Kareem Abdul-Jabbar breaks his ten-year silence on Bruce Lee and the making of “The Game of Death”.
For more than 19 years, we have been privileged to witness the grace and agility of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His 7-foot-2, 267-pound frame has been a staple on America’s basketball courts since 1965, when he left New York City’s playgrounds for Pauley Pavilion and UCLA> But to martial arts fans, and more importantly Bruce Lee aficionados, Abdul-Jabbar ranks as one of the first, and certainly among the most famous, of the “Little Dragon’s” early Los Angeles students. So enamored was Bruce Lee by the man then known as Lew Alcindor, that he cast him as the villain in the 1971 movie “The Game of Death”.
Abdul-Jabbar’s professional exploits have brought many accolades. He is the most prolific scorer in National Basketball Association history; a six-time most valuable player; and a member of five NBA championship teams. Among his most cherished moments, however, are the four years he spent with Bruce Lee. “I remember Bruce as a friend,” notes the 41-year old Abdul-Jabbar.
It has been a decade since the greatest basketball player of all time talked about his famous friend and teacher. But IKF recently caught up with the Los Angeles Lakers center for this rare and revealing interview.
Q: Who first contacted you about doing “Game of Death” and what were your initial feelings?
A: Bruce first contacted me about doing “Game of Death”. He told me he had a movie and I told him I was all for it. He said to come over to Hong Kong. It was the end of the summer in 1971.
Q: It is said you just wlaked in off the street to train with Bruce Lee. What brought you to him in the first place?
A: I was referred to Bruce by a martial arts magazine editor. I had gone down to the magazine to see who was teaching in the area.
Q: What was your first impression of him? Did that impression change as you got to know him?
A: My first impression was this guy is really in shape. He knew what he was doing and was really commited to his style of martial arts. It is very hard to have a difference of opinion with a guy like that. My impressions only got stronger as I knew him longer.
Q: What was Bruce like a teacher?
A: He was a very demanding teacher. He would get frustrated with many of his students because he was in the greatest possible physical condition and some of his students were not. If you were not in top shape you could not keep up.
Q: How long did you study with him?
A: From 1967 to 1971.
Q: Needless to say, most of his other students were well shorter than you. How did he adjust his art to your special needs?
A: He was teaching me how to use his style to fight adjusted to my size.
Q: Where were you when you heard of his death? What were your first reactions?
A: I was in Singapore at the airport. I was just crushed. I was on my way to see him.
Q: What was it like playing opposite Bruce in “Game of Death”?
A: I was not nervous but I did feel the pressure to perform – acting wise. We were making money and had to make it work. Since I had no lines we managed a good scene. It was my first full-length movie. (When Kareem talks about money here he means he was being paid to do something right)
Q: What were your impressions of your performance? How long did it take to choreograph the scenes? At any point during the filming did you actually get hit? And hurt?
A: We shot that scene in five days. I did no get hit during the performance, but at one point we were actually sparring.
Q: How do you characterize him as an actor?
A: I thought Bruce was a superb actor. He had been acting since he was a child. His father was in the Cantonese Opera and that is how Bruce was born in San Francisco and that is also how he got into show business.
Q: It is said your private Bruce Lee photo file was among the few items not destroyed in the fire. How many photos do you have and what do they show?
A: I have about 30 pictures of myself and Bruce. They were taken on the set of the movie. Raymond Chow is in some of them, he was the film’s executive producer.
Q: How have you remembered Bruce Lee?
A: I remember Bruce as a friend. The whole martial arts thing is secondary to our friendship.
Q: Have you stopped studying martial arts? And if so, was it because of Bruce’s death?
A: I have stopped studying martial arts because I have not found anybody to motivate me. I learned enough from Bruce to be considered well trained.
About this article: This interview was conducted by Dave Cater and was published in the July 1988 issue of IKF.
About the video: Fight scene between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee in the “Game of Death”.
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