By Thom Loverro
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was unhappy because they didn't have a statue of him in front of the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
After all, they were running out of room with five -- Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Chick Hearn, Wayne Gretzky and Oscar De La Hoya statues already erected outside the building. Before they put one up for Swen Nater, Abdul-Jabbar asked, "Where's mine?"
"I don't understand," Abdul-Jabbar told The Sporting News. "It's either an oversight or they're taking me for granted. I feel slighted."
He followed that up with a statement that said, "I am highly offended by the total lack of acknowledgement of my contribution to Laker success. I guess being the lynchpin for five world championships is not considered significant enough in terms of being part of Laker history."
Well, the squeaky legend gets the statue. Nearly 18 months later, there was an Abdul-Jabbar statue outside Staples Center.
Statues are the 21st century version of bobbleheads. If you are a legend and don't have one, you suffer from statue envy.
"It's the golden age of sports sculptures," said sculptor Antonio Tobias "Toby" Mendez, who worked on the Fenway statues of Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, and Dom DiMaggio.
Chris Stide, a professor at the University of Sheffield in Britain who studies sports sculptures with colleague Ffion Thomas, believes the growth of sports statues is a marketing tool. "[Statues] can be used to generate nostalgia amongst fans," said Stride, founder of sportingstatues.com. "By seeing a childhood hero, fans remember the great times they had at the ballpark and are stimulated to revisit. And this also fits in with the trend the last 20 years of retrofied ballparks."
Statues are popping up everywhere. At U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, the home of the White Sox, you can find statues of Frank Thomas, Harold Baines, Minnie Minoso, Nellie Fox, Carlton Fisk, Luis Aparicio, Billy Pierce and owner Charles Comiskey.
There are not one but two Brooks Robinson statues in Baltimore -- one erected on a street near Camden Yards in 2011 in a private campaign by a Baltimore businessman who was upset that there was no Brooks Robinson statue in Baltimore, and another at Camden Yards. The second, along with statues of Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver, was unveiled during a summer of promotions in the Orioles Legend Celebration Series in 2012.
There's also a Brooks Robinson statue outside the minor league ballpark in York, Pa., as well -- where he got his minor league start in 1955.
Go to San Francisco, and you'll see statues of Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey. No Barry Bonds, though. They did put up a plaque commemorating Bonds' 756th home run on the brick outfield wall at AT&T Park. It was stolen earlier this year.
A Barry Bonds statue wouldn't be good statue politics. A Bill Russell statue would, especially when suggested by the commander in chief.
In 2011, President Obama invited Bill Russell to the White House to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and said, "I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man."
Consider it done. Not just a statue, but an entire "Bill Russell Legacy Project" is under construction at Boston's City Hall Plaza, with a statue and markers noting Russell's 11 NBA titles.
Yes, there are statue politics. Sometimes the vision of the creator clashes with the vision of the average sports fan who will be admiring the statues. And sometimes the notion of a statue for a particular sports legend will incite his critics.
In Washington, D.C., at Nationals Park, many have attacked the design of the statues for Washington baseball legends Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson and Frank Howard.
The trio of statues were made by the creative couple Omri Amrany and Julie-Rotblatt Amrany, the Highwood, Ill., sculptors who have made a good living off the growth industry of sports statues and monuments. They sculpted the Michael Jordan statue outside the United Center in Chicago and the Vince Lombardi statue at Lambeau Field, which were embraced by the Bulls and Packers faithful, respectfully.
Not so the Nationals Park sculptures, featuring Johnson, Gibson and Howard with a multiple arms, which have been referred to as Stars Wars statues, or in the case of The Washington Post, "Star Trek."
"At the unveiling, Amrany said his goal was to use bronze to go beyond the physical so as to capture speed and time, 'the fourth dimension,'" wrote Blake Gopnik, an art and design critic, in the Post when the statues were unveiled in 2009. "Rather than zooming, however, his bronze appears to glop. It has the unfortunate effect of making his players seem covered in tumorous growths. They also get multiple arms. The creature designers from "Star Trek" have rarely played this fast and loose with bodies."
Johnson's grandson, author Henry Thomas, called the statue of his grandfather "hideous" on the Nats' web site and told the Washington Times, "It just doesn't work. I don't like any part of the statue. I really object to it. It's ridiculous."
And it is the first thing baseball fans see when they walk into the Nationals Park centerfield gates.
Mendez said his sculptures try to emulate the man being honored. "It has to look physically like him," Mendez said. "The build needs to be accurate, the facial likenesses need to be dead on. There are layers of authenticity and accuracy, and people will look for those details. When I did Jim Palmer's statue in Baltimore, I asked him what grip he wanted on the baseball."
At least no one has yet reportedly vandalized the ridiculed Nationals trio of statues. The presence of such sculptures sometimes invites other forms of expression.
You might question why Gretzky had a statue outside Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he brought them no Stanley Cup titles in the eight seasons of his 20-year career he was a Los Angeles King -- especially when Abdul-Jabbar had won five NBA titles and had no such honor.
But it seems perfectly reasonable for Gretzky to have a statue in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario - or heck, why not two?
Earlier this month, two new statues of Gretzky were unveiled outside of the newly-renovated Wayne Gretzky Sports Center -- one holding a Stanley Cup over his head and the other as a youth with his parents.
Someone had a problem with them, though, because one day after the unveiling, the statues were vandalized with spray paint. The mayor, Chris Friel, said the vandalism was "a crime against the community."
The "community" can sometimes be divided over a statue. Many of those who consider themselves a member of the Penn State community were upset when the 7-foot tall, 900-pound statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium was taken down in July 2012, following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that had shamed the university.
Nationwide pressure called for the statue to be taken down, and at one point a plane flew over State College towing a banner that read, "Take the Statue Down or We Will." The statue was removed and taken to what school officials called a secure location.
Even plans for such statuesque honors can cause controversy, before a chisel is ever used.
In February, a Maryland state lawmaker wanted to put up a statue of Len Bias, the college basketball star who died from a drug overdose in 1986, two days after being drafted by the Celtics, at the high school where Bias attended. But the proposal was met with strong public criticism about the message it would send, and state senator Victor Ramirez withdrew a bill seeking $50,000 for the statue.
"I think it was a tragedy, but you can't allow that one night to take away from who he was, what he stood for," Ramirez told The Washington Post. "I think he stood for giving people hope and giving kids who grew up in the neighborhood just like his hope that education, the University of Maryland -- that college was possible."
Outside of Baltimore, the notion of a Ray Lewis statue may be controversial, given his involvement in a double murder in Atlanta in 2000 (he eventually pled guilty to obstruction of justice).
But in Baltimore, the two-time Super Bowl winning linebacker and future Hall of Famer will soon take his place outside M&T Bank Stadium with the statue of the legendary Johnny Unitas.
"I think he set himself apart in Baltimore sports history, and we will certainly look into it and I would not be surprised if there is one there in the next year or two," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told reporters in February.
A suspect outside of Baltimore. An icon to the city. Statues can evoke all sorts of responses.
In 1995, the Maryland Stadium Authority erected a statue of one of Baltimore's native sons, Babe Ruth, in front of Camden Yards. It shows Ruth leaning on a bat, with a right-handed fielder's glove on his hip.
Ruth was a lefty.
But that's not the problem with the Ruth statue for Brian Corson, a Frederick, Md., radio host. He wants to statue taken down, and has started a campaign to do so, starting with a Facebook page called, "Tear down the Babe Ruth statue at Camden Yards."
"Great, Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore, but he also played for the Orioles' two biggest rivals, the Red Sox and Yankees," he wrote on Facebook. "They don't have a Jim Palmer statue in Los Angeles. Let's push to have this statue removed. It's a bad omen to the Orioles."
Actually, if you want to change your luck with a statue, the superstition is that you bury it. No one has done that yet.
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Thom Loverro is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who has covered sports in the nation's capital for two decades. He also co-hosts a sports talk radio show on ESPN 980 in Washington and is the author of 11 books.