In November 2009, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML. Three and a half years later, he is teaching new patients how to live with the disease. Abdul-Jabbar was in Chicago this weekend for “Living Well With CML,” an event for CML patients. RedEye talked with the legend about the disease, along with other topics including Derrick Rose and the Bulls-Nets series.
The first person I talked to [about having the disease] was my son. He's a doctor now, but when I was diagnosed he was still in med school. He really helped me understand the nature of leukemia as we know it now. He told me, "You don't know what kind of leukemia you have, so be patient, do what your doctors tell you, and you may be able to be in a position where it’s not going to be as life-threatening as you perceive."
At the time, I thought I was going to die in a couple of months. When I first got diagnosed it was pretty, a very, very scary moment. I got the confirmation from the people who did the blood work on like a Thursday. And then I set up my appointment to go to the UCLA oncology on the following Tuesday. So I had a really long weekend where I was getting ready to die [laughs] and all this stuff. I went to UCLA and we found out very quickly that I had CML, and they said "There’s something that can be done to treat it. There’s a medication. It’s called Gleevec."
I went for close to two years taking Gleevec. Didn’t get to the goals that we wanted me to get to. I wanted to get a molecular response, which means down in the molecular level, where you have no bad white blood cells. And we weren't quite getting there. So we tried a second generation medication called Tasigna and it worked. My blood got more and more healthy, and now it's very healthy. You're never ever out of the woods, but you have to keep doing what you're doing, and if I keep doing that, I'm going to continue to stay well.
Tell us about some of your favorite interactions with other patients.
The most fun I’ve had and the most humbling and the things that I’ve done that makes me feel the best is when I get to interact with kids. They haven't had a chance to live their lives, and they don't complain. They're like, "Oh, I'm dealing with it." They're just trying to be kids. It really makes you humble. It makes you appreciate the fact that hey, you've had a chance to live your life and do a lot of things. And maybe I wasn’t as appreciative of that as I should have been before I was diagnosed. All the days that you live, all of a sudden, they take on a different status.
Did your new perspective in any way impact your desire to be on "Splash," and to learn what it’s like to dive? I saw your tweets about hitting the water at 66, at 7’2, and if you hit it wrong it feels like you went a few rounds with Joe Frazier.
[Laughs.] Actually, I said Joe Louis.
Oh my goodness, I’m sorry.
[Laughs.] That's OK. But yeah, I did the diving thing just to show people that even at my age, you can learn something new, you can live a healthy lifestyle, and get in shape and stay in shape. You don't have to say "Jeez, I'm in my 60s now, I can't be active." You can be active until the day you die. It will add years to your life and it will add life to your years.
The sports question that’s been consuming Chicago is "When’s Derrick coming back?" Is there some angle that people should be considering when debating Rose’s return?
I think they should consider Derrick's work ethic. It's superb. Derrick is not the type of guy who wants to be on the sideline. He wants to be on the court. I know that. Just from what I saw, things he said in public, the way he plays the game – he plays for his teammates. He doesn't care about his stats or anything like that. He wants to win. He's a great citizen. When he won the MVP, the stuff that he said about his mother – [smiles] every parent wants a kid like Derrick. He's just awesome. So they should understand that it has nothing to do with any character flaws that Derrick has. It's all about his health. And they should approach it like that.
Even if he never plays again, he's been an incredible role model for so many kids for a lot of reasons that kids – I don’t even know if they understand what a good person he is. But I can see it. And most people with any insight immediately would be supportive of him.
How can the Bulls beat the Nets?
Bulls can beat the Nets if they play a really tough defense and their outside shooting is on. Joakim can get them some points in the paint. [Smiles.] I made sure that that was going to be part of the scenario. [Noah worked with Abdul-Jabbar during summer 2012.] His plantar fasciitis is a problem, I hear. But Joakim is another guy – it's not about him wanting to lay down. He wants to play. If he can play, he's going to play. And play his heart out.
What did Joakim Noah want to learn from you?
He wanted to get a deeper understanding of the game. He understood that there were things that he couldn’t do, and it was mainly on the offensive end. Defensively, he’s got it. But on the offensive end he wasn’t at a point where he could consistently help them over those tough spots when the guys on the outside are being covered real tough. If that’s happening, that means that he’s got room in the paint to get some high percentage shots. Those are the things that get you over those cold spells and makes the defense adjust to what you’re doing.
Once they’ve made that adjustment, now the guys on the perimeter have an extra two or three feet to maneuver, to get their drives, to get their shots off.
Did you try to sell him on the sky hook?
I just told him "I want you to score in the paint in a way that's comfortable to you. He's got a couple of hooks and he’s using both hands, which is the one thing I wanted him to do. It's all about him making the shot. Coach Thibodeau's not going to be annoyed at him getting high-percentage shots in the paint.
Do you think the Bulls can beat the Nets?
Oh yeah. As far as I know, it’s a toss-up, because I haven’t seen them play enough. But they absolutely have the horses.
You mentioned generations, and I read your open letter to Scottie Pippen two years ago.
… about him talking about LeBron and Jordan as the greatest players ever, and you were saying you gotta look at Wilt Chamberlain as the greatest talent and Bill Russell as the greatest winner.
Last summer when the Olympics were on, you could not convince high school kids that, say, David Robinson could hang with Dwight Howard, or that Pippen could defend Kevin Durant, or whatever. Why do these basketball arguments come down so fiercely on generational lines?
People don’t understand what came before. All right, Stan Musial just died. Lifetime .331 hitter. And he faced people who were pitching from a mound that was 5 inches higher. He got a hit every third time at-bat. That's ridiculous! He didn't take steroids or anything. Only reason he didn’t get over 500 home runs is that he didn’t have that kind of strength. But 475 home runs – that's pretty good. [Laughs.] You know?
But if you hadn't seen him play and get an idea of the pitchers that he went against in a time when most pitchers threw a complete game – you know, they didn't really like relief pitchers in the '40s and '50s – and look what he did. It's incredible. So unless you have a perspective where you saw those people play, it would be hard for you.
I remember Coach Wooden and I, he would take the American League and I would take the National League, and we would try to say, “What’s the all-time best team?”
This was while you were in college?
No, later. After I retired. I would see him in the spring and say ,“What’s it going to be this year, Coach?" because he was a big baseball guy. Most people don’t know that. And it was so difficult. And he saw Babe Ruth play. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and people like that. Lou Gehrig is a .320-something lifetime. Serious, you know? (Laughs.) So it’s really difficult because unless you understand what happened beyond what you actually witnessed, it’s hard to have a good perspective on it.
And that’s why I got on Scottie’s case. I wasn’t trying to embarrass him. But his perspective is limited.
The whole stadium was singing at the Boston Bruins game the other night in the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedies. What to you is the ultimate power and value in sports?
Well, sports in general is something that teaches young people teamwork, sportsmanship, physical fitness. I think those things are really the great values in sports. And team sports are entertaining. I just remember when I was a kid, the World Series champ was in New York for seven consecutive years between the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants. And that was just a wonderful thing to be a part of. You chose your friends by the baseball cap that they wore, and stuff like that.
So sports motivates people in very positive ways, and I think for the most part sports does a good job of giving us positive goals and ideals to emulate and strive for at its best. At its worst, when the whole message is "win at any cost," it's detrimental. But it's all about the people who are the coaches and mentors who have the opportunity to see to it that certain values are promoted and transferred across the generation. And I think that's very important.
Baseball recently celebrated the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut in major league baseball. There’s a great Mike Royko column written after Robinson’s death, where he tells a story about Robinson’s first game at Wrigley Field, and he talks about how serious it was for all the black fans.
I remember [in New York] they had pictures of black Americans going to see Jackie Robinson play at Ebbets Field, and they could buy seats anywhere they wanted. This was a big deal. And they were all dressed very appropriately. Yeah, it meant something. And not everybody in the country understood it because they didn’t have that perspective.
Is going to Wrigley Field on your checklist?
I would like to go. I live in the same neighborhood as Ernie Banks now in L.A. I ran into him, and got to talk to him. It was great. Some of the things we had to talk about, coming in – he listened to the guys who had come in before him like Jackie, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby and other guys who were the real pioneers. He played in the last gasps of the Negro Leagues, because all of the talent in the Negro Leagues was going into the major leagues, and the Negro Leagues were dying. I think within a year or two there were no more Negro Leagues. It was really interesting talking to him about that.
Jack M Silverstein is a RedEye special contributor. Say hey @readjack.
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