Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Remembers Larry Willis

The basketball icon and writer pays tribute to his longtime friend the keyboard great (12/20/42 – 9/29/19)

Larry Willis
Larry Willis (photo: Alan Nahigian)

I first met Larry Willis on a New York City playground when he and his friends showed up to play basketball. I was only 14, in my last year of junior high school, but already 6’10”. Larry was a senior in high school and pretty confident that he was going to school me on the court because, despite my height, I was a reedy boy. He figured he’d use his four years of experience (he was an all-city player with scholarship offers) and his superior bulk to back me down. Things didn’t work out that way. Every time he jumped up to shoot, I’d swat the ball or stuff it back toward him. For almost 60 years from that day, Larry and I were friends.

Despite his skill in basketball, the love of music was the real basis of our friendship. In basketball, Larry and I could express our physical competitiveness, not with each other but with ourselves, constantly striving to become better, searching for our limitations, then pushing beyond. But while athletics nurtured our bodies, music nurtured our emotions and intellect. Not many basketball players wanted to be opera singers like Larry; not many basketball players steeped themselves in the poetry and fiction of the Harlem Renaissance like I did. In sharing our thoughts about various musicians, we were forced to articulate who we were and who we wanted to become. Discussions of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” or Miles Davis’ “Stella by Starlight” would last for hours. And hours would turn into a lifetime.

Then I went on the road with the Bucks and the Lakers and Larry went on the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Fort Apache Band. Though I followed his career as a fan and friend, we rarely saw each other during the busy years we strove to perfect our vocations and avocations. However, about 20 years ago, Larry and I, no longer with a need to prove anything to the world or ourselves, reconnected.

Whenever I could, I would show up wherever the Fort Apache Band was playing. For me, they consolidated all the music I’d grown up with—James Brown, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, etc.—into a Latin-infused sound that was equal parts mournful and celebratory. It felt like all the best music of the 20th century came blaring out of Jerry González’s flugelhorn, like a herald proclaiming a new age is upon us.

During the last two decades, Larry and I spoke every couple weeks. He’d fill me in on everything going on in the jazz world. We’d discuss various artists, just as we had when we were young. But it was also very different. There is a richness and depth to the friendship of men ripening through middle age together. We learn to discard what’s not important and focus on what is. We recognize our past accomplishments as adornments more than the essence of who we really are. We are better at caring for and about others. And we are more generous about sharing our thoughts and emotions. That’s how it was with Larry and me.

Yes, we talked about music, but these two former top athletes also talked about the frailties of aging, the legacies we wanted to leave, the joys of our artistry (his music, my writing). I also tried to help him with his health issues, encouraging him to lose weight, which he did, dropping from 230 pounds to 180 healthy pounds. He talked me through some of my health issues as well, including my recent heart surgery. We were no longer trying to push the limitations of our bodies, just maintain them enough to enjoy the worlds we had created.

I cried the day Larry died as if something essential had been torn from me. Two days before his death we had spoken on the phone. He told me how good he was feeling about his fight against lung cancer. He was happy. He was hopeful. So was I.

Then he was gone.

The other day I was scrolling through my photos looking for something when I came across a few photos of Larry and me. My first reaction was a pain in my heart. My second reaction was to smile. I missed Larry. But we had shared a lifetime of friendship, of love, of music—and because of that, we were both better men.

Read the JazzTimes obituary for Larry Willis.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He won six championships as a player, was a six-time Most Valuable Player and a 19-time All-Star, and has been voted by ESPN the second best player in NBA history (behind Michael Jordan). Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.