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Abdul-Jabbar staging a public fight.

Byline: RAMONA SHELBURNE

The Lakers, and the rest of the world, awoke to the news that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a rare but treatable form of leukemia Tuesday morning.

Surprised, shocked, concerned.

At everything.

Surprised, that this intensely private man had gone so public with such a scary and personal story.

Shocked, that one of their own had cancer. Concerned, about what it meant for Abdul-Jabbar, his family and their own family.

But once the initial gut level reactions had passed, there was something entirely appropriate about the way Abdul-Jabbar had chosen to reveal his condition and the message he sought to share with the world.

The message, like the man who delivered it, was delivered with a quiet dignity.

He was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia last December, meaning it has taken Abdul-Jabbar almost a year to feel comfortable sharing his situation with the world.

A year to come to grips with the fear, a year to find the brave face he'd need to stare cancer in the face and involve others in his personal fight.

The five-year survival rate for CML, if treated by new drugs developed by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, of whom Abdul-Jabbar is now a spokesman, is more than 80percent.

While the Lakers players only learned of Abdul-Jabbar's condition in morning news reports Tuesday, coach Phil Jackson said that he'd been aware of it since last April.

"Some of the staff mentioned the fact that he did mention it last April in passing, but there was no big deal about it," Jackson said. "It really (didn't) register for me (until) a couple of weeks ago (when Abdul-Jabbar formally informed the Lakers)."

Though he is the NBA's all-time leading scorer, a Hall of Famer, published author, documentary film maker and a giant of a man at 7-foot-2, Abdul-Jabbar has always been a quiet man.

He gave everything of himself on the court, but little off of it.

He has been called aloof, cold, reserved, private, or any number of adjectives to describe the guarded image he projected to the world.

He seemed suspicious in interviews with the media, sometimes even disdainful.

Teammates had the utmost respect for him, and the way he conducted himself, but few developed obvious personal relationships with him as Magic Johnson acknowledged in his 1993 autobiography, "My Life."

After his retirement in 1989, things began to change. He realized the enormous effect he had on people and could have on the world.

He published books on black history and culture, focusing on the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American tank battallion in World War II and his own journey growing up in Harlem in the 1950s and '60s.

He appeared in television shows, movies and commercials. He became more open in interviews.

In the past year, he's even begun using the popular social networking site, Twitter.

His feed is strikingly candid, honest and interesting as he weighs in on everything from Rush Limbaugh to "Dancing with the Stars" and posts pictures from his travels around the world. Nearly a million people subscribe to his feed.

Last week, when Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a devout Muslim, allegedly shot and killed 12 soldiers at Fort Hood military base in Texas, Abdul-Jabbar tweeted, "It really disheartened me to see the violence at Fort Hood. Muslims are not taught to behave like this. I hope that my fellow Americans can distinguish between deranged individuals & law abiding citizens no matter their religion."

Despite his openness to public expression in recent years, Abdul-Jabbar remained a private person in his time as a special assistant with the Lakers.

He worked primarily with young center Andrew Bynum, kept to himself on road trips and kept most conversations on basketball.

"He's extremely private," Kobe Bryant said. "We were extremely shocked that obviously he's been dealing with this for a long time. ... He's got a great sense of humor. A dry sense of humor. We get along just fine."

Jackson, who is two years older than Abdul-Jabbar and played in the NBA during the same era, has forged a rather unique relationship with him over the years.

"My relationship with Kareem is entirely different," Jackson said. "There's nothing about basketball except if we get nostalgic and talk about basketball back in the '50s and '60s and maybe even the (Harlem) Hens in the '30s and '40s.

"Jazz is a conversation, history is a conversation, Native Americans are a conversation that we've enjoyed and talked about over the years."

Why then have others thought Abdul-Jabbar is so private?

"Height is a factor," Jackson said of Abdul-Jabbar, who was famously 22-inches and nearly 13 pounds at birth, 6-foot-8 by the eighth grade, and had to carry around a library card with his birthday on it so adults would believe how old he was.

"It takes you out of the crowd and puts you above it. I don't know if it makes you aloof, perhaps. But it does give you a different perspective on life and that's a big thing.

"The other thing is Kareem chose a different path. It was a path in which he changed a little bit the face of his personality from Lew Alcindor to being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

"Like Cassius Clay (the boxer who changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he became a Muslim), it was a big change and it was a change that society had to adjust to.

"He's handled himself with that kind of dignity over his lifetime in which many incidents have happened, that created situations in which he's had to do that.

"His ability to negotiate through that traffic in life has been very admirable."

That ability has evolved over the years as Abdul-Jabbar has gone from quiet and reserved to the public spokesman for the most personal of fights.

The fight of his life, and yet, he has never seemed more comfortable in his own skin.

"I think at some point in our lives we all get to a point where serving others is more important than serving ourselves," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who faced a similar decision three years ago when his daughter was diagnosed with a rare eye cancer during the NBA playoffs.

"It seems like he's already made that decision, I think it's the right one and obviously any support I can give him, my family can give him, and even the Laker family can give him, we will."

ramona.shelburne@dailynews.com
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 11, 2009
Words:1071
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