Starting in high school, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held many basketball records. While establishing himself as one of the most respected athletes in all of sports, Abdul-Jabbar also was building credibility as a man not afraid to take a stand for important causes.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture hosted a conversation this month with the legend where he was interviewed by former NBA player, activist and author Etan Thomas and the museum’s sports curator Damion Thomas.
Abdul-Jabbar discussed his new autobiography, “Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court,” in which he talks of the influences that shaped his approach to basketball and life.
“I lot of it had to do with the game,” he said. “Coaches wanted me to learn how to play the game right and they taught me the benefits of staying in school.”
Abdul-Jabbar, who grew up in New York City, said even the “mob” guys in The Village, reinforced staying in school and to not grow up like the “dummies” who were hanging around. They let him know that wasn’t the way to go.
“Becoming Kareem,” co-written with Raymond Obstefeld, was written for young readers. The book goes from Abdul-Jabbar’s childhood made difficult by racism and a challenging relationship with his father, to a record-breaking career on the basketball court.
During the Feb. 7 forum, the three men explored a range of topics on the life and experiences of Abdul-Jabbar:
On Bruce Lee, martial arts icon, action movie star and friend:
“He was a wonderful teacher who talked about learning many ways to defend yourself,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It was practical knowledge. He was not an esoteric guy. He was a down-to-earth guy.”
On UCLA coach John Wooden, under whom Abdul-Jabbar played on three consecutive NCAA basketball championship teams and was a record three-time NCAA tournament MVP:
“Coach Wooden began to see how the double-standard was applied,” Abdul-Jabbar said of an incident in which he was called the N-word that Wooden witnessed. “He learned a lot by just observing the subtleties of racism and how they can strangle your life.”
About athletes as activists Abdul-Jabbar spoke about participating in the historic “Cleveland Summit” that took place when he was a UCLA student in 1967. He attended the event — convened by fellow sports legend Jim Brown, a running back for the Cleveland Browns at the time — at which participants discussed whether to support Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his heavyweight title and faced charges of draft dodging for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War.
Also in attendance at the summit was NBA great Bill Russell, Washington Redskins players Bobby Mitchell and Jim Shorter, among others.
Abdul-Jabbar compared the summit to athletes and the level of activism in sports today, particularly Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback who found himself out of the league after protesting police brutality and racial inequality by refusing to stand during the pregame national anthem.
“Athletes get a nice check if they make it into the professional ranks. Other than that, they are treated like any other Black person,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Police see a Black person and they go through a thing of negative expectations. A lot of times, it ends up tragically. We’ve got to deal with that issue. We won’t talk about it as long as people do not want Colin Kaepernick to take a knee. That’s why we have to keep supporting him.”
“Becoming Kareem” allows the athlete-author to share his life lessons to readers of all ages with advice on how to figure out one’s life path.
“If you are not prepared to do what you need to do, if you don’t understand the game plan, if you don’t understand what your goals should be, then you are going to be aimless,” he said. “That is not a way to go through life.”