There’s a sublimely silly scene in 1980’s Airplane! when young Joey, in the midst of a cockpit tour (“You ever seen a grown man naked?”), correctly identifies the co-pilot as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “I’m sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else,” replies Abdul-Jabbar. “My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot.” It’s a delightful bit with an even more delightful payoff: Abdul-Jabbar finally breaks character when Joey accuses him of only trying during the playoffs (“I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA!”). Abdul-Jabbar was a star center with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980; five years earlier, he was busy departing his former team, the Milwaukee Bucks.
On June 16, 1975, the Bucks traded Abdul-Jabbar (and his backup, Walt Wesley) to the Lakers for center Elmore Smith, guard Brian Winters, forward Dave Meyers, and forward-guard Junior Bridgeman. The deal would go on to be dubbed one of the worst trades of all time, though the Bucks were hardly to blame. Abdul-Jabbar really, really didn’t want to stay in Milwaukee.
Sportswriter Thomas Bonk penned the definitive account of the trade—which began percolating in 1974—for the Los Angeles Times back in 1987. In Bonk’s piece, Abdul-Jabbar’s disdain for Milwaukee is more than apparent. Some pertinent quotes:
“I had only one year left on my contract and I told them I really wasn’t interested in signing up again,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I wanted to leave Milwaukee. If they would trade me, it would be the best thing for everybody.”
“We asked Kareem if there was dissatisfaction with us and he said, no, he just wanted to be traded from Milwaukee,” [then-Bucks GM Wayne] Embry said. “He said his life style and the life style in Milwaukee were not compatible.”
“He admitted it was difficult for him in Milwaukee,” [then-Milwaukee Journal sports editor Chuck] Johnson said. “It was all cultural differences. Milwaukee was a blue-collar city. Well, when the story came out, everybody in Milwaukee was mad as hell. He had put down the city. It wasn’t his kind of place. Of course it wasn’t, it wasn’t his style at all, certainly not New York or L.A. It was probably the first indication in print that he didn’t like it there.”
“I don’t have any family or friends here,” Abdul-Jabbar told reporters at the time. “The things I relate to don’t happen to be in this city to any meaningful degree. Culturally, what I’m about and what Milwaukee is about are two different things. The reason I haven’t commented on this before is I don’t want to take a knock at Milwaukee or the people here and have them think they’re unworthy of me. That’s not what it’s all about.”
Still, while voicing his dissatisfaction with Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar was careful not to put down the people of Milwaukee:
“I have no unkind feelings toward the people of Milwaukee or Wisconsin. I want to underline that. But my family and friends aren’t here and culturally what I’m into does not exist here. My stay with management has been great, and the personnel on the team are great. I have no complaints on that.”
Happily, Abdul-Jabbar has long since made his peace with Milwaukee and Wisconsin. He spoke at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee earlier this year, and even reprised his Airplane! role as Roger Murdock in an ad campaign for Travel Wisconsin in 2014. “I can’t believe I ever left this place,” he says in that ad. Apparently, dragging Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes eventually softened his view of his one-time home.