“He is the most disrespected legend, and icon, in sports history. The fact his name is never mentioned right alongside Michael Jordan for the greatest player ever just really irks me, really upsets me.” Michael Thompson isn’t the only one who believes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should be brought up a lot more in GOAT discussions. His basketball resume surely warrants it, but a story Magic Johnson shared illustrates that Kareem might have been his own worst enemy when it comes to historical status - on lists and in fans’ minds.
More like a chemistry professor than an NBA player
If there’s one thing not up for debate about Kareem, it’s that he is the NBA’s leading intellectual. His collection of intelligent, insightful essays from major publications to his Substack page are all the proof you need. But that introspectiveness and contrarian spirit made Abdul-Jabbar different.
He was always a little bit aloof, rubbed some people the wrong way. Very introspective. Sounded more like a chemistry professor than an NBA player.
Steve Kerr, The Icons Club
From an early age, Kareem felt the game was always rigged against him. Can’t really blame the guy after the NCAA banned the dunk just to make the game more difficult for then Lew Alcindor. Kareem had the same opinion of the media, and unfortunately, the fans. He kept the public at arm’s length - even when the public was a small boy wanting a photo with his favorite player.
The fan vote
If we were to parse out the GOAT vote, 49% is a combination of players, ex-players, and media members. 51% goes to people in bars, barbershops, and more recently, social media. At the end of the day, being the greatest is mostly about capturing hearts and minds. Magic Johnson shared a story that explains how Abdul-Jabbar failed in that department.
“A young boy and his father approached Kareem after practice and asked if he would pose with them for a photo. He walked passed without so much of an acknowledgment. Magic, embarrassed by Kareem's action offered to take a picture with the kid.“
Jackie MacMullan, The Icons Club
It’s not just that Kareem didn’t take a photo with the kid and his dad - it’s the way he just brushed them off. Take Bill Russell, for instance. He’s famous for never giving autographs, offering to “have a cup of coffee instead.” Russ didn’t just reject people - he’d smile and offer an interaction instead.
Kareem could probably write a 3000-word essay explaining why he treated the media and fans the way he did, and he’d probably make a lot of sense. But in the moment, he seemed like, and pardon my french, an arrogant prick. To be in the pantheon, stories are equally important as stats and achievements. Kareem closed a lot of those doors - it turned out that specific door came with quite a high price tag.
Years later, when Magic was trying to line up investors for one of his new business ventures, he had a meeting with a young, deep-pocketed CEO. It was the boy, all grown up. He told Magic he kept the framed photo of the two of them on the wall of his office - and then he signed on to invest in Magic's business.
Jackie MacMullan, The Icons Club
One of the best predictors before a presidential election is who’d people rather have a beer with. There are a lot of other attributes we should prioritize when choosing who appoints Supreme Court judges and has the nuclear launch codes, but we don’t. The same goes for athletes.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had one of the greatest basketball careers ever. But unfortunately, for most people, he ranks low on the “wanna grab a beer” list.