LAS VEGAS – The iconic big man spent the past hour enjoying a private tour of The Sphere, an 18,000-seat venue in the Venetian Resort that will host concerts, films and ring sports events beginning in two months.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar marveled at both the 16K LED screen and an elaborate sound system that the venue will first unveil to the general public for a U2 concert on Sept.29.
“I’m sitting here wondering, ‘How will this sound with a jazz band?’” Abdul-Jabbar told The Sporting Tribune as he strolled through the concourse. “It would sound like you’re in the room.”
Abdul-Jabbar spent this past weekend here marveling at something else that also appears extraordinary.
Abdul-Jabbar became the NBA’s most noted luminary to witness Victor Wembanyama’s NBA summer-league debut with the San Antonio Spurs on Friday. A day later, former NBA point guard Isiah Thomas hosted a panel at NBA Con where the NBA’s second all-time leading scorer (Abdul-Jabbar) and this year’s No. 1 draft pick (Wembanyama) expressed their appreciation for one another.
“It’s not going to be a long and difficult path for him to be effective,” Abdul-Jabbar said of Wembanyama. “But he’s going to have to improve a few things.”
“I don’t want people to think that I’m sitting up here harping on the guy,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want people coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey man, you’re ruining the guys’ confidence. I don’t want that.”
That’s because Abdul-Jabbar made little of Wembanyama’s sluggish Summer-League debut in the Spurs’ 76-68 win over Charlotte where he displayed some good (eight rebounds, five blocks), some bad (nine points on 2-for-13 shooting, 1-for-6 from 3) and some ugly (four fouls, three turnovers and conditioning issues). Hours before Abdul-Jabbar downplayed Wembanyama’s Summer-League debut, he followed up with 27 points on more efficient shooting (9-for-14 overall, 2-for-4 from 3) along with 12 rebounds, three blocks and three turnovers in the Spurs’ 85-80 loss to Portland.
Abdul-Jabbar has become more fascinated with what Wembanyama can do with point-guard skills in a 7-foot, 3½ inch frame than what he can’t do with a 209-pound body. Abdul-Jabbar described Wembanyama as “bright” and “intelligent” because of his versatile skillset and humble demeanor. He also suspects Wembanyama will address his obvious weaknesses without others telling him to do so.
“He’s going to get a stronger physique,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “You don’t want to go under the boards with those guys. That might be an issue.”
What a weekend @nbaconofficial !!! Hanging out w @Lakers Coach Darvin Ham, GM @Rob_Pelinka, @spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama and then bumping into @Miles_Teller— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (@kaj33) July 10, 2023
Then got to top that off by taking a tour of @sphereofficial https://t.co/Z4P50IksTI pic.twitter.com/bMpCjRP5Pv
Abdul-Jabbar once reacted to physical play in a matter that he hopes Wembanyama doesn’t replicate.
In the 1977-78 NBA season, Abdul-Jabbar and Milwaukee Bucks rookie center Kent Benson played physically through the first two minutes of his rookie debut. Abdul-Jabbar hunched over after Benson punched him in his stomach. Moments later, Abdul-Jabbar punched Benson square in his face when he wasn’t looking.
Benson suffered a concussion, a swollen left eye, bruises and cuts that required stitches. Abdul-Jabbar was ejected, faced a league-imposed $5,000 fine and missed 21 games after breaking his right hand.
“I overreacted,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It’s nothing I’m proud of.”
Abdul-Jabbar later became more proud of how he handled the physicality against the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons in competitive Finals matchups. He never tried to beat his opponent with his strength. He tried to beat his opponent with his skills.
“I just kept moving and waited until they got tired,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They always got tired before I did.”
That’s because Abdul-Jabbar trained in martial arts to improve his awareness and footwork. He often completed conditioning drills to maintain his stamina. And, of course, Abdul-Jabbar made his opponents pay with his patented skyhook.
That resulted in six NBA championships, six MVP trophies and an all-time scoring record that stayed for 34 years until LeBron James broke it five months ago.
Abdul-Jabbar welcomed James graciously with handing him the game ball and complimenting his talent and longevity. He appeared just as gracious toward Wembanyama about his skills and potential during the NBA Con speaker panel.
During both moments, however, Abdul-Jabbar openly wondered how he would have fared in the modern NBA that puts a higher premium on scoring and positional versatility. Both times, he also observed that he “was overcoached.”
“The game is more fun for the individual,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I understand why the coach wants to call up and set a play. I understand that. But as far as the way the individual enjoys playing the game, I would’ve had more fun.”
Would Abdul-Jabbar have gone more than just 1-for-13 from 3-point range during his NBA career?
“If I had the time to work on it and it was expected of me to make that shot, I think I could’ve shot it at a decent percentage,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We’ll never know. So I can say that. But I think I could have.”
Then again, Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t believe he would have needed to rely on that shot significantly. He already scored plenty with his skyhook, a shot he still would’ve used heavily in today’s NBA.
“With the high percentage shots that I would get with everybody out on the perimeter guarding against the 3, I would have the paint to myself,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Good Lord. I could do a lot of damage in there.”
Abdul-Jabbar shared that commentary without any hint of resentment or bitterness. He simply indulged with a reporter on what it would have been like to play in today’s NBA. Nonetheless, Abdul-Jabbar harbors plenty of pride and appreciation for his impact on the game and in the history books.
That explains why he proudly wore a ring the Lakers gave him in 2020 that has all of the Lakers’ retired jersey numbers, including those from Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, George Mikan, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes and Gail Goodrich. A month after the Lakers gave Abdul-Jabbar another ring to coincide with James’ milestone, the Lakers also retired Pau Gasol’s jersey number.
Leading up to and after the event, Abdul-Jabbar has considered it a “source of pride” with embracing an NBA ambassador role. After all, he expressed appreciation for his own mentors. Former NBA center Willie Naulls (1956-66) encouraged Abdul-Jabbar to take his classes seriously at UCLA. Former NBA center Bill Russell (1956-69) offered insight both with his on-court skills and his off-the-court social activism. So before NBA Summer League, Abdul-Jabbar spoke to the incoming rookie class in hopes he could serve as a resource for them.
“They know so much about the lifestyle. They don’t have too many questions about that,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They basically want to know what to work on. What I tell them is your team is going to tell you what they want. You have to learn how to translate that into your game on the court.”
During the panel, Abdul-Jabbar also encouraged Wembanyama to “figure it out for yourself and go for it.” Wembanyama appeared to relish both the feedback and with sharing the stage with Abdul-Jabbar.
“It truly is an honor to be with you two guys,” Wembanyama said to Abdul-Jabbar and Thomas. “I can never be thankful enough for the chance I have and how lucky I am to be able to play in the NBA and the summer league with people like Kareem in attendance.”
When he attended Wembanyama’s Summer-League debut, Abdul-Jabbar also embraced others at the game. He posed with photos with Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, his daughter (Ann Marie) and Lakers coach Darvin Ham. Abdul-Jabbar did the same thing with Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak, who was also the former Lakers’ general manager and one of Abdul-Jabbar’s teammates. At that outing, Abdul-Jabbar wore a T-shirt that featured himself competing in martial arts with Bruce Lee, a nod to the “Game of Death” movie they filmed together.
More busyness awaited. After touring The Sphere with Lakers executive Kurt and Linda Rambis as well as his business manager (Deborah Morales), Abdul-Jabbar participated in NBA Con with West and Richard Jefferson before taking photos with fans afterwards. Next month, Abdul-Jabbar plans to attend the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago to sign memorabilia for fans.
Lastly, Abdul-Jabbar will watch Wembanyama with both an attentive and supportive eye.
Said Abdul-Jabbar: “I’m hoping he sees it in a positive light.”