There was a time when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar so hated contact with the outside world that he contemptuously brushed aside Magic Johnson, then a ball boy, when he asked for his autograph.
On another occasion, he refused to stop reading a newspaper as he gave an interview but now, as an ambassador for the National Basketball Association, he is more than happy to talk about the sporting revolution he expects to take place at the O2 Arena next Monday when the LA Lakers take on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“None of the sports we play in America is the world’s No1,” he tells me. “It’s been okay with us if not everyone in the world is keen to play our sports. But basketball is changing us. It has made great strides in the past 25 years in terms of appeal to young athletes around the world. Children who are growing up in every continent now aspire to play the game and athletes from many countries are playing in the NBA.”
This will be the last friendly’ played in Britain before the NBA host their first regular season match in Europe next March between the New Jersey Nets and the Toronto Raptors.
The Americans claim the number of people playing basketball is second only to football in this country but can it really hope to overtake our national game in popularity?
“Yes, because, like soccer, basketball is simple,” argues the 63-year-old. “You require a ball for soccer. For basketball all you need is a ball and a basket. It is not as complicated as cricket.”
And then, with a smile, he adds: “My family is from the West Indies so I know all about cricket.”
But what about critics who say that basketball is all about endless scoring of points and only achieves the intensity of a football match in the last few minutes?
“That criticism is not totally false,” he admits. “But not all games are predictable. I played in a game once when my team was ahead by 18 points with some four minutes left and we lost. The other team became very intense and we weren’t able to hit a shot.
“Our football is directly related to your rugby. Baseball is directly related to your cricket but basketball is a Native American sport. It was played in Central America by the Mayans. It is part of our cultural background that we are taking round the world.”
However, while he now drapes himself in the American flag, there was a time when 7ft 2in Abdul-Jabbar did not want to be anywhere near the Stars and Stripes, which explains why he never competed in the Olympics.
“The year I was supposed to go was in 1968 at Mexico City,” he says. “But I didn’t. I didn’t feel comfortable representing my country.
“That year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. I was aware that America was, let us just say, practising a lot of hypocrisy.
“I was trying to get out of college. I had a good job in New York City. So I went home, worked, saved money so I could get out of university in time and go on with my professional career.
“My own agenda was more important than representing the country.”
The Mexico Games saw one of sport’s most dramatic of political protests as 200metres winner Tommie Smith and bronze medallist John Carlos gave black power salutes as they stood on the podium while the Star Spangled Banner was played. Would Abdul-Jabbar have copied had he been there?
“I don’t know but I’m glad they did,” he says. “They needed to make a statement. Just five years earlier, the black girls in Birmingham were killed by an explosion when the cowards put a bomb in the church. America was still Jim Crow country.
“When I graduated from high school in New York City in the mid-60s, I could not go to school in the south. I couldn’t have gone to North Carolina or Duke or Vanderbilt or any of those schools.
“People in the south of my colour couldn’t vote, not without blood being shed. America tolerated too much of that and it made me very angry. I did not hate my country but I hated
the practices of people in the south.”
This hatred also meant that, just as Muhammad Ali abandoned his slave name of Cassius Clay and became a Muslim, so did Abdul-Jabbar, having been born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. But Abdul-Jabbar is quick to point out that his way to Islam was not quite the Ali way.
“I read Malcolm X’s book and that made me convert,” he says. “Ali was first involved with Elijah Muhammad and his group’s brand of racism was no better than the racism in the south. They were anti-white and, I guess, at times anti-Semitic. And racism stinks no matter who’s the intended victim.”
What gives Abdul-Jabbar comfort is that, not only has America changed since the 1960s but the most visible proof of that is in his own sport with the rise of Michael Jordan.
“By the time Michael came up, there was a lot less resistance to seeing a black person succeed. People like me prepared the way for Michael but he still had his unique charisma and skill.
“You can’t take that from him. His athletic talent was so obvious that it created a mystique about him. He was the one person who could go out and dominate a basketball game. In his first year, he led the league in scoring. And his team wasn’t even winning.
“He also created a new marketing world around him which no other basketball player, or perhaps no other sports player, has ever done.”
This is high praise from the man who, when he played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Lakers over a 20-year professional career, is credited for inventing the “sky hook” — a shot in which he bent his entire body in one fluid motion to raise the ball and then release it at the highest point of his arm’s arching motion.
It made it nearly impossible for a defender to block. Not that Abdul-Jabbar, whose original love was baseball, likes to brag about it.
“I didn’t really invent the sky hook,” he insists. “I just adapted it. But because I shot it with my own style and athletic flair, they called it my shot. I learned the shot when I was in grade school, 11 years old. By the time I got to my full height in high school, I’d learnt the mechanics of the shot and was able to shoot very easily over other people. I rarely missed.”
So much so that, apart from his fellow greats, Wilt Chamberlain and Hakeem Olajuwon, few managed to block the sky hook and it contributed to Abdul-Jabbar’s high lifetime field goal percentage of .559. But has all sport changed for the better, especially the increased number of stories about players taking performance-enhancing drugs?
“Substance abuse has plagued sports people for a long time,” he adds. “Babe Ruth was known to drink a little bit too much. Still, he was an extraordinary baseball player. The difference was people in the press were willing to turn a blind eye.”
So were players on drugs in his era? “Of course but I don’t want to be the person to put that out there.”
Kareem remains true to his belief, though, that sport can change lives, particularly for those at the bottom of the ladder. “Yes, a lot of the professional basketball players are black but black kids see an opportunity there. Sport is a great way to get out of the ghetto, a great way to escape poverty.”
Where he draws the line is that famous scene from Sex in the City where a New York Knicks fan won’t make love until the Knicks have won.
“I never had men tell me that they would not make love if the LA Lakers did not win. People who get that much into it are neurotic, they probably need psychiatric guidance.”
Next Monday, Abdul-Jabbar will be hoping that London’s O2 Arena will be full, not of sporting neurotics but potential revolutionaries who can carry the torch for his sport as it seeks to rival football.
The Lakers game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at London’s O2 Arena tips off at 8pm and will be broadcast live on ESPN and BBC Radio Five Live.