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The somewhat-surprising link between Roger Clemens and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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Few in history achieved such longevity and dominance as Clemens and Abdul-Jabbar in their respective sports, but their public personas diverge drastically.

Sports Contributor Archive 2020

While they each maintained radically divergent personalities beyond their respective fields of play, Roger Clemens and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tallied strikingly similar resumes of sustained dominance over their multi-decade careers. Today, each stands head-and-shoulders above their peers as the most frequently-awarded players for their individual achievements.

In just his third season as a pro, and his first full season, Clemens won the pitching Triple Crown at just 23, winning his first and only MVP as well as his first Cy Young Award. In 1986, Clemens became one of only ten pitchers (now 11) to win the MVP and Cy Young in the same season. He’d go on to win another six Cy Youngs for a total of seven, two more than any other pitcher in MLB history.

In Abdul-Jabbar’s second season in the NBA, also age-23, he won his first MVP and regular season scoring title on his way to his first NBA Championship and NBA Finals MVP. The accolades were as bountiful as they were immediate, as Kareem went on to win a record six NBA MVPs along with five NBA titles, and two Finals MVPs.

The first of those Finals MVPs came as the centerpiece of the Bucks, alongside Oscar Robertson. The second came 14 years later, when he led the Lakers to a Finals victory over the favored Celtics in six games. The long gap was especially unusual in a sport so often dominated by the greatest raw athletes. Known for his extensive and unusual off-season training regimen, which had at times involved yoga and martial arts, Abdul-Jabbar was able to keep himself in peak condition for longer than many of his peers. Part of his ability to extend his prime was his unstoppable move: the skyhook.

With the near-eight-foot wingspan of an albatross and the grace of a gazelle, Abdul-Jabbar would gather the ball, step across the lane, reach up and over his defender, flicking the ball on a decline towards the cylinder for a virtually automatic basket, so long as he could take off from the heart of the paint.

Clemens too, had a unique ability that separated him from the other elite arms of his era. Able to crank up the heat to nearly triple-digits, Clemens could blow batters away on the strength of his fastball alone. With a solid slider and curve to offset the heater, Clemens would have been more than fine in the bigs without another pitch. However, his splitter — nicknamed “Mr. Splitty” and perhaps the greatest ever wielded — would tumble out of his hand like a fastball then drop suddenly with a slight arm-side fade.

By maintaining his efficiently explosive uncoiling on every pitch in his arsenal, a batter’s best bet against Clemens was to guess beforehand because preparing for the entire armada all at once was too tall a task.

Neither Kareem nor Clemens likely had the highest peak of anyone to perform their respective crafts. However, they were versions of their best selves for longer than anyone else. Abdul-Jabbar averaged at least 23 points per game through his age-38 season on his way to becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Clemens had more down years than Kareem, making the All-Star game only 11 times out of 24 seasons compared to Kareem’s near-perfect 19 out of 20. Although he occasionally struggled with his command, Clemens rated above-average by ERA+ in every season after his rookie year. Kareem was always great, and Clemens was anywhere in between solid and incredible for 23 of 24 seasons.

Curiously, Clemens’ peaks got even higher as he aged. In 1996, the 13th year of his career, Clemens threw his second career 20-strikeout game, matching the record he’d set 10 years prior, becoming the only player to achieve the feat twice in a career. He retained his mid-to-high nineties fastball into his early forties, recording his best season by ERA+ (226) at age 42 as a member of the Astros in 2005, a year after he won his final Cy Young. At a position that so reliably atrophies with age, Clemens had seemingly suspended father time, poised to compete for Cy Youngs in perpetuity.

While Abdul-Jabbar’s tireless work ethic extended his peak beyond most mortal standards, so too did Clemens’. In this 2003 ESPN article, Bob Klapisch outlined Clemens’ stringent weightlifting regimen uncommon amongst his peers:

But unlike most major-league pitchers, who run (a little) or lift weights (even less), Clemens has devised a system that keeps him both strong and quick, combining power-lifting for the lower body, light-dumbbell work for his rotator cuff and agility drills that would probably make more sense for an NFL linebacker.

Klapisch goes on to gush about Clemens’ physical prowess on the mound and the efficacy of his delivery. Not publicly known at the time or mentioned in the article was Clemens’ steroid usage alleged by the Mitchell Report. He later lied about it to Congress, and was then charged, but acquitted of perjury.

Regardless of the legality of Clemens’ alleged federal crime, he took a performance-enhancing substance which likely allowed him to recover more quickly from his aforementioned increased physical workload, maintain his peak condition beyond his physical prime, and enable his competition at a level higher than he would have been able to reach otherwise.

Although he was beloved by teammates and coaches for his even temperament, eventually earning the nickname, “Cap,” Abdul-Jabbar was often maligned and misunderstood by the United States’ white majority. Kareem’s one-of-a-kind, literal larger-than-life stature on and off the court separated him from a general public ill-equipped to allow for the complexities that lay within a superlatively, scholarly, athletic, Black wunderkind.

Surely, Abdul-Jabbar’s public perception must have been at times isolating and terrifying, but to a certain extent, liberating. Without a loving public to maintain a positive relationship with, Abdul-Jabbar was set free to fully be himself without a billion-dollar Nike deal in the way (read: LeBron James). Although public protest and political dialect pervaded his playing days in fits and spurts, from the outside it appears as though he is now more himself than ever.

Having written more than a dozen books, including a couple of detective novels, Kareem has blossomed into a more well-rounded human being — at least in terms of the public’s perception — than he ever could have been when he was best known for his skyhook. Providing an invaluable perspective of one of Black America’s preeminent post-athletic stardom shepherds of the Civil Rights Era into the present, Kareem has willingly shared his perspective with a public only starting to being willing to listen (like in this wonderful LA Times op-ed).

Conversely, Clemens — while celebrated by fans and teammates as one of “the boys” during his career — has actively avoided the spotlight after its conclusion. As a ballplayer, Clemens was exceptional in an acceptable package: a white star in a white league with a white fanbase. Clemens experienced tragedy early in life (losing his father at age nine) and found solace in his performance, becoming the kind of athlete who derived his self-worth directly from his excellence between the chalked lines. For so many years, to Clemens, Major League Baseball was home, and the national audience a consistently adoring base.

When a ballplayer’s self-worth is inextricably tied to his inevitably regressing performance, steroids become a logical option. Morality is beside the point; as we’ve seen with so many other former stars, taking steroids becomes a means of emotional survival. When Clemens got popped, all that evaporated, and he’s been sparsely heard from since retreating to rebuild his family on a ranch in Texas. When fans urged him to follow in Curt Schilling’s footsteps and run for a Republican seat in Congress, Clemens declined, but played the middle, stating, “I am a Republican and I support our President and will continue to do so… just as I did when President (Barack) Obama was in office.”

Posturing apolitically, Clemens presents himself as a ballplayer, a family man, and an American — someone who’d rather be well-liked than express a potentially-disagreeable opinion. Steroids — for himself, his fans, and apparently Hall of Fame voters — have permanently marred the impeccable perception that Clemens seemed to so desperately desire.

Coming from disparate backgrounds, Harlem and Houston, baseball and basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Roger Clemens were held in almost diametrically divergent regard by the general public during and following their respective careers. While Clemens has evaded his public scorn, Kareem has taken the opportunity to share more of himself than he ever did as Showtime’s headliner.