One of the least talkative superstars in professional sports is reportedly asking owner Jerry Buss of the Los Angeles Lakers (through his agent, of course) for $4 million to play two more years in the National Basketball Association.
That would be 7 ft. 2 in. center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a 14-year veteran and a six-time league MVP who conducts his private life in somewhat the same manner of a Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes.
Oh, there have been brief periods during training camp or around playoff time or when the national magazines come calling when Abdul-Jabbar has delivered some very candid opinions concerning his career. But generally he answers questions in the fewest words possible.
Maybe that's because most of the questions he gets in mass locker room interviews aren't very bright. But there is depth in the man and more subtle humor than you might expect when he is alone with teammates. He also seems especially proud of his outside interests, which include world travel, uncovering more of his black heritage, and collecting jazz records and Oriental rugs.
Since basketball is supposed to be a team game and not the province of any one man, perhaps it is unfair to say that Kareem was unable to bring the Lakers a second straight championship against Philadelphia in this year's playoffs.
Nevertheless, the main difference between LA and Philly in that four-game sweep by the 76ers was opposing center Moses Malone, who played stronger and hungrier than Abdul-Jabbar. Of course Malone's motivation was built in. For unlike Kareem, he had never won a title.
At this point I think that Buss has to ask himself what Abdul-Jabbar can give him for $2 million a year in a game that has become more show business than sport. If Jerry can't break even financially by paying Kareem what he wants, then maybe his money would be better spent on a younger free agent like Boston's Kevin McHale.
Obviously Abdul-Jabbar's skills as a rebounder and shot blocker are no longer enough to bring a championship to any NBA team. It is also probably safe to say that Magic Johnson, who knows the value of publicity and works at it, has replaced him as the Lakers' No. 1 drawing card.
If Buss would be satisfied with another regular-season division title next year, plus a strong showing in the early rounds of the playoffs, then Kareem should still be able to do that for him. But if Jerry expects more than that, he's probably going to be disappointed.
Offensively, Abdul-Jabbar should always be able to score. When he gets the ball inside and turns toward the basket, there is still no one around who can stop his sweeping skyhook consistently. Going into next season, he needs only 1, 610 points to pass Wilt Chamberlain's all-time NBA total of 31,419, a figure Kareem should get easily.
Using Malone as the current yardstick for NBA centers, Abdul-Jabbar probably rates no worse than fourth in the league, behind Moses, Seattle's Jack Sikma, and Boston's Robert Parish. Some may say he belongs as high as second.
Again, it comes down to how much importance is placed on rebounding and minutes played. Last year, Moses had 602 more rebounds than Kareem and San Antonio's Artis Gilmore 492 more. Abdul-Jabbar clearly won his playoff battle with Gilmore, but found Malone simply too much for him physically.
''By necessity, I've learned to play the game as a contact sport, often at the expense of what is supposed to be basketball,'' Kareem told reporters several years ago. ''I don't like the idea of players bumping and pushing me whenever they feel like it and getting only a token number of fouls in return. That's why I wear goggles when I play, because I've been poked in both eyes so many times. . . .''
Abdul-Jabbar is tough on coaches because he is essentially an owner's player. That is, the owner is really the only man he has to please.
However Larry Costello, who was Abdul-Jabbar's coach when he broke into the NBA in 1969 as Lew Alcindor, has never had anything but positive things to say about him. ''Actually, he was one of the easiest players I ever coached,'' Costello once told me. ''. . . I always got his full cooperation.''
One thing keeping Buss and Kareem from reaching an agreement is that Abdul-Jabbar wants his money now, not later. Buss, however, likes to defer salaries over a long period for financial purposes.
The Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls, the teams reportedly on the verge of submitting offer sheets to Kareem, may be willing to give Abdul-Jabbar his $4 million up front. Buss can only keep his towering center by matching that figure within 15 days.