Updated: Nov 15
NBA Legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar, forever known for his role in the Game of Death, with his mentor Bruce Lee
by M. Uyehara
He ducked his head as he walked through the door. When he stood up straight, his head almost touched the ceiling. Everyone in the office paused as the well-known figure nonchalantly strolled into the display room to browse through our books. “He’s tall!” I murmured.
“Are you Lew Alcindor?” I asked. He nodded sheepishly. I felt foolish afterward. How could he be anyone else? But then, what else could I have said to start a conversation? I’d seen him many times on television as he led the UCLA basketball team to the NCAA championship, but he didn’t seem awesome until I was face to face with him. (Back then, he was known as Lew Alcindor, but he later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)
The basketball star had just returned to Los Angeles from New York to finish his last year at UCLA. He’d studied aikido in New York from Yoshimitsu Yamada and wanted to continue with the martial arts.
“Do you have any book on tai chi?” he asked.
“Sorry, we don’t,” I answered. “But if you’d like to know about any
Chinese martial arts, I know someone who can help you.”
“Who is he?”
“Have you heard of Bruce Lee?” I asked. “He was Kato on The Green
Hornet TV series.”
“No, I’ve never watched those shows,” Abdul-Jabbar responded.
Later, during a visit with Lee at his Culver City, California, home, I discovered that the martial artist didn’t know about the basketball player, either. “You mean to say that you haven’t heard of Lew Alcindor?” I asked. “Gosh! Everyone has heard of him. He’s the most sought-after college athlete in the country right now.”
“How would I know him?” Lee replied. “I don’t know anything about basketball, baseball or football. The only time I ever got close to an American sport was when I had to walk across a football field when I was attending the University of Washington.”
After a long pause, Lee looked at me and asked, “What is so special about this Alcindor guy?”
“He’ll be the highest-paid athlete coming out of college,” I replied.
“For someone that tall, he’s supposed to be real smooth and quick.”
“How tall is he?”
“He claims to be 7 feet 2, but many think he’s closer to 7 feet 4.”
Suddenly, Lee pulled out a chair and jumped on it. He called his wife Linda to get him the measuring tape.
“Hold the end of the tape to the floor,” Lee said as he stretched the tape to 7 feet 2 inches. He dropped the tape but left his extended hand in midair, eyeing the distance from the floor to his hand. “He’s not that tall,” Lee remarked. “I’d like to meet him. I wonder how it feels to spar with a guy that tall. Can you arrange for me to see him?”
A week later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called again, and I informed him that Bruce Lee wanted to meet him. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted several years. Apparently, imagining a height of 7 feet 2 inches and actually seeing someone of that stature are very different. Lee was so awed by Abdul-Jabbar’s height that he kept muttering, “I never realized anyone could be that tall.”
But Lee was not so impressed by Abdul-Jabbar’s sparring ability. “I told him to get into a flying stance and attack me first, but he was too slow,” Lee said. “He could never touch me. Before he could even move, I was gone — out of his reach.
“Then I told him to be on the defensive. That guy had such long arms and legs. It was impossible for me to hit his face or body. The only target open was [the] knee and shin of his lead foot.
“He’s too slow for me. I would have killed him in an actual fight. I would have first busted his leg, and there’s no way he could have stopped me.”
Lee postulated that the only way he would be able to reach Abdul-Jabbar’s body would be with a kick. “If he should stand with his feet together, his stomach and groin area would be exposed,” Lee said. He must have talked Abdul-Jabbar out of tai chi chuan because after their initial meeting, the basketball player seemed to lose all interest in other martial arts except jeet kune do. From that day on, he became Lee’s constant companion and student.
Abdul-Jabbar amazed Lee with his jumping ability. “For a guy that tall, he sure can leap,” Lee said. “One day, he jumped toward the rim of the basketball hoop and hit it with a front kick. I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who could do that.”
Abdul-Jabbar had a keen interest in the history and philosophy of Asia, and Lee’s knowledge of Chinese philosophy made an impact on the young man. From time to time, Lee would take him along to see Chinese or Japanese sword-fighting movies.
Eventually, the basketball star became hooked and would sit by himself in a movie house if he couldn’t find a companion. Lee also took him to see karate tournaments, but Abdul-Jabbar never seemed to enjoy them. One problem was the autograph seekers.
Whenever he attended an event, his name would be announced and the fans would swarm like angry bees. At the beginning of their relationship, Lee could not understand Abdul-Jabbar’s behavior toward autograph seekers. “I can’t figure him out,” Lee used to tell me. “It doesn’t take but a second to sign his name. I don’t know why he gets so peeved and upset over it. Sometimes, he can get real rude and just refuse them point-blank. “For me, I don’t mind it at all. Actually, I think it’s a pleasure to autograph my name, especially if it’s for the kids.”
Lee’s appraisal of the ball player’s attitude changed one day, however. The three of us were going out to lunch. Knowing that Abdul-Jabbar resented being pestered in public, I suggested a Japanese restaurant. I figured few patrons there would recognize him. He seemed pleased with my concern.
Lee had an old blue Chevrolet at the time. The paint was turning dull from lack of polish — he apparently never shined it. The car’s only distinctive feature was a sticker on the back window with the inscription, “This Car Is Protected By Green Hornet.”
Lee boasted of the sticker because it was so rare. “Only a few hundred were printed,” he said with a smile. “I tried to get more, but even I couldn’t get any.”
As I got into the car, I kept wondering how Abdul-Jabbar could squeeze into the front seat, but he had no problem. He just slouched gently and raised both knees over the dashboard. Later, Lee told me that Abdul-Jabbar’s car is unique. “He took out the front seat, and he drives from the back seat. I feel funny when I ride in it because the
dashboard is so far away.”
The three of us arrived at the Japanese restaurant before the noon crowd. Only a few customers were there. As we entered, however, all eyes turned to us. We sat at an empty table, and Abdul-Jabbar felt quite at ease because no one bothered him while he studied the menu. But his comfort lasted only a minute. As soon as he had placed his order, a daring customer approached our table for an autograph. Then another came, and within minutes a line had formed.
Abdul-Jabbar labored on, signing his name on any materials the customers could find in the restaurant — business cards, napkins, matchbook covers. When the food was brought to our table, I expected the customers to have enough sense to leave us alone and return to their tables, but I was mistaken.
They kept disturbing him, not giving him a chance to take a bite. Finally, he politely but firmly blurted out, “Can I do it later? I’d like to have my lunch first.”
The crowd dispersed instantly, but that exposure sure taught us that being a celebrity has its disadvantages. I thought Abdul-Jabbar kept his cool pretty well through the ordeal. And I think Lee felt sorry for him then.
After we had eaten, the customers began to eye our table, but Abdul- Jabbar and Lee left before they could react. As I went to pay the check, one of the Japanese waitresses rushed out of the restaurant after both men, yelling, “Wait, wait, please! I need one more for Stanley!” They kept walking swiftly toward the car, ignoring her. But the waitress was persistent. She ran until she caught up with them at the parking lot a half-block away. Although Abdul-Jabbar gave his autograph, he was furious with her.
Lee had Abdul-Jabbar work out daily during the basketball season. “Lew is really getting into top shape right now,” he commented delightedly. “I have him jog four to five miles a day, lift weights and do our regular workouts when he’s not practicing basketball.”
“Does the training help Lew?” I asked.
“The shuffling [movement] that I taught him helps him a lot, and he says he’s getting better balance.”
After basketball season, Abdul-Jabbar still visited Lee because the ball player wanted to put on more weight. He believed he needed 30 more pounds to compete against big pro basketball players like Wilt Chamberlain. Lee placed him on a special diet and tried to coerce him to lift weights regularly but failed.
“After the season, he didn’t want to train at all, especially with barbells,” Lee said.
Abdul-Jabbar didn’t want to work out every day he came to visit Lee. Sometimes they would just talk about a topic, but in between they still worked out. Once, when Abdul-Jabbar and Lee came to our office, both were completely drenched with perspiration.
“What have you two been doing?” I asked.
“I got him to try out my trampoline,” Lee said with a smile.
“You what?” I cried out.
“I got him jumping on the trampoline,” he repeated. It was hard for me to conceive of a giant like Abdul-Jabbar jumping up and down on that springy equipment without injuring himself.
“You just signed a contract over a million dollars, didn’t you?” I asked Abdul-Jabbar.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding his head.
“What would happen if you had fallen off and got hurt?”
“The contract is already signed, so I still get paid,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
The long friendship between Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar began to deteriorate during the filming of Game of Death. Abdul-Jabbar was taking a vacation in Asia and was determined to see Lee. By this time, both men were crowned with success. Lee was the biggest movie idol in Hong Kong, and Abdul-Jabbar was the top player in the NBA.
When the two friends met, Lee was completing Way of the Dragon (released in the United States as Return of the Dragon), which he produced almost single-handedly. He did nearly everything —directed, produced, wrote the script and acted. When Abdul-Jabbar dropped in, Lee took advantage of the situation: He convinced his friend to do a movie with him. With only limited time and without a script, Lee began to shoot
mostly fighting scenes. For the next two weeks, they spent hours on the set, shooting reel after reel of film. During one segment, Lee and Abdul-Jabbar almost got into a scrap.
“Lew got angry because I scraped him while doing a high kick,” Lee said. “He clenched his fists and started to come after me. I just stood my ground and told him that if he wants to fight, it’s OK with me. At this time, the stage hands and all the crew got excited and came to watch.
“Lew finally backed down and said, ‘Let’s forget it.’ I told Lew that he must expect to get hit when making a martial arts movie. There’s no way I can prevent hitting him if I want to put realism in the movie.
“I guess Lew’s trip to Hong Kong wasn’t so pleasant. At home, Lew is a celebrity, but in Hong Kong, he’s nobody. People here don’t know anything about basketball. When he first came down, my workers, who always made sure to take care of my needs, kind of ignored Lew. I think he felt slighted by their attitude, although I tried to instruct them to take care of Lew, too.”
Working with a tall person like Abdul-Jabbar also took its toll on Lee. “I had to take it easy for a full month before I could kick again,” Lee complained. “I was trying to get a perfect kick to Lew’s jaw, and I must have kicked at least 300 times that day. You know how high his chin is? I had to really stretch my legs. Well, I finally pulled a groin muscle.”
It’s unfortunate that Game of Death was not completed by Lee.When he died, he left reels of footage but never got to it. After his death, the film project lay dormant until it was finally completed in 1978.
This article was published in the August 1979 issue of Fighting Stars, a sister publication of Black Belt. It was written by M. Uyehara, the founder of Black Belt magazine. BRUCE LEE is a registered trademark of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC. The Bruce Lee name, image and likeness are intellectual property of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC.