Start of a Renaissance?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar revisits Milwaukee, expresses interest in reconnecting with Bucks

kareem abdul-jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been called a renaissance man.

And accurately so.

He has been fascinated with history since he was a youngster, he has studied it diligently ever since and he has paid numerous tributes to those who came before him.

Most recognize his status as the National Basketball Association’s all-time leading scorer, the winner of a record six NBA Most Valuable Player Awards and the member of six NBA championship teams as a player and two as an assistant coach.

Abdul-Jabbar, though, is far from being the stereotypical professional athlete who made his millions before turning to coaching to stay in the game because it was his life.

He has led a complex and intriguing life away from the game and has ventured into many arenas besides those housing basketball courts.

He is a best-selling author, having written a wide variety of books on subjects such as African-American inventors, war heroes, life on an Indian reservation and, yes, basketball, including his autobiography, “Giant Steps.”

He created the 2011 documentary, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” based on the New York Renaissance, an all-black basketball team of the 1920s.

He has compiled a wide range of acting credits, having appeared in such TV series as “Full House,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” and in such films as Stephen King’s “The Stand,” the romantic comedy “Forget Paris,” with Billy Crystal and Debra Winger and, most notably, the 1980 disaster film parody “Airplane!”

Abdul-Jabbar’s involvement in “Airplane” – and the legacy he built spanning 1969-1975 with the Milwaukee Bucks – brought him back to Wisconsin this month.

Kareem, along with “Airplane!” co-star Robert Hays and directors David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, have teamed up with the Wisconsin Department of Tourism on its 2014 advertising campaign.

The new TV spot, which makes pop culture history by reuniting the two “Airplane!” stars with the film’s directors in the original movie set cockpit, debuted at the Wisconsin Governor’s Conference on Tourism on March 3. It was also screened at the BMO Harris Bradley Center that evening during the Bucks’ game against the Utah Jazz.

Abdul-Jabbar met the media before the game and addressed the crowd during a break in the action, drawing a warm ovation.

Those of us who were around when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for the Bucks have fond memories of his arrival in Milwaukee, how he led the team to the 1971 NBA championship and how he emerged as the most dominant figure on the league’s landscape.

We also remember how disenchanted he became with his presence here and how suddenly the Bucks accommodated his desire to be traded.

During Abdul-Jabbar’s brief return to Milwaukee, the lifelong history enthusiast who once made a documentary about a team called the Renaissance revealed a glimpse of the renaissance man in himself.

He also showed a bit of levity as he met with the local media during a day on which the Milwaukee temperature dipped below zero.

“Unless I don't remember, I never saw the lake frozen solid,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “That's scary. I'd never seen the lake frozen solid until I got in here today.

“But I still think there is global warning, so there you go.”

He also shared a story when asked if people still drop references to his role of co-pilot Roger Murdock in “Airplane!”

“It usually happens when I'm airports and around pilots,” he said. “I was flying in Europe. We were taxiing out to the runway in a big plane -- one with extra seats in the cockpit. The pilot came out and asked me to come into the cockpit. He took me into the cockpit and strapped me in. He said, 'We want to be able to tell everybody that we flew with Murdock.'"

Abdul-Jabbar, ironically not only back in a place he once couldn’t wait to leave, but extolling Wisconsin’s virtues for a TV commercial, said he has enjoyed his return visits.

“It's usually fun,” he said. “A couple years ago, while Wes Pavalon (the leader of the Bucks’ original ownership group) was still alive, I came back and spent some time with him. It was just like it always was.

“It was great running into people who rooted for the Bucks and interacting with them. It's fun. It takes me back. I enjoy it.”

He was asked why, nearly 40 years ago, he wanted to leave the franchise.

"Oscar (Robertson) retired,” he replied. “We were not a contending team, and I wanted a change of scenery. I wanted to go someplace where I'd have more of a chance of winning.

“I didn't have problems with any part of the city. Everybody was cool. It didn't matter where you lived -- your ethnicity or anything. There certainly weren't any Bulls fans here. It was Buck country, man, you know?”

Abdul-Jabbar realizes that the news of his June 16, 1975 trade -- which sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers along with Walt Wesley in exchange for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters and the draft rights to Junior Bridgeman and David Meyers – would be handled dramatically differently today.

“Somebody would have Twittered it,” he said. “Someone else would have leaked it. Then someone else would speculate on how much that person was going to get paid.

“I talked to Bucks management and told them that I didn't want to stay, and that they should make the best deal they could make in trading me, because if they let me play my contract out, I was leaving.

“They appreciated that -- and the fact that I kept my mouth shut about it. That gave them an opportunity to approach the other teams, and they figured out the best deal they could make. They took care of me. One hand washes the other.”

He has occasionally seen or corresponded with fellow members of the Bucks’ 1971 NBA title team.

“I talk to Greg Smith every now and then -- I call him,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I see Lucius Allen every now and then. When I was coaching with the Lakers, I'd see Jon McGlocklin when he came into town with the Bucks. And I chat with Oscar every now and then."

Abdul-Jabbar has no current ties to an NBA team. He would like to reconnect with his original one.

“If they get it together and I get a call, I will definitely come and offer my services,” he said. “But there's nothing on the table right now. A couple people have asked be that question. If I had a chance to be a part of this franchise again, I'd be interested.

“I'd discuss what my position might be. ... find out. If they were open to having me, that would be special. Hopefully we could work something out.”

Abdul-Jabbar has for number of years expressed an interest in taking on a prominent role with an NBA team.

“For me to get a shot at putting together a really good team. ... I've seen what Larry Bird is doing down in Indianapolis,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He's done a great job. He knows how to pick guys. They know how to play together. It's very obvious.

“I would hope that I would get a chance to do some of that and be a valuable asset in terms of the think tank that has to identify talent.”

Abdul-Jabbar is aware of Bucks owner Herb Kohl’s intention to broaden the ownership of the franchise as a way to keep it in Milwaukee.

The Bucks’ all-time scoring leader was asked how he would feel if the team were to leave the city.

“I would feel bad for the city of Milwaukee,” he said. “The fans here are great. We lost to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs in my rookie year. We flew back to Milwaukee on a charter plane. We get to the Milwaukee airport at 2, 2:30 in the morning and there were thousands of people out there. I'd seen rabid fans before, but that was awesome. I knew I was in a special place.

“I was a football fan, too. I remember how Green Bay used to kick the (New York) Giants' asses all the time. I knew there was something to being here in Wisconsin and having that kind of support. I was glad that I had this group of people backing me, because they meant it. It was a great experience for me. I've said before that I have to thank so many people for the way they treated me.

“It was special being here.”