Earlier this postseason, the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant made history by becoming only the fourth player in league history to score at least 100 points in the first three playoff games of his career. Morant joined an elite list that also includes George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Abdul-Jabbar broke and set so many records in basketball that it can be difficult to track all the accolades. He left a lasting imprint on the game, finishing his career as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points. He also won six MVP awards, as well as six championships and two Finals MVP awards. Before dominating the pros, he was a three-time NCAA champion at UCLA, where he was a three-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player, as well as received the national college player of the year honors.
Time has a unique way of reflecting a person’s greatness. Abdul-Jabbar was a force in the league for two full decades. His style of play—defined by his iconic skyhook—was timeless and would allow him to thrive in any era, including the current one. But in the three decades since he retired, Abdul-Jabbar’s on-court brilliance has been slightly diluted, partially due to the star-power of today’s players, but also as a side effect of the passing of time.
“It’s been so long since I played, people don’t really know how to compare me with today’s current players,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “And the guys that played before me, for the average fan today, they have no idea who Elgin Baylor was. They never got to see Jerry West in his prime, they didn’t get to see Bill Russell’s Celtics—they won eight in a row.
“The great players of the game that came before makes it very hard to try to pick one person that’s going to dominate everybody that’s played the game. You can’t tell how LeBron James would have played against other players when you’re not even aware of the other players. There are so many great players in the league. It just depends on your choice.”
Abdul-Jabbar won his first NBA title in 1971 with the Milwaukee Bucks, a franchise still seeking its second championship. He won his next five with the Lakers in the 1980s, crafting one of the best decade-long runs in league history. Had the Lakers won the title this season, they would have passed the Celtics for most championships in league history.
“I think the Lakers have a great team when they’re healthy,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “This year, that didn’t work out for them—they couldn’t stay healthy. But it’s an interesting team to watch.”
Abdul-Jabbar grew up in New York. He made the greatest impact on the court while playing for teams in California with UCLA and the Lakers, but it was the Celtics of the 1960s that were his favorite.
“Our high school coach wanted us to share the ball and play great defense,” Abdul-Jabbar says, who later saw the Celtics become his Lakers’ archrival in the legendary battles that featured Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. “That was the Celtic MO for winning a lot of championships. That type of game really is the one that wins all the time, and it is something that should be emulated all teams. People who can relate to that have a better perspective on the game than people who can’t.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s affinity for the Celtics centered around the great Bill Russell. Russell won a remarkable 11 championships in 13 seasons, and he fought tirelessly for equality as a social rights activist. Abdul-Jabbar has also spent his life standing up against injustice, even receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. He is now spreading awareness and education in an important new project from the History Channel, executive producing and narrating Fight the Power: The Movements That Changed America, an hour-long documentary that airs this Saturday. That date is particularly significant, as June 19 (Juneteenth) is the holiday that commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States.
“I think people will be able to see themselves in the position of some of the protesters,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “They’ll understand people are being denied a very fundamental right. You’ll get an idea of what makes protest a part of the American DNA and how it relates to life in America today.”
The documentary navigates through specific movements that have pushed for equality in America, including the labor movement of the 1880s, women’s suffrage, civil rights and the LGTBQ+ and Black Lives Matter movements. Narrowing its lens on protests, the documentary explores their impact on the evolution of the country, examining whether justice ultimately prevails when pressure is firmly applied.
“From the Civil Rights Movement to the [New York] shirtwaist strike [of 1909], from the LA riots to women’s suffrage, everybody has a moment where they have to deal with the fact that things don’t always work for them here in America, and something has to be done and said about it,” Abdul-Jabbar says.
“I try to make it so that people can get an idea how certain circumstances make it oftentimes impossible to understand what’s going on. For example, people did not believe that American police just indiscriminately beat people, until they had a chance to see the Rodney King video [in 1992]. The fact that that kind of incontrovertible truth about what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop really made people start to think.
“We keep moving on from there. Different incidents kept underlying the fact that, too often, the system is rigged against Black people. They are victimized by the legal system or by the criminal justice system, it all seems to work to make their lives miserable. We have to point these things out, and protest groups are the only way that you can get the message across.”
Abdul-Jabbar also praises the current generation of NBA players for the way they fight for social justice, serving as ambassadors for the game in a manner that extends far beyond basketball.
“The great players in the game today do a great job of representing their communities,” he says. “So many are involved in trying to get things done with problems in their community, and they’re doing a great job of identifying problems and getting people to address these problems. Without the public platform that they have as professional athletes, I don’t think they’d be able to do that.”
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