The Lakers' Legend Faces An Unfair Foe—migraines

For the seventh straight year Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 36, is once again leading the Los Angeles Lakers into the National Basketball Association play-offs. Brushing the heavens at 7’2″, and armed with his “sky hook,” he seems to be more than just one of the best big men ever to play the game of basketball. He seems a force of nature. But last year, as the team headed for the NBA championship, something happened. Despite his team-high play-off average of 20.4 points per game, Abdul-Jabbar scored only six points during Game 5 of the final series with Philadelphia. The six-time league MVP had been grounded by a migraine headache, a malady that seriously affects between 12 and 16 million Americans. Reared as Lew Alcindor in a Manhattan housing project, Kareem was a three-time All-America player while at UCLA. He assumed his Muslim name in 1971, during his second professional season. The reclusive superstar lives in Bel Air, Calif. with his girlfriend, Cheryl Pistono, 26, and their 2-year-old son, Amir. His older children, Habiba, 10, Kareem, 6, and Sultana, 4, are living with his ex-wife, Habiba. In a rare interview Abdul-Jabbar talked at length with PEOPLE’S Gail Buchalter about the headaches that have burdened him since adolescence.

I was 14 and visiting a relative in North Carolina when I got the first one. I’d had headaches before, but they didn’t disable me. When I got this one I thought, “This is a headache.” The pain was intense and I felt nausea and a great sensitivity to light. All I could think about was when it would stop. I sat in a dark room for an hour and it passed.

The next spring I had a series of two or three headaches in two weeks, and my mother sent me to our family doctor. The pain wasn’t as severe then as it became later on. The doctor said the headaches were probably migraines. He thought they were caused by tension, although I’ve since learned that migraines result from an involuntary change in the flow of blood to one side of the head and are not primarily related to stress. You see, I’ve been through some serious things in my life without getting headaches. I believe my problem is physical, maybe 10 percent stress-induced. Anyway, after the first doctor, I figured I’d try not to be tense. I thought maybe this Latin teacher I didn’t like was responsible. He had weird disciplinary rules. If you were caught talking in class you had to write a one-paragraph description of the Temple of Apollo in Latin and recopy it 50 times.

I don’t remember getting any more headaches during high school. They returned the spring of my freshman year at UCLA. The pain was so bad I couldn’t do anything but lay down. I had a couple more headaches, and then they stopped after two or three weeks. In the spring of my sophomore year the same thing happened. The team doctor sent me to the neurological wing of the UCLA medical center. They tried everything. All kinds of different scans. They put electrodes on my scalp. They looked for a brain tumor. All the tests were negative. They told me I was in great health.

The first few years in the pros I was bothered again. I’d start getting them in February, they’d go on sporadically for two or three months, and they’d be gone by June. Then a few years passed when I didn’t get any. But in 1975 I had to seek help again. I was in Germany for Adidas, helping them design a basketball shoe, and had a bad spell that lasted two or three weeks. I started getting attacks every other day like clockwork. The pain and nausea would be so severe I would throw up.

When I returned to the States I tried acupuncture. Bruce Lee, the martial arts actor, was a friend of mine and touted it highly. Acupuncture is the art of listening to different pulses in the body and tracking the blood and energy flow, which the Chinese call chi, meaning life force. Acupuncturists can see where the body is sluggish or hyper and are able to adjust the flow by touching certain points with needles. The acupuncture seemed to help during one series of headaches, but later the headaches returned.

I began practicing yoga in 1978, and that seemed to help the chi flow. But by 1980 the pains were coming real bad. I took cortisone and the Lakers got a neurologist for me. I don’t know why, but everything helped that year, and nothing did the next. Then I went to see a New York doctor, Robert Giller, who emphasizes preventive medicine and thinks migraines are very closely related to the foods that you put in your body. He put me through a cytotoxic test in which they draw blood and run it against different food groups to see if there’s any allergic or hypersensitive reaction. I had a very intense reaction to MSG, a milder one to shellfish, and a lesser one to nightshade plants, such as eggplant and green peppers. I react to MSG almost immediately. I missed a game several weeks ago, and when I traced the foods I had eaten I found I’d had soy sauce, which is high in MSG.

These days I’m very careful of what I eat. Cheryl shops for our food, and she’s almost a vegetarian, although she occasionally eats fish and poultry. Sometimes I take a painkiller like Darvon, or Percodan when the headache is really severe. When I first began getting migraines I wouldn’t take medication. I was more holistic then; today I’m a little more realistic.

After the play-off game last year when I did so poorly against Philadelphia, I went to see David Bresler, a former director of the UCLA pain-control unit. Like Giller, he believes there is a relationship between my migraines and reactions to certain foods. But he also introduced me to biofeedback training, which resembles yoga and autohypnosis in that you control body functions by relaxation. Biofeedback uses monitoring devices that show you how to control pulse rate and the temperature in your hands. One technique for treating migraines is to concentrate on warming the hands. This helps increase the blood flow to the extremities, while reducing excessive blood flow to the head.

Fortunately, in my 14-year pro career I’ve only missed two or three games during the regular season due to migraines, and I’ve never missed a play-off game. If the team sees me with a headache, they go, “Oh, wow!” It’s so physically obvious, since one side of my face is bloated, that the guys can’t miss it. But they’ve always been understanding about it.

Actually, my headaches are decreasing in frequency and severity. Even so, after a while migraines become part of your life. Logically, you pursue every avenue to deal with them, but there is only so much you can do. I don’t like it when the headaches disable me, but I don’t live in fear of them either. I don’t get hopeful that they’ll ever end, and I figure the years I don’t get any are a bonus.

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