Phoenix Says Goodbye to Kareem--Twice

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His reflexes have slowed just enough so that he is always an inch from doing the right thing. His legs are gone. He is playing a full-court game with a body now capable of playing only half-court. The spring has gone out of his legs.

Kareem has reached the point in his life when he plays like a 41-year-old.
But there are certain compensations: He still gets paid $2 million a year for doing it.

But it's all finished now.
He won't have to deal with the Gorilla anymore. Once, Kareem threatened to assault the team mascot who he felt was making fun of him.

Now there will be no gorillas or Italian tourists to disturb his equanimity.

I've followed Kareem from the beginning when he was Lew Alcindor of Power Memorial High School in New York City.

I remember a magnificent game he played when he was still at UCLA. John Wooden brought his team to play in the Chicago Stadium.

One of the worst blizzards of the century had closed down the city. But 18,000 fans mushed through snowdrifts to see him.

In those days even people who weren't basketball fans felt compelled to see him play. I remember him in the NBA at Milwaukee, too. On any given night, with Oscar Robertson feeding him, Kareem could dominate any team in the NBA.

But he didn't like Milwaukee, which he considered a racist city. Kareem demanded that he be traded. That's how he ended up with the Lakers. With Magic Johnson feeding him, he's had some awesome years.

Kareem is one of the big names in basketball history. And yet, there's always been something missing.

It's been impossible for fans totally to warm to Kareem because he never warmed to them. There is a bitter cloud around him just as there was with Bill Russell at the end.

Russell retired from the Boston Celtics and promised to go live the rest of his life in Liberia. At the most recent count, he is still among us and still largely discontented.

Like Russell, Kareem's excellence as a player is beyond debate.
How do you explain it? Fans were and are enthralled by Julius Erving and Magic Johnson. They both possess a natural warmth that's almost palpable.

There's a coldness about Kareem. Sure, the deadly accuracy of his sky hook will be talked about for years.

But Kareem himself will be remembered as an aloof stranger who did not enjoy the company of other strangers. As a player, his general demeanor is a mirror image of Georgetown coach John Thompson.

I remember something Thompson once said that sums them both up: "I'm the kind of guy who doesn't invite people to my house, and I don't accept invitations to go to their houses, either." On a sunny morning in late March, Kareem left Phoenix for possibly the last time. He sat alone in the back seat of a shining black chauffeured limousine.

There have been so many triumphant nights for him in the place they affectionately used to call the Madhouse.

But that humiliating courtroom scene is a terrible farewell to Phoenix. Kareem will carry it with him for the rest of his life.

The Italian tourist becomes as excited as any American who has just spotted his first giraffe on the road heading out from Nairobi.

"He told Kareem he wanted $30,000. Kareem said fine, we'll settle.
[He] then said he wanted $60,000. Kareem said no. He wasn't going to submit to blackmail."

Kareem was clearly stunned by Walk's appearing beside him in a wheelchair.

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.

It's been impossible for fans to warm totally to Kareem because he never warmed to them.

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Tom Fitzpatrick