Nickel: Long after he left, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is rooting for Bucks – and Milwaukee – once again

Lori Nickel
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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In the early 1970s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lived in Juneau Village on the east side and the doorway to his apartment was reconstructed to better accommodate his 7-foot-2 frame.

But he never really did feel at home, not in Milwaukee, and not in the Midwest.

So after six seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, three NBA most valuable player honors and one championship in 1971, Abdul-Jabbar asked for a trade and landed in Los Angeles, where he went on to a 20-year career with the Lakers that made him a legend.

And the Bucks – division leaders for four straight years with him – were never really quite as dominant again.

Four decades later, Abdul-Jabbar was back in Milwaukee, courtside at Fiserv Forum, cheering on the Bucks in Game 1 of their first-round NBA playoff series against Detroit. So many parallels bring back memories for the NBA legend, who turned 72-years-old Tuesday.

The Bucks are the No. 1 seed in the NBA. The last time that happened was in 1974 with Abdul-Jabbar here.

And Giannis Antetokounmpo is a strong candidate to be the MVP. The last time a Buck won that award was 1974, when Abdul-Jabbar won his third.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is honored during the first game of the Bucks-Pistons NBA playoff series Sunday at Fiserv Forum.

In an interview before Game 1, Abdul-Jabbar said he thought the Bucks were the front-runners to win the title this year because they were consistent all season. The fact the Bucks had only lost back to back games once all year impressed him.

“That shows me this is a team with focus and some determination,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “They embrace the way the game is played now, stretching the court, and they have people that can do that. And they have Giannis, who is an awesome point forward.

“If they continue to play like that? With that type of focus and that type of hunger, they’re going to have another championship banner hanging in the arena.

“Which is good because the one we put up there is real lonely.”

That he got to see in person during Game 1 at Fiserv Forum. Abdul-Jabbar also took notice of the physical changes in the city landscape. While the building he played in, the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena (the Milwaukee Arena in Abdul-Jabbar’s day) is still standing, the Bradley Center is being demolished and bustling development downtown surrounds a franchise that has similarly been reborn. 

“I think it’s great that Milwaukee is trying to re-think everything,” said Abdul-Jabbar.

It’s important, because sports is “the way that Wisconsinites relate to each other,” he said.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar poses with his over-sized bobblehead at Fiserv Forum on April 14.

And that perspective, along with an abundance of time, means that Abdul-Jabbar has a little different view of the city now.

“When I was here before, I was a very young man trying to find my way,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “It’s different after you’ve matured and after you’ve figured a few things out.

“But I was pleased that I was able to leave here in a way that there wasn’t a whole lot of bitter feelings. I did the best I could to give the Bucks the opportunity to make a good deal and I think they did. I never had any bitterness in my heart.”

Abdul-Jabbar continued to follow the Bucks after he left, watching the careers of Marques Johnson and remaining lifelong friends with Bucks co-founder Wesley D. Pavalon, Bob Lanier and Sidney Moncrief.

And he will be following Milwaukee news in the future, when the Democratic National Convention is held here in 2020. Abdul-Jabbar was involved in the 2016 DNC, when he introduced Khizr Khan, whose son, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan, a Muslim, was killed in Iraq in 2004 while trying to save other soldiers. Being at the DNC was a moment that was meaningful to Abdul-Jabbar.

“It was. Because they were trying to say that Muslims aren’t Patriotic. And that’s not true. Muslims fought in the Revolutionary War,” said Abdul-Jabbar.

“There are going to be a whole lot of people expressing themselves politically (at the DNC) and I think that’s what America is all about.”

Abdul-Jabbar has always cared about more than basketball. Fighting discrimination has been a lifelong calling for him.

“I think about Roy Campenella and Jackie Robinson, holy mackerel, those were my guys,” said Abdul-Jabbar.

Abdul-Jabbar hasn’t followed the political or societal news out of Milwaukee closely but did have an interesting take on our segregated city. He said when he lived here, he knew there were a lot of different ethnic communities. He didn’t see that as a negative side of people, or a problem, as long as it was a choice by those families and individuals – and not forced segregation.

“We’ve got a lot of people here that are from Poland, they’re going to congregate, you know?” said Abdul-Jabbar. “A lot of people are German, they’re going to congregate. A lot of black Americans here, they’re going to congregate, a lot of Hispanic Americans.

“Some communities – that’s a natural thing for them,” said Abdul-Jabbar.

“My family is from the West Indies. When I went to my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, everybody in the building was from one island in the Caribbean. And all spoke with the same Patois accent.”

Abdul-Jabbar seemed to enjoy his time in Milwaukee. A few days earlier, he met Ethan Happ, who just finished his final season at the University of Wisconsin, when he gave him the award for best center in college basketball.

Abdul-Jabbar even enjoyed the Bucks game so much that on Twitter, after he hoisted the 1971 championship trophy, he said, “WOW Bucks – This time if you win I’m coming back for the parade.”

His health is better too after enduring quadruple heart bypass surgery in 2015.

“It seems my coronary arteries were a five-star hotel for plaque,” said Abdul-Jabbar.

Abdul-Jabbar thinks Antetokounmpo deserves the MVP over James Harden because the Bucks' record has been better and the Bucks have been more consistent.

And while he did leave Milwaukee decades ago, he seems to enjoy the history he helped build here and gracious for the fans who supported the Bucks, through his tenure and to this point today when they are up, 2-0, against Detroit in the first round of the playoffs.

“I’m happy for the fans here,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “They’re very supportive. I can’t go anywhere in the country without running in to somebody, telling me, ‘Oh when you played for the Bucks when I was a kid…’

“To me, it’s nice having that space in somebody’s life.”

Message Lori Nickel on Twitter at @LoriNickel, Instagram at @bylorinickel or Facebook at



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