Nothing polarizes basketball fans like great centers. Some are Bill Russell people. Others are Wilt Chamberlain people. They have their reasons for their allegiances, just as I have mine for being a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar kinda guy. Each camp can argue persuasively for their man's anointment as basketball's GBME (Greatest Big Man Ever), but in the end, the arguments cancel each other out. I mean, what, objectively, is there left to say after you've said that Russell won more championships, Chamberlain holds more records, and Abdul- Jabbar scored more points?
So let's be subjective. One of the reasons I'm in Kareem's camp is that, like me, he enjoys reading in his spare time. (One of his favorite authors, Raymond Chandler, is one of mine too.) And though we're not quite contemporaries, we were similarly affected by the turbulent forces that buffeted African-Americans who grew up in the second half of this century.
Abdul-Jabbar's 1983 autobiography, Giant Steps, was a generally successful, if mildly self-conscious attempt to hold his difficult rite of passage up to the light and allow those put off by his steely reserve to see him as the complex and deeply principled human being he is. Kareem, a journal of Abdul- Jabbar's 20th and final season in the NBA, covers some of the same ground as Steps. But here his voice shows more confidence. He sounds almost avuncular, especially when talking about his younger teammates or unrolling a couple of stories from past campaigns. You still get the feeling that he's holding back some, but that may be because he expresses himself a lot like he plays the pivot: with broad, tightly controlled strokes. (As much as he likes Chandler, the narrative style owes more to Dashiell Hammett.)
This final sentimental journey wasn't an easy one for Abdul-Jabbar. He was plagued by injuries and a sluggish start. His effort to put it together for one last and ultimately unsuccessful drive toward the league championship is nicely interwoven with his reflections on the people and places that have forged his identity. The colloquy between Abdul-Jabbar and the legendary John Wooden, his coach at UCLA, is especially touching. It stands in stark, sad contrast to the unexpected explosion of bile Kareem unleashes in an open letter to fellow GBME and bete noire Wilt Chamberlain whom he calls ''Chumperlame.'' Can't somebody get a referee to restrain these guys?
By the time the journal reaches the finals against Detroit, the steady, controlled stream of observation and reminiscence breaks off abruptly and we are treated to a litany of thank-yous. Such gestures may warm the hearts of Laker fans, but they are arbitrary and just a little awkward. Still, there's enough preceding this weak finale to put Kareem in the select company of first-class basketball autobiographies, including Bill Russell's Second Wind, Bill Bradley's Life on the Run and Abdul-Jabbar's own Giant Steps. B