Yep, This Happened by
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Prompted By Embarrassment

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Back in the 80s, when I was living on Kauai, I got to hang out with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for an afternoon. The house we were in had a low ceiling with an accordingly low ceiling fan, and I remember worrying that he was going to get done in by it. Anyway, a group of us went to the beach and while he and I were wading in the shallow surf, Kareem spent a fair amount of time telling me about a book he was writing on Oriental rugs. He had a real passion for them, and an esteemed collection.

The manicure station is close to the door leading to and from the main lobby, and it’s always fun to sit and watch the steady stream of fit figures come and go.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in Sports Illustrated to illustrate (sorry) my point, talking about Kareem’s role in the movie Airplane:

Jerry Zucker: When we offered the role [of Murdock] to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I think we offered him $30,000, and then the agent asked for $35,000 because that’s how much this rug cost that Kareem wanted to buy. It was an oriental rug—an art piece, not one to walk on, I don’t think—so our initial reaction was, “That’s got to be the best line we’ve ever heard from an agent.” It was like, “Boy, this guy’s really creative!” But then a couple of weeks later, there’s an article in Time with a picture of Kareem standing in front of the oriental rug that he’d bought for $35,000 after we’d paid him.

Fast forward maybe five or six years, and I’ve moved back to California and, in a fit of resolve to get and stay in shape, have joined The Sports Club L.A., a ridiculously high-priced gym. I’m way out of my league, but I figure if I pay enough I’ll be sure to go regularly. My first mistake. Complete with valet parking by attendants in all white with pink neckties (who will even, for an extra fee, wash your car or change your oil), a gourmet cafe, an extensive juice bar, a spa, a basketball court, an Olympic pool and rooftop track, there’s even a full service salon where I have a standing appointment for a mani-pedi. The manicure station is close to the door leading to and from the marble lobby, and it’s always fun to sit and watch the steady stream of fit figures come and go. So there I sit, my feet in warm, sudsy water while French tips are being applied to my fingernails, glance up, and here comes a very tall Black man heading for the lobby who can be none other than…

”Well hello, again,” I call out, “it’s been a long time!”

“Hello,” he says, pausing mid stride with an uncertain smile.

He doesn’t remember me. Well, he does meet a lot of people, and it has been a while, so I press on.

“We met at the Nashes’ on Kauai, and then we were wading at Tunnels Beach and you told me all about the book you were writing on Oriental rugs, remember?”

“Oh yeah, I think I remember,” he nods, with no recognition whatsoever. “How have you been…good to see you…you take care now,” he says as he continues towards the door.

Then, right before he crosses the threshold into the lobby, my manicurist waves, “Bye-bye, Magic…see you next time.” Oof.

In my defense, I’m (clearly) not a sports fan (see my Super Bowl story, “Stupor Bowl“)…I just knew he looked familiar. A totally lame defense, I know, particularly in these racially-charged times. At least give me credit for having been brave enough to post this story.

Postscript: Although ostensibly no one was wise to my faux pas since I hadn’t mentioned a name, I sometimes wonder if Magic might have realized it was Kareem I was mistaking him for and didn’t say anything to save me from embarrassment. Still, I’m embarrassed to this day! 

Profile photo of Barbara Buckles Barbara Buckles
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.

I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.

As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.

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Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Good one, Barb…embarrassing and funny.

    Believe it or not, I’ve had an encounter with Kareem too, in 1975 during our first visit to the Playboy Mansion. We had spent the day playing tennis, swimming, and generally having fun with Christie, who showed us all around. Our things were locked in her room, as “guests” had taken to stealing items from Barbie’s room, so all bedrooms were now locked up. It was time to shower and change for the Sunday night buffet and movie (Hef screened a first run movie after dinner). Dan stayed by the room, while I wandered around, looking for Christie. I didn’t immediately find her, but saw a VERY tall (remember, I’m only 5″, so Kareem is two feet taller than I am) Black man with a distinctive chin beard. I came back to Dan, all excited: “I think I just saw Kareem Abdul-Jabar!” Christie showed up and we all got ready for dinner.

    Later in the evening, Hef and a few friends, including Christie, retired to his study for serious backgammon. We played, but not for $200/point, so we watched their game. Kareem wandered in and stretched out his long legs behind the second backgammon table. We invited him to a match. He told us he didn’t gamble. We assured him that we didn’t either, but he still declined, and we all watched the other players for a while.

    • Thanks, glad you enjoyed it, Bets! Kareem is a super nice guy…I actually ran into him again years after that afternoon and he not only remembered me but greeted me by name! I was impressed…imagine how many people he meets! And in case you didn’t pick up on it, it’s that whole racially-loaded “they all look alike” thing when it’s not your own race that haunts me. It happens, and it turns out there’s actually a scientific explanation for it, but that doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Of course! Our Newton police chief resigned over an incident that happened this year. The Northeastern University Athletic Director is a tall Black man, who, with his wife was walking to a local grocery store a few months ago, when, out of nowhere, was suddenly stopped by 6 police officers with guns drawn. It turns out, the police were looking for a DIFFERENT tall (but not AS TALL, by several inches) Black man, involved in an armed robbery, spotted in Newton (the crime did not take place in Newton). When the AD provided his ID, the policemen withdrew. This story only came out in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, and our police chief resigned this week. While not famous, it makes your point, just the same. And the AD spoke out for the first time to make the point that even a middle class Black man, walking with his wife can be harassed by the police, because he “sort of” fit the description of the man they were pursuing.

  2. Wow!
    Once years ago when Daryl Strawberry was a NY Yankee, a tall black man was walking ahead of me on the street wearing a Daryl Strawberry baseball jersey.
    Thinking how thrilled my young son would be, I tapped the fellow on the shoulder and said, “Mr Strawberry, may I have your autograph for my son, he’s a big fan!”
    “Sorry ma’am,” he said, “I’m just a fan too.”

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Thanks for sharing this story; it is indeed cringeworthy — which is the key. And you were incredibly brave to share it with us. As you and others have noted, the subliminal message in your embarrassment (about looking alike) has been out there for years and in particular focus now.

    Am glad you had a chance to see the real Kareem again later. But are you ever going to make it up to Magic? (As a basketball fan, I can’t help but note that Magic is about five inches shorter than Kareem and doesn’t look at all like him. Sorry.)

  4. Marian says:

    Yes, this can happen, Barb, and I echo John’s comment that you were brave to share it. I believe there is a scientific explanation for the lack of recognition, but that doesn’t at all blunt the embarrassment. I’m sure Magic would have forgiven you because the encounter was positive, unlike, alas much of what goes on with the police these days.

  5. Suzy says:

    Barb, I love this story! If Magic was paying attention, he would have known you were mistaking him for Kareem because of the Oriental rugs. But he may not have been really listening, as I think often happens with celebrities in their interactions with the public. So when he said “I think I remember,” he was either being incredibly thoughtful in sparing you embarrassment, or all he heard was the word “remember” and he gave his standard response. My bet is on the latter.

    As to the “they all look alike” thing, I agree it is worse when it is someone of a different race, but I have had the same problem with older white guys, who often look alike to me as well. So don’t feel bad!

    I’m glad to learn from your comment to Betsy that you did run into Kareem later and he remembered you. An old friend of mine knew him at UCLA (under his previous name), and I think actually dated him, and I know she thought very highly of him.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, Barb. I could empathize with your total embarrassment over this incident. As someone who has a hard time remembering famous faces of all races, I could easily have done this and not have it be a racial thing. Like you, I remember the names of famous athletes but have no clear picture of their faces. If they show up in a movie or television show, I often mix up their names.

    • Thanks, Laurie. It’s interesting how some people have a knack for remembering faces, and some for remembering names. Others just don’t have either. My husband has a knack for both, and he remembers voices. It’s actually kind of uncanny.

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