned that any outside items would be shunned.
Once I was in the Best Buy, I was escorted to the equivalent of a green room, and I was able to see the small area where the interview would take place. The nerves returned a bit, but the excitement and the anticipation were winning at this point. Shortly after I arrived, the other blogger who was to interview Kareem with me, Mr. Paul Pesko from Bleacher Report, also showed up, and we had a brief conversation as to how the interview was going to take place, and how we would both get all of our questions in during a limited amount of time.
Although Hoops Addict is a basketball site, it is worth mentioning here that in the Best Buy green room, on five or six large flat screen televisions, was the SEC Championship game between Florida and Alabama. This was the game of the day, and while everyone waited for Kareem to arrive, it served as the undercard to the main event. During the hour we waited to start the interview, I would go over my questions, talk to Amy about the pictures that needed to be taken, talk to Paul and Chris about the NBA, and then watch the game. Every now and then I would peek at the door by the green room to see if Kareem was coming, and despite the constant commotion by that door from time to time, he still had yet to arrive.
Eventually I just abandoned my routines, and I was solely fixated on the Florida/Alabama game. In fact I was so fixated, I didn’t realize what was going on behind me:
While I watched the game, the man of the hour entered the building, and then was quickly whisked into the Green Room’s green room. Amy captured the moment then came over to me, tapped my shoulder, and said two simple words: “He’s here.”
Now I know I have mentioned the word nervous many times during this account of that day, but let me emphasize that the level of nervousness I felt after that simple sentence far surpassed anything I had felt in quite some time. My legs were gone; my mouth went dry; and my hands started shaking. The questions I had done so well to memorize were not coming as easily, and I was in mini-panic mode.
And then I got some sobering news.
Earlier in the day, Chris had informed me that amount of time I would have with Kareem could be as long as an hour or as short as 10 minutes. It depended on when he arrived and what his other obligations were . When I got to the venue, I was told that Paul and I would have 15 minutes each, which was still more than enough time for me.
However, once Kareem arrived and got settled, I found out that Paul and I would have 10 minutes total to conduct the interview.
My nerves left me, and disappointment took over, and I briefly began to question why I even came out to Los Angeles. I quickly snapped out of that line of unproductive thought and began to take on a more professional approach. A month ago, I never fathomed an opportunity to interview this man would be possible, and now here I was pouting in my head about only having 10 minutes of shared time. I quickly transitioned into the proper state of mind it would take to interview Kareem.
Once I was called into the interview room, there were about 10-15 people standing around. I met Kareem’s publicist, I met representatives from the NBA, HP and Best Buy, and then finally I was asked to introduce myself to Kareem.
“Hi, I’m Rashad Mobley, and I write for a site called Hoops Addict.”
I took a good look at the man I consider to be one of my heroes. Much like my father, the 62-year-old Kareem, looked stern and serious, but not intimidating or menacing. There was a bottle of Minute Made Lemonade right by his hands, and I remember looking at it longingly because my throat was bone dry.
In the interview room, there was a television playing Spike Lee’s Kobe Doin Work; there were two photographers snapping pictures; and there were at least 9 or 10 people in the room just watching. None of those things seemed to distract Kareem at all. He was looking directly and Paul and myself, waiting for us to begin our line of questioning.
Paul asked his question first.
And while Paul was asking his question, I did a quick review of mine to be sure I was asking everything in the proper order. We only had 10 minutes to ask our questions, so I had to make sure that my questions were short, concise, and logical.
As it became clear that Kareem’s response to Paul’s initial question was almost over, I started to convince myself that my questions were the right ones to ask. With a few exceptions, most of my interviews with current and ex-NBA players have centered around sports, and with good reason. But Kareem regularly critiques and listens to jazz; he is currently working on a documentary based on his book, On the Shoulders of Giants; and he recently started the Skyhook Foundation designed to help kids’ lives through sports and education. So although I did want to squeeze in some sports questions, I wanted to be sure I somehow covered all facets of his life.
Kareem looked at me, which was my cue:
My portion of the interview can be heard here:
My favorite part of the interview was when I asked Kareem about Magic Johnson’s comment surrounding coaching. In recent years, Kareem has been very vocal about his desire to coach, but aside from assistant coaching duties with both the Lakers and the Clippers, no team has given him a head coaching gig. During a conference call to the media to promote his book with Larry Bird, I asked Magic Johnson his thoughts on Kareem in that regard:
So when I decided to ask Kareem about Magic’s comments, I was a little nervous. Coaching is something that Kareem wants, yet has not been able to obtain, so I was not at all sure if this was a sore spot for him. And if it were, would Kareem end the interview abruptly and leave to sign autographs for the fans? Would he antagonize me and make me feel small? Or would he just flat out say no comment?
To Kareem’s credit, he answered the question with class and humility. He admitted that he had gotten a late start in making his desire to coach known, and that was the reason he felt he had been frozen out of the head coaching fraternity. He was calm and reflective, and he didn’t seem to take offense at my question at all. I had heard from many people that Kareem can be aloof, standoff-ish, or difficult to deal with, but when he had a golden opportunity to be all of those things, he chose the high road.
After the interview was completed, and all the questions were asked, the last order of business was for me to get my book signed. Prior to going into the interview, I was unsure if Kareem would sign my book. I decided to take a chance.
I pulled out the book, told Kareem why it was so important to me, and I confidently (well, semi-confidently) asked him if he would mind signing it for me. He looked at the book in amazement, chuckled a bit, then pulled out the sharpie and…
… my book was signed.
I thanked Kareem for the opportunity, thanked him for signing my book, and the interview was over.
The next order of business for Kareem was taking pictures with the hundreds of fans, staff, and bloggers who had been waiting for him to arrive. He took a brief break in the green room, and I waited outside, resumed watching the Florida/Alabama game, and started to ponder over the interview.
I started thinking about what I did wrong, what I did right, and what I could have asked but didn’t. I remember feeling like an entire day was not enough time to capture the essence of what this man represents. Still, I was happy with what time I did receive, and now I was ready to tell the world about my day… but first an official picture.
As you may recall, when Kareem first arrived, I was so busy watching the game, that he slipped right by me without me so much as turning my head. This time, when Kareem emerged from the Green Room in preparation for his extended picture taking session, I was all over it:
And shortly after that, the money shot:
And remember that Florida/Alabama match that I’ve mentioned several times now? Even Kareem couldn’t resist a peek in between pictures with fans
As I left the Best Buy, and headed back to my hotel, I couldn’t stop smiling and could not wait to call my father to tell him about my day. After all, it was he who introduced to me to Kareem via his book nearly 24 years ago. Back then, he knew Kareem’s life was worth me reading, learning, and studying. But what he did not know, what he could not have known, is that 24 years later, I would not only meet, interview, and photograph Kareem, but I would be able to get him to sign the very book that started the journey.
It doesn’t get any better than that.
All photos courtesy of Amy Stine Photography and Design.