By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — It all started with a rather weird profile.
Grantland, the artsy, high-brow sports Internet website had written a piece comparing the public perceptions of O.J. Simpson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
(Here is the link to that article: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9367552/an-exclusive-excerpt-chuck-klosterman-new-book-wear-black-hat-kareem-oj)
It got me to thinking about the night I met one of my all-time favorite basketball players, Jabbar.
Jabbar and his Los Angeles Lakers were taking on the Golden State Warriors in an NBA exhibition game at Fresno’s Selland Arena. Taking advantage of my membership in the Fourth Estate — in this case, my work for one of the numerous, small weekly newspapers I worked for early in my journalism career — I successfully secured credentials for this somewhat meaningless exhibition.
As I took my seat along the Selland Arena press row, a place I had witnessed countless Fresno State Bulldog basketball games over the years, I sat down next to a gentlemen who resembled a more upscale, Haight-Asburry hippie.
In the stands, a pair of journalists and good friends of mine, Ron Orozco and Scott Tompkins of the Fresno Bee, took notice of me and one asked the other the following question:
“I wonder if David knows who he is sitting next to?”
It didn’t take me long to determine that I was parked next to the exceeding delightful and obviously eccentric owner of the Warriors, Franklin Mieuli.
As has often been the case at basketball games through the years, the next two hours was throughly enjoyable as my next-door neighbor spun stories to a newly-found friend.
Not that I remember any of them some 30 years later. I don’t remember the score of the game, or even who won that night (actually an unusual event for someone who has a photographic mind for trivial knowledge and remembers most games I cover in pretty stunning detail).
What I do remember with more detail is sharing a few moments in the home-team locker room with Addul-Jabber afterwards.
Waiting my turn to conduct some interviews after the game, I watched a local television crew as the sports anchor chatted with Laker coach Paul Westhead.
Standing behind the TV cameraman was Jabbar, who suddenly got a sparkle in his eyes and then flashed a broad grin at me. It was the start of an inside joke, shared only by me and this 7-foot-2 athlete.
Kareem carefully reached around the cameraman with his lengthy arm, not being detected as he pretended to turn off the camera.
Kareem gave me one more impish smile — if a seven-foot giant can be impish — and the memorable moment faded into history.
A few minutes later, I found myself alone with Jabbar outside the Fresno State locker room. Here was my chance to do what I had come for — interview this legendary basketball performer.
Some 15, or so, years earlier, I remembered racing home from a day at the San Joaquin River so I could watch the player then known as Lew Alcindor lead his UCLA Bruins into action.
Alcindor had been one of my first basketball heroes as a youngster, who rooted for the Bruins through three straight NCAA championships.
I remember the disappointment as I watched the historic 1968 battle between UCLA and Houston, the first coast-to-coast, regular-season NCAA basketball broadcast televised from the Astrodome as Elvin Hayes, Don Chaney and company beat the Bruins 71-69.
I remember how I could never accept Bill Walton as Alcindor’s replacement in the paint when this brawny, redhead showed up a couple of years later and my love for UCLA basketball waned.
Now that he was in the NBA, I rooted for Alcindor and his fledgling Milwaukee Bucks, at least as long as they were not playing my favorite NBA team, the New York Knicks.
Even when a lot of fans soured on Alcindor when he married and took the Muslim name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I remained as one of his supporters. So here was one of those moments that a child dreams of, the chance to actually talk to one of your heroes.
That is where the air went out of the balloon on what had been a fun night.
While I normally consider interviewing to be one of my sharpest skills as a journalist, my bread-and-butter move failed me on this occasion.
Stumbling over how to get started with this reclusive star, I asked him a rather dumb question about how he was able to remain motivated after so many years of playing?
There were so many good questions I could have asked, but here I went and shot an air ball. Kareem, who had a well-deserved reputation for being weary of the press, asked if he could excuse himself and disappeared back into the locker room.
It was one of my two shortest interviews in history (the other was with football and track star James Lofton, but that is a story for another day).
Just as I was kicking myself for a lackluster performance, Mitch Kupchak — the last man to leave — arrived on the scene. Kupchak spent several minutes with me and answered a bunch of questions for me, even allowing me to walk with him to the waiting team bus.
It wasn’t Abdul-Jabbar, but at least it was something to get a column out of.
And in retrospect, I did get two brief glimpses at the complex and multi-faceted personality of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It was probably more than a lot of people have shared with this misunderstood star.