Phoenix Says Goodbye to Kareem--Twice

They will sentence Kareem Abdul-Jabbar within the hour.
The courtroom is in the old Phoenix Union High School.
"Where can I find Kareem's courtroom?" I ask.
The receptionist on the main floor doesn't have to check her chart.
"You mean that basketball player?" she asks.
I nod.

"Down the stairs to the basement," she says, making no effort to conceal her boredom. "Then go along the hall to the end of the building. You can't miss it. Every television crew in town's already waiting." The steps leading down to the basement are steep and surprisingly long. I don't remember going to a courtroom in a basement before.

And the only thing I remember about the subject of basements is that the terrified Czar Nicholas II of Russia was shot to death in one on July 16, 1918.

At the courtroom door, I see more than a dozen reporters and camera operators. This is one of those obligatory stories which every news organization thinks it must cover.

A celebrity has sinned. He must be punished not only by the court but the publicity engines of the media as well. The public's lust for a measure of satisfaction must be satisfied. Certainly, nothing astonishing is likely to happen. Still, it must be watched closely in the unlikely event that Kareem, like the biblical Samson, were to tear down the walls of the courtroom in a rage over his sentencing.

All this serves several purposes.
There must be film for the evening news. There must be photographs and stories for each of the daily newspapers. So, in addition to all the usual local papers, reporters from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times are also on hand.

I've been to more courtroom sentencings than Giovanni Vigliotto has wives. Generally, this large a turnout comes at the verdict and sentencing points of a sensational trial: John Gacy, the serial killer, or Governor Otto Kerner, or the Conspiracy defendants in Chicago; John de Lorean in Los Angeles; Vigliotto, Robert Cruz, or John Harvey Adamson here in Arizona.

Kareem has drawn this crowd not for his crime but because he grew to be seven feet two inches and became a famous professional basketball player.

The charge is small beer. Fernando Nicolia of Rome, an accidental tourist with one of those horrible, whirring cameras, is in Metrocenter on vacation.

I must confess that my immediate inclination is not to sympathize with anyone like Nicolia, who thinks Metrocenter is a legitimate tourist destination.

Nicolia, who at 41 is about the same age as Kareem, spots a giant black man walking along the line of shops. The sight of Kareem with his shaved head amazes him. The Italian tourist becomes as excited as any American who has just spotted his first giraffe on the road heading out from Nairobi.

He points the camera and starts his machine. You can imagine Nicolia's excitement. His neighbors back in Rome will be astonished at the size of this specimen he is collecting with his camera.

Kareem spots the amateur cameraman. For a lifetime, he has been hooted at, gawked at, even ridiculed by people just like this tourist.

Kareem walks toward the camera and gives it a shove, knocking it to the floor and making Nicolia think he has been struck by a runaway rhino. Kareem doesn't bother to stop. He walks right out of Nicolia's life. Normally, this would be the end of the story. There would be some huffing and puffing but that would be the end of it. Nicolia's camera is in a shambles, but I figure that's a fair price to pay when you use it to invade a stranger's privacy.

Nicolia, who insists that he's a basketball fan, does not go directly to the police. The first place he goes is to a lawyer. You sense that here is a man who knows something about money.

Only after a lawyer has been consulted is a report made to the police. The film of the incident is developed, and copies are made available to the press.

The snippet of Kareem stiff-arming Nicolia's camera has been shown more times on Valley television stations than the Toyota truck commercial where the driver reaches the mountaintop and then leaps to the sky in exultation.

Kareem readily admits his role but explains that he hit the camera in a moment of reflexive action.

Now it's time for posturing by Municipal Court Judge John Weihn and prosecutor James Dunham. They make the most of their opportunity.

Kareem strides slowly into the courtroom. He must duck way down to get through the door. It is as though we are watching a well-dressed giant entering a dollhouse.

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Tom Fitzpatrick

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