Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Q&A: Athlete Activism and All That Comes With It

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflects on his long history of activism and shares personal stories about Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali.
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When Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, he called on fellow African-American athletes to put their might behind him and fight against injustice. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was only 20 years old at the time, sat front and center with Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Ali himself that day.

Kareem’s urge to speak out didn’t end at the ‘Ali Summit’ in Cleveland. He remained outspoken on social issues for the next 50 years, which is why this is a uniquely enjoyable time for one of the NBA's greatest players of all time.

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Athletes used their platforms in similar ways over the last five decades, but few periods have proved quite as transformative as the present. Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and countless others have all completed acts that brought a smile to Kareem's face. The Crossover caught up with Kareem, who spoke on behalf of the American Cancer Society and Coaches vs. Cancer, to discuss the pride he takes in athlete activism and all that comes with it.

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DP: At the Sportsperson of the Year Award show, I heard your speech about Colin Kaepernick, who Sports Illustrated awarded the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. What was that process like for you? 

KAJ: I thought it was great that Colin could be recognized for having the courage to do what he’s done. He’s been consistent through the whole thing. People want more from him, but he feels his position is clear and he’s taking it where he wants to take it for him personally. We have to respect that.

DP: That brings another off-court thing to my mind. Earlier this year, LeBron tweeted at Donald Trump on behalf of Stephen Curry and became one of the most retweeted posts of 2017. What did you think of that?

KAJ: Are you talking about the tweet that said ‘U Bum’? I think that goes to show the power of LeBron’s celebrity, and LeBron has taken an intelligent position in all this. He’s right there in Cleveland, where Tamir Rice was executed needlessly for everybody to see and the response from law enforcement was really disappointing. LeBron responded as a parent. That was a powerful position for him. That could have been his kid. A 12-year-old kid getting executed like that for what? He’s playing in the park, like any 12-year-old kid should be? So that’s the question, that’s the issue, LeBron did an awesome job bringing attention to it, along with a couple of guys from the Cleveland Browns. Guys are using their platforms in very positive ways as role models and political advocates for things that they’re concerned about in their community, and my hat’s off to them.

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DP: As a player who was outspoken decades and probably watched a lot of years when players weren’t so outspoken, what’s this climate feel like to you?

KAJ: I’m really encouraged by it, because this reflects a better, more sophisticated political outlook in our community. They’re more organized, they’re very well informed, they understand what the issues are and are dealing with them in very positive ways. It’s being fought the right way—intelligently and with an idea to make things change. It’s one great thing that black Americans have learned from President Obama’s administration. We were able to see how it’s done effectively, and that example is going to be emulated now. This makes me think of the Missouri football team. They got it done very effectively, and I’m very encouraged by what I’m seeing from the next generation.

DP: Digging into your history a bit, was it 1967 when you all got together with Muhammad Ali after he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War? Looking back on that moment, what stuck with you through the years?

KAJ: I think it was an example of the fruits of the civil rights movement, because here we have a group of professionals trying to organize to affect change. We were professional athletes, people who have a little bit of money and visibility showing a unified front to support Muhammad Ali. That meant something in that time. I’m proud because it was a step forward in black Americans showing some type of unity and trying to make an effective effort at something. Baby steps, but it was a step.


DP: To sneak in a quasi-basketball question, you famously attended UCLA and played for several title teams with the Lakers. What did you think of LiAngelo Ball's China controversy?

KAJ: I was very disappointed in the example that’s been made by the students. Their arrogance and lack of maturity was very disappointing to me, and it made the program look bad. So I was very disappointing in what I saw and that the kids really don’t understand the moral implications of what they did, and that’s going to follow them. It was very unfortunate.

DP: Have you watched Lonzo closely? What have you thought of his and the Lakers’ development thus far?

KAJ: I don’t get too close, but I pay attention from my little perch here, and I think that they’re getting a nice group together of some young kids with talent. As they mature over the next couple of years, they could be a factor. They’re still going to need a leader, they’re going to need someone who can go out there and be that dependable leader on the court and they’re going to need some frontcourt presence. I think they’re one or two players away from being a very good team.

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DP: You’re partnering with the American Cancer Society and Coaches vs. Cancer. Can you share a little bit about that with me? 

KAJ: Well, you know I was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2008. Here I am thinking that I might die. I was very fortunate in that one of my kids was in med school at the time. He was the first person I called, and he said you got to find out what it’s all about, and there are many ways to treat most types of Leukemia. You got to deal with it, educate yourself and do what they tell you to do. I learned that I can treat my Leukemia and I’ve been to summits and done events with the American Cancer Society, like the walk in New York City to raise money for research. Research is keeping people like me alive.

DP: And you have a new book, Being Kareem. How did you become an author and how rewarding has it been as a second career?

KAJ: I have a whole new career as an author. It’s changed my life in ways I never thought it would. I got started writing in grade school. I used to enter essay contest for my grade school when I was in the seventh and eighth grade. And in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I took part in a mentoring program in Harlem and the challenge was for the kids to explain how they could make Harlem a better place. They had a lot of different forms of expression, so I was in the journalism workshop.

The key of the summer, though, was Dr. Martin Luther King. He had just been named Man of the Year the year before in 1963 so the press corps followed him around. As the editor of the journalism workshop, they gave me press credentials and I covered the event with media members who followed Dr. King around. He spoke to the kids and I was there and I asked him a question. My very first meaningful interview was with Dr. King. I remember, at 17, I had to get my courage up and use my perch—I was already the height that I am now—so I could lean over the other reporters and he made sure he answered my question.