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Phoenix Says Goodbye to Kareem--Twice

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All eyes are glued to him as he walks down the center aisle and sits in the front row behind his attorneys, Michael Kimerer and Garth Smith.

In addition to the media people, the place is packed by courthouse workers from all over the building. They have never seen this big a celebrity here before.

"It was a mismatch," Prosecutor Dunham says. "Mr. Jabbar is a seven-foot two-inch professional athlete. Mr. Nicolia is five feet nine and 140 pounds." Kimerer, the defense attorney, arises. He wears a beard and he is very calm.

Kimerer is the guru of Arizona defense attorneys. When the Suns' drug case broke last year, it was Kimerer who masterminded the defense. "It was an unfortunate accident," Kimerer says. Then he makes a concession. "It was probably a reckless act." Judge Weihn orders Kareem to pay what amounts to a $500 fine plus another $850 for the smashed camera.

It is over. Kareem is free to leave for Los Angeles in the long, black stretch limousine waiting in the courtyard.

The reporters follow Kareem, who refuses to speak.
I stand at the doorway outside the building with Kimerer.
"People don't realize that Kareem is really embarrassed about all this," Kimerer says. "His father is a policeman in New York City. His grandfather was also a policeman. Kareem is a very law-and-order guy.

"He really feels he's embarrassed his family." Kimerer explains that Kareem was anxious to settle the whole thing before going to court.

"We had a meeting with the complaining witness," Kimerer says. "He told Kareem he wanted $30,000. Kareem said fine, we'll settle.

"The Italian then said he wanted $60,000. Kareem said no. He wasn't going to submit to blackmail." Kareem's limousine pulls out slowly from the old Phoenix Union courtyard and onto the street.

He has played his last regular season game here in Phoenix. He will not miss this town, which he has always regarded as the only National Basketball Association franchise located in South Africa.

They honored Kareem before the final Suns' game with Los Angeles. It was a curious ceremony. It was highlighted by a stunningly awkward moment.

Former Suns' player Neal Walk, now confined to a wheelchair, came out on the floor to make a presentation to Kareem.

Walk was the player the Suns got in the draft twenty years ago instead of Kareem. He presented Kareem with a mounted coin with an inscription from John Greenleaf Whittier: "For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: `It might have been.'|" Sadly, the message on the coin tells us more about Walk's misfortune than it does about Kareem's long string of triumphs.

Walk has been confined to a wheelchair for three years. He lost the use of his legs during surgery to remove what turned out to be a benign tumor near his spinal column.

Out there on the floor in front of a packed house, Walk told Kareem he still considered it an honor to be selected second to him in the college draft twenty years ago.

Kareem was clearly stunned by Walk's appearing beside him in a wheelchair. They had not seen each other since Walk retired from the game ten years ago.

"When you see something like that," Kareem said later, "you really understand problems." Making the lead speech during the ceremony was Suns' coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. Surprisingly, Jerry Colangelo, the Suns' president watched from a seat in the press box. One wonders why Colangelo didn't take part.

After all, he was directly involved in the coin toss in which Kareem became the property of Milwaukee rather than the Suns.

Clearly, Colangelo never hears the music. Right now, he's too busy schmoozing with Terry Goddard, finagling to get a new arena, to do the gracious thing.

Kareem goes out on a muted note. He has always been publicly petulant and unfriendly. As a player, his superb gifts won him respect but few friends because he was always such a crybaby.

As Denver coach Doug Moe said: "Kareem's always been the biggest jerk in the league." That's true. But, for a long time, Kareem was also the league's most valuable player.

During the presentation ceremony, Kareem went more than halfway with the crowd in an attempt to be gracious.

It was a packed house. Looking around, however, it was difficult to spot more than a handful of black fans.

Kareem thanked the Suns' fans for a set of custom-made golf clubs, even though he doesn't play golf. He even joked about the possibility of receiving a "Get out of jail free" card.

Then, sadly, they started the game. Kareem made a sky hook early in the first period. But it's clear his skills have eroded.

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Tom Fitzpatrick