Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s athletic resume is more lengthy than his 7-foot-2 frame. He’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (38,387 career points) while amassing six NBA championships (five with the Los Angeles Lakers and one with the Milwaukee Bucks), six NBA MVP awards and three NCAA titles (with UCLA) — and that’s the brief version.
Now 71 years old, Abdul-Jabbar has added social commentator, cultural ambassador and prolific writer to his list of accomplishments. In advance of his recent appearance in Fresno, Calif., to kick off this year’s San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series, Fresno Bee columnist (and lifelong NBA fan) Marek Warszawski conducted this email interview.
Q: I remember you as being shy and reserved during your playing days. In “retirement” you seem to have a lot more to say particularly on societal issues. Is that a function of being more outspoken with age and station, or are you simply more comfortable expressing yourself?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I’ve always been outspoken, I’ve just not always been as gracious or as articulate about it as I am now. I was 20 when I took part in the Cleveland Summit and 21 when I boycotted the Olympics. But you’re right that I have taken a much more active and prolific role in speaking out. Being older helps because I’ve experienced the glacial pace of social change and I’m not as frustrated about it as I used to be. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to speed it up, just that rather than walk away in anger, I keep at it with more patience.
Q: In 1968 you took a lot of flak for not playing on the U.S. Olympic basketball team and saying “Yeah, I live here, but it’s not really my country.” Forty years later do you feel any differently about the “not really my country” part?
KAJ: That’s one of those sound bites that can be inflammatory if not seen in the proper context. And, let’s face it, we’ve become a nation content with bites and memes and GIFs and less interested in historical, social and political contexts. When I said that, we were in the middle of the Vietnam War, violent social protests, race riots, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement. Dr. King had recently been assassinated. Segregation was still a fact, whether legal or not. I felt, as did many African-Americans, that this was not our country. We were being denied equal rights, equal pay, equal education, and equal opportunities. We lived here, we worked here, we paid taxes — but we were second-class citizens. The sad thing is that 50 years later, even though there have been many advancements, we’re still fighting for some of those same issues.
Q: What is your opinion of Colin Kaepernick and other athletes that employ peaceful protest?
KAJ: I have great respect and admiration for those athletes willing to risk the careers they spent their entire lives striving for in order to express their patriotism. And what are they saying? That America has made certain promises in its Constitution about equal treatment and it is not always living up to that promise. Not doing so has serious consequences on millions of Americans and on their children’s futures. They hope that by calling attention to these inequities, Americans might be inspired to change things. That kind of thinking is how America has progressed, how women got the vote, how we got children out of the mines, how we got Social Security.
Q: You are an accomplished writer and author. What was the allure of writing for “Veronica Mars”?
KAJ: I like to keep challenging myself. I’ve been a huge fan of “Veronica Mars” since it was first broadcast. It has some of the smartest, wittiest writing on television. Creator Rob Thomas is an amazing writer so working with him has been both exciting and instructive. I’ve learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of television writing that I didn’t know as a novelist and journalist. Being in the writers room with Rob, Heather Regnier, Diane Ruggiero, David Walpert, and my writing partner, Raymond Obstfeld, is exhilarating. Ideas are always flying back and forth and these are some of the funniest people I’ve ever met. The show is going to be amazing.
Q: In your playing days 7-footers were strictly back-to-the-basket players on offense. Do you like how the game has evolved? Would a young Kareem have enjoyed employing more of a face-up game and shooting 3s?
KAJ: Yes, I would have liked to have challenged myself by playing a more perimeter game. The fact that the NBA keeps evolving into a more physically and mentally challenging game is what makes it the most exciting sport. Anthony Davis of the Pelicans is doing very well in that system.
Q: Who are your favorite current athletes to watch, in any sport?
KAJ: I love watching Usain Bolt. I always had a secret desire to run the 200 and 400. I also like watching LeBron James. He’s that impressive combination of power and grace, explosive yet controlled. Swimmer Michael Phelps and outfielder Cody Bellinger are also two of my favorites. (Ernest) Hemingway said courage was grace under pressure, but that’s also what being a great athlete is.
(Article written by Marek Warszawski)