Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest scorer in NBA history and arguably the greatest basketballer who ever lived. That he seldom comes up in that discussion helps explain his being snubbed by his alma mater, UCLA.
Abdul-Jabbar won three college national championships at UCLA, venerated his coach there, the late John Wooden, and when the school dismissed Ben Howland last week, Abdul-Jabbar said he wanted to be UCLA's coach. "Hopefully, I can get a chance to make my case," he said.
Three days later UCLA hired Steve Alford, the New Mexico coach.
Abdul-Jabbar was poetry in motion on a basketball court. His sweeping "sky hook" was an unstoppable shot and helped make him unique in basketball annals. "He's the most beautiful athlete in sports," Earvin "Magic" Johnson, his Los Angeles Lakers teammate, once said.
Alas, he also was sullen and aloof. He did not sign autographs. He rarely gave interviews. He seemed bitter and unhappy and at pains to fit in with a society uncertain how to deal with a 7ft 2ins star athlete with interests beyond sport.
He will be 66 in two weeks but has no real coaching experience. Anyone could have seen he would never get the UCLA job. All those years of turning his back on humanity still haunt.
Yet the idiosyncrasies of his personality should not prevent his instant mention when speaking of the bests in the game. In addition to his 38,387 points, he holds the record for most field goals made and minutes played, is third all-time in blocks and fourth in rebounds. He won six NBA titles, as did Michael Jordan, and won the MVP award six times (one more than Jordan). He was an all-star 19 times in a 20-season career.
Yet his greatness seemingly is diminished because of a sour demeanour. Pat Riley, his coach with the Lakers once said: "Why judge anymore? When a man has broken records, won championships, endured tremendous criticism and responsibility, why judge? Let's toast him as the greatest."
Kobe Bryant surpassed Wilt Chamberlain last week to become the NBA's fourth all-time scorer. Next up is Jordan, whom he could pass next season. Then all that stands between Bryant and Abdul-Jabbar is Karl Malone. But Bryant (31,434 points) seems unlikely to catch Abdul-Jabbar at the scoring summit, which seems proper.
His inability to understand how others view him seems odd, particularly after he told the Los Angeles Times he now appreciates being on the other side of meeting heroes. "I didn't understand that I also had affected people that way and that's what it was all about," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I always saw it like they were trying to pry. I was way too suspicious and I paid a price for it."