Nothing in my whole life caused as unpleasant a commotion as the storm I got into over the Olympic boycott. My decision not to play was, in the end, one I made for myself; I felt I was right, I still feel I was right, and in the same circumstances I would do the same thing again.
The proposal to lay a black boycott on the whole Olympics first came up in November of my junior year. On Thanksgiving Day black athletes from the West Coast met with Harry Edwards, the sociology professor from San Jose State who masterminded the whole boycott idea. Let me say right here that Harry Edwards is a very intelligent and courageous man, and I am proud to know him. He stood up for black athletes long before anybody else, and in the face of all kinds of pressure. His two dogs were cut up and thrown on his front lawn, and that didn't even slow Professor Edwards down. He has guts and he is one of the great men. I feel the same about some of the other boycott spokesmen: John Carlos, Lee Evans, Tommie Smith.
At that Thanksgiving meeting we discussed the possibility of a boycott, but we did not make any firm decisions. We agreed that a boycott might be a good idea, and we agreed that we had to do something. We didn't want any more of that stuff where Cassius Clay walks into a restaurant with his Olympic gold medal around his neck and can't get a glass of orange juice. If white America behaved that way, then white America could win the Olympics on its own.
The next day the press learned about the meeting, and I gave one of my rare interviews. Right from the beginning of the interview the baiting started. I was none too popular with the reporters anyway, the idea of a boycott didn't appeal to them, and Harry Edwards was anathema, so they were loaded for bear when they turned on their television cameras and began. They asked me if we were going to boycott the Olympics. I said I didn't know, that we had discussed the idea but had reached no final conclusion—which was certainly the truth. Well, they asked me that question about eight times, as though I was lying to them, and when they saw that they were getting no place, one of them said, "How do you feel about an Olympic boycott?" I said, "Well, if you live in a racist society and you want to express yourself about racism, there's a lot of things you can do, and a boycott is one of them." But I emphasized that my mind was still open, which it was.
November 10, 1969
They kicked this around for about five minutes, and then they turned to another subject. What would I, Lew Alcindor, do to solve the racial problem in the United States? I tried to give a serious explanation, but there was so much interrupting and so much derision and negativism that I finally blew my cool. I said, "Look, man, why do you ask me these questions? Why don't you ask a sociologist? I'm not a sociologist or an anthropologist or a politician. Go ask the right people. I'm not qualified to talk on this."
I was annoyed. I sensed the ridiculous nature of all this questioning. These men in front of me didn't care about racial problems. If they had cared they'd have been out talking to the presidents of AT&T, Ford, General Motors, the representatives of the power structure. Why put it all on me, a 20-year-old basketball player? Of course, they were putting it on me because they wanted to exploit my name. They weren't interested in relieving my suffering. What they wanted was some kind of story they could pin my name on. And they were being very self-righteous about it, very pompous. When they couldn't pin me down to anything positive, because there really wasn't anything positive to say, they started getting annoyed and nasty and acted as though I was lying to them.
You can imagine how friendly the write-ups were. For a while I was deluged with hate mail. People said I was an uppity nigger. They said I was a traitor because I was considering boycotting the Olympics when sport had done so much for me. They said I should be thrown out of UCLA and barred from professional basketball. Some people said they would never watch another game till I was gone. But I'll give UCLA credit: the school never brought a bit of pressure on me, never remotely suggested that I should shut up or refuse to discuss controversial issues. And in the end, I made my own decision about boycotting the Olympics, and I will try to explain it honestly.
Does it shock you to hear that I am not a very patriotic person? Well, I'm not. Very few blacks are patriotic; we're too busy just keeping the food on the table to go around hollering about the land of the free and the home of the brave. I'm not knocking my native land, either. I think in most ways it is the greatest country in the world. But not in every way. Not by a long shot. So this entered into my Olympic thinking. I found it hard to understand why I should mess up my school year and lose my whole summer for the purpose of going all the way to Mexico City to win a gold medal for the United States in a basketball tournament. I was right on schedule at UCLA, maintaining a B-minus average, and going to the Olympics would have cost me at least a quarter, and maybe two, and I'd have had to postpone my graduation. In the second place, the United States was not going to lose the Olympic basketball gold medal, and we all knew it. There was no way. My going there would only have been redundant. How many times can you win the same games?
As it turned out, while the other cats were getting themselves together to form an Olympic basketball team, I went back to the playgrounds of New York City and did the same thing I had done the year before, with the same people: Emmette Bryant and Freddie Crawford. Instead of being in Mexico City that summer, I was in Harlem, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brownsville, in the East Bronx, in all the slums of New York City, talking to kids for Operation Sports Rescue, telling them to stay in school and to make men out of themselves. That was my summer job. I thought then, and I think now, that that job was a lot more important than winning a gold medal in the Olympics. A whole lot more. I was talking to little black kids who are going to suffer because they don't have any examples to model themselves on. I tried to give them some kind of an example. They dig basketball, so they dig me. They can relate to me, and if I tell them something, they listen. I look at it this way: if I can change 10 would-be junkies into useful citizens, turn them on to school and to useful lives, maybe get them started on how to run a crane at $4 an hour, that's the most important thing I can do right now. Because if each of those 10 turns on another 10 to decent and useful lives, the geometric progression builds up, and pretty soon you can see an end to some of the black suffering that goes on today. That, in my opinion, is where it's at. By comparison, an Olympic gold medal is a joke. I did what I thought—what I know—was best.
That summer I made a decision that had been forming in my mind all through college, ever since I had read the life of Malcolm X. I already knew the tenets of Islam; I had been studying this religion for a long time, and now I was ready to make my move. I could not go the route of Muhammad Ali and join the Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad. You will never hear me put the knock on another black man—black people already have enough burdens to bear—but let me just say that I found Elijah's religion too narrow, too negative, and in my opinion not truly Muslim at all. The genuine Muslim bears witness that there is one God, that His name is Allah, and that all men—black and white—are brothers. There is no room in Islam for racial hatred of any sort, and I had come to realize that this was exactly the way I felt in my heart. I had worked past the age of rage. I could still become angered at individual acts of hostility and at the whole pattern of racial hostility. But I could no longer believe that the white man was inherently evil and cruel and black men inherently superior, as some of the other blacks are teaching nowadays. That is just the flip side of the old racism. I realized that black was neither best nor worst; it just was. I could no longer hate anybody. I could no longer afford to be a racist. If racism messed up a lot of people who had to take it, then it must also mess up those who had to dish it out. I did not want to be that kind of narrow man.
Through my studies, I had learned that the two largest groups in Islam are the Sunnites (450 million) and the Shiites (30 million). The Sunnites live mostly in Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, North Africa, Indonesia and India, and the Shiites in Iran and Iraq, and there is very little difference ideologically. Perhaps because of the influence of Malcolm X (he was a Sunnite Muslim when he was assassinated in my senior year of high school), I chose the Sunnites. There was a mosque on 125th Street right off Eighth Avenue in Harlem, and I went in and spoke to them, and they told me to come to the mosque anytime. Soon I heard from a brother who called himself Hamaas Khaalis, and he said he would instruct me. He said that it was important that I be certain I wanted to be a Sunnite Muslim, and also that I get it straight. He himself had studied under Dr.Tassibur Ud-Dein Rahman from Pakistan.
For two weeks I took instruction from Hamaas Khaalis, starting each morning at 6. He told me that if I did not want to start my instruction early in the morning, then I did not want to become a Muslim. He taught me the prayers, the ablutions, the incantations, and he stressed over and over that Islam did not judge a man by what he said or what he professed or the number of formal services he attended, but by his acts, and by his acts alone.
Late in August, not long before I had to head back to Los Angeles, I had my shahada, my "baptism" into Islam. Like Malcolm X, the guiding star of my life, I was now a Sunnite Muslim. My new name was—and is—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, my new holy book the Quran, my new watchword the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet Mohammed.
When some of my close friends found out what I had done, they started calling me Kareem, and they apologized when they slipped and called me Lew. I had to explain to them that Kareem is my religious name, the same as Sister Mary Sebastian and Mother Josepha were religious names of some of my childhood teachers. I'm not going to make any issue out of my new name. It's somewhat important to me whether you call me Lew Alcindor or Kareem, but I'm not going to blow my top if somebody does call me Lew Alcindor. It's a nice name: I like the sound of it; I admire other people who have borne that name. Call me Kareem; call me Lew. I'm not going to get up tight about it.
We lost a game in my senior year, but that wasn't important because we won our third straight NCAA championship anyway. USC beat us with a stall, 46-44; we all had a plain case of the blahs. The game meant nothing, and we weren't sharp. It was bound to happen. We had lost one game in three years, and all that winning was bound to come down on us. When you're expected to win every game, you lose a lot of your energy and your inspiration, and you lose your edge. So we lost a game. No big deal.
The two important things that happened in my senior year had nothing to do with winning and losing, and they had nothing to do with my social life on the campus. I had no social life on the campus, and I expected none, but I did have certain relationships with my teammates, and out of those relationships came the meaningful events of 1968, at least so far as I was concerned.
One of them began on a bus ride from Columbus, Ohio to South Bend, Ind., where we were going to play our third game of the year, against Notre Dame. It was late at night and a bunch of us started talking religion. At first, most of the talk was between me and Steve Patterson. Steve was a Protestant and a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He thought that everybody should be a Christian, and he didn't know that I had become a Muslim. We went all around the circle of logic. You know how it goes:
"Listen, Christ died for all men. Christ is the only salvation for men."
"Wait a minute, man, what about all those people around the world that never heard of Christ. Aren't they gonna be saved?"
"Well, I guess not." Etc.
It began to get pretty hot, and soon we were joined by Donny Saffer, a Jew, and by Terry Schofield, a Catholic. Coach Wooden moved closer to listen, but except for adding a few helpful bits of information, he did not take a stand. He just listened, and he seemed fascinated. When I finally told everybody that I was now an Orthodox Muslim, there was a hush, but then the whole discussion resumed and nobody seemed to care that I was a Muslim. They accepted it and we talked about it. The world did not come to an end. Coach Wooden did not look at me cross-eyed. He seemed to accept it as well as everybody else. Out of that midnight ride across Ohio and Indiana we became a different group of men, much more than just a bunch of jocks traveling around the country bouncing basketballs. After that long conversation, there were fewer dogmatists on the UCLA team.
The other thing happened toward the end of the season, and I might call it "the education of Coach John Wooden." Some people might think it presumptuous of me to suggest that a coach who won five national titles in six years might need some educating, but I maintained my position: this fine man, this superb coach, this honest and decent individual, had a terrible blind spot. He had this morality thing going; you had to be "morally" right to play. From that attitude came a serious inability on his part to get along with "problem" players. If they didn't go to church every Sunday and study for three hours a night and arrive 15 minutes early to practice and nod agreement with every inspiring word the coach said, they were not morally fit to play—and they found themselves on the second team. Or if they were so good that they had to be on the first team, they found themselves in constant hot water. There are many examples. Donny Saffer quit and didn't come back. Mike Lynn was made to sit out a year, even though his case had been fully disposed of in the courts, and Lynn presumably punished to the degree the judge felt necessary. Whenever Coach Wooden had to deal with somebody a little different from the norm, he blew the case. (I may be the only exception. The coach and I always got along, though we did not have a close relationship.)
Let me give you an instance of what I am trying to explain, probably the best example of all. It happened in my junior year and involved my roommate, Edgar Lacey, and it was kind of a personal tragedy for me. The problem came to a head the night we lost the big game to Houston in the Astrodome. Lace started the game guarding Elvin Hayes, but when Elvin scored 29 points before the first half was over, Coach Wooden took him out. Lace never got back in. We tried several people on Elvin, including me and Mike Lynn, but it took an unknown player named Jim Nielsen to finally slow him down.
On the way back to the hotel after the game, Lace sat next to me in the bus, and he said, "Man, I'm gonna quit." I could see what was eating him. Here we had played the most important game of the year and he had sat out the whole second half. Long before that Lace had had plenty to be annoyed about. Because Coach Wooden had this thing about players being "morally" ready for play, he sometimes harmed good people. The perfect kind of player for a coach like John Wooden was Lynn Shackleford. Shack was the All-American boy. He studied hard. He belonged to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He took instruction and advice and criticism beautifully. So he started almost every game. On the other hand, Lace was very much his own man. He did his own thing, and he did not alter his personality to suit whatever coach he was playing for. Sometimes he hit the books and sometimes he didn't. He would never become anybody's "boy," in the sense that Shack became Coach Wooden's "boy." So he found himself fighting for a starting position, while Shack got his automatically. And who was Lace fighting? Mike Lynn, somebody else who did not fit Coach Wooden's Midwestern idea of morality. Mike had to alternate at starting forward with Lace. And so help me, if I'm any judge of ballplayers at all, both Lace and Mike were better than Lynn Shackleford, despite the fact that Shack was one of the fine college players.
All of this was eating Lace, and then he was publicly humiliated by being taken out of the Houston game while I was allowed to stagger around for the whole 40 minutes, out of shape and with double vision. All the way back to the hotel on the bus Lace kept muttering to himself about quitting.
When we got back to Los Angeles, I figured that Coach Wooden would smooth matters out. I kept waiting for him to say something, but he didn't. All week long in practice he kept talking in the abstract. He'd say things like, "We all know that not every player can play every game, but that shouldn't upset them. There's a lot of things involved." Everybody on the team knew that he was talking about Lace, but he wouldn't come out and say so. He wouldn't even say something like, "I took Lacey out of the Houston game because I didn't think he was getting the job done, but I'm sorry I had to do it." A short statement like that would have kept Lace on the team, but Coach Wooden didn't make it. Well, Lace is tremendously sensitive, and this kept eating away at him. He never played again for UCLA. He's now with the Los Angeles Stars in the ABA, and I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out to be the Los Angeles Star.
Anyway, that's the kind of thing I mean about there being certain types of players Coach Wooden couldn't understand. Now, toward the end of the Drake game in my senior year something happened that I think changed the whole situation. We had a player named Bill Sweek, and while he was certainly not a problem player, he didn't exactly fit into Coach Wooden's "morality" mold either. There was about one minute left to play, and Coach Wooden motioned to Sweek to get up and get ready to go in the game. But a few seconds later, while Sweek was standing there waiting to go on the floor, Coach Wooden told him to sit down. Sweek got mad and just left the floor. He took a walk. He was going to breeze right out of there and go home, but he felt a little tacky so he went to the showers, and that's where Coach Wooden caught him. They really went at it. The discussion kept right on going when Sweek walked out of the shower and started putting his clothes on, and Coach Wooden completely blew his cool. Assistant Coach Denny Crum grabbed Coach Wooden and led him back to their rooms. But by then Sweek had told Coach Wooden exactly where it was at. He had put it on Coach Wooden real good. He told him that it was not necessary that every player be a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or that every player be a grind with the textbooks, or that every player's name pop up on every honor roll. He told him that some people are like that, and some are not, and the ones who are not can be just as good as the ones who are, and sometimes better. Then he named all the guys who were not in Coach Wooden's morality bag, and all the trouble they had had, and he said, "Maybe you've got to realize that the trouble isn't always with them. Maybe some of it's with you!"
Now, if you want to know how, big a man John Wooden is, I want you to consider this: he is 59 years old, not an age at which people find it easy to change, and his whole view of life goes back to rustic Indiana, 1935, and Sunday school and motherhood and Fourth of July parades. But John Wooden learned something from Bill Sweek. He called us together before practice the next day and he gave us a talk. He didn't make any self-demeaning speech or do any breast-beating; he's not that kind of man. But he made us understand that he had listened and he had found out something. He made it clear that he was going to try to understand better the Bill Sweeks of this world. As for Sweek, he stayed on the team. He shook hands with Coach Wooden and apologized for walking off the floor, and once again we were a closer bunch of human beings. When we finished the year with our third straight NCAA championship, I somehow wasn't as impressed by the victory as I was by the way a group of very different men had come together intolerance and affection. And once again I related it to life; how all men could be brothers with a small amount of effort and a few honest words.
That was the main thing I learned from UCLA basketball. It was worth learning.
As long as I was eligible to play at UCLA, the pros couldn't talk to me, although there were a few attempts to get around the rules and regulations. One guy set himself up as a self-appointed flesh peddler, and he made contacts with just about everybody in the world who paid money to basketball players, from the NBA and ABA to the Globetrotters and the Italian League. He told them all that he represented me, and how much were they going to offer? He went to George Mikan, commissioner of the American Basketball Association, and said he represented me and asked for some money to "get the ball rolling." When I found out about it, I got the ball rolling by telling him to stay out of my sight. That was the end of that. He was just an unscrupulous guy looking for a piece of change under the table.
When it finally came time to negotiate with the leagues, I had the benefit of two very sharp UCLA alumni who stayed with me through the whole thing, and strictly on a volunteer, unpaid basis. One was Sam Gilbert, a contractor, and the other was Ralph Shapiro, a partner in a Los Angeles brokerage firm. I was very happy to have Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Shapiro with me when the higher mathematics started.
Nobody knew it at the time, but the ABA had the inside track on me. All my life I'd dreamed of playing for the Knicks, because it's my home town and I love New York, but since the Knicks hadn't won the right to draft me, I'd have been almost as happy to play with the New York Nets in the ABA. And they had won the rights. I also wouldn't have minded San Francisco, which is a swinging town, or Boston, where the winners live. But the Nets were my first choice.
Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Gilbert and I flew into New York to begin the negotiations, and on a Monday in March we talked to Mr. Walter Kennedy, commissioner of the NBA, and to the owners of the Milwaukee team that had won the right to draft me. They made a five-year offer, and it was a good one. I'm sorry that I'm sworn to secrecy on the amount, but I can promise you it was bigger than a bread box. We said thanks, and that we were meeting with the ABA the next day, and we would let Milwaukee know after that.
On Tuesday we went up to the fancy Manhattan town house of Mr. Arthur Brown, owner of the Nets, and there we met with Mr. Brown and ABA Commissioner George Mikan. Mr. Brown made a five-year offer. It was good, but not as good as the NBA's. Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Gilbert told me that they were surprised; they had expected a bonus offer, which had been promised by several owners of teams in the league. Mr. Gilbert then asked Mr. Mikan if that was the total offer and whether or nota bonus would be involved. Mr. Mikan said that was it. He was quite emphatic about it. Well, we had agreed when we came to New York that we were not going to get into any long-term bidding war—one league against the other. Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Gilbert felt it would cause too much animosity and would not be good for my career in the long run. So we told Mr. Brown that we would have to decline his offer.
Back at our hotel, we sat and talked about it. I told Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Gilbert that I really preferred New York over Milwaukee, but not at that price differential. They agreed with me. The NBA offer was clearly superior. So we called Walter Kennedy and told him I'd be playing for the new Milwaukee franchise. He asked if this was final and if he could count on our word, and we said yes, it was, and asked him to start drawing up the papers.
At the time my mother was sick in Los Angeles with a blood clot in her leg, and getting ready to be operated on, and I was in a big hurry to get to her side. I had planned to leave for Los Angeles the following morning. I had dinner with Mr. Gilbert, Mr. Shapiro and my father. After dinner we returned to the hotel and went right upstairs. Mr. Gilbert was intercepted by two of the owners of the ABA teams. They told Mr. Gilbert they had another offer. He said he didn't understand; their final offer had come that afternoon. They said that Mr. Mikan didn't have the authority to make a final offer like that, and asked us if we would hold off signing with the NBA for a while until they could do some bargaining. Mr. Gilbert said that would be impossible, the deal was closed, but since there was so much money involved, he would double-check with my father and me. As much as I wanted to make a deal with the Nets, my father and I agreed that we had given our word, and the negotiating was over in a single day. The ABA had had the inside track, but they had blown it.
I wasn't any happier than the ABA people were at the time, but since then I have thought about it and realized that the NBA has more stability and all those stars to play against and I don't see why I shouldn't have a fine old time this season in Milwaukee. Sometimes I would lie awake at night and wonder what the other teams might have in store for us. Maybe they'd try to gang up on me, teach me what it's like to be a rookie. But we've got other guys on our ball club that can play the game, too, and we'll be playing as a team. When you have guys like Flynn Robinson, Don Smith, John McGlocklin and Len Chappell, you don't have to play with your tail between your legs. I'm expecting it to be a lot of fun, far more fun than it was at UCLA. Nobody is going to expect the Milwaukee team to win every game, and the Milwaukee team won't. It'll be interesting for a change to get out there and win some and lose some, just like the other people.
I've heard some people say that I'm going to tear the game apart, ruin pro basketball with my height and my moves—but nobody who knows pro basketball can take a statement like that seriously. I'm going to be a rookie, and I'm going to have a lot to learn, like every rookie in the league, and if I take the NBA apart, then that must have been an optical illusion I was watching when I saw all those NBA games last season and watched men like Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West and Elvin Hayes do their tricks out there. Nobody is going to take those cats apart.
I did get a laugh out of something the Lakers' coach, Bill van Breda Kolff, said a year or so ago. "I don't think the NBA should negotiate with Alcindor," he said. "I think each team in the league should give him $100,000 and tell him to go to the beach." Somebody said to me, "What would you have done, Lew, if they had really made an offer like that?" And I said, "You crazy, man? You'd be interviewing me right now—at the beach!"
Of course, I was kidding, too, just like van Breda Kolff. What I really want to do is play 10 or 12 years in the NBA, see what I can do there against the big guys. Then I'll go back to more normal things. That big money isn't going to change me all that much. So far, I've indulged myself in a new wardrobe, because the old one was getting threadbare, and a Cadillac Coupe deVille, because it's big enough for me to be comfortable in, and a set of drums, because I dig drums. That's the only change the NBA money has made: I won't be all cramped in my car, I'll look a little more presentable, and I'll make a lot of noise for my neighbors in Milwaukee.
And after it's all over, what then? I don't know. I always liked teaching. Maybe I'll teach. Maybe I'll do social work. Whatever I do, I'm pretty sure it will be with black kids. That's not because I'm prejudiced against white kids. But I was a black kid. I know their scene. I know how to talk to them. I mean something to them. I would be glad to help white kids if the occasion arose, but I can do a whole lot more for the blacks. I mean, I would be happy to go down to Montgomery, Ala. and do social work among the white kids there, try to un trap them from their parents' thinking. But do you think it would do any good? No, my role is going to have to be with people of my own color. The black people need brothers who can express themselves freely and do their own thing, pridefully and manfully. The black people need brothers who have made themselves into something that can be admired, something that can be modeled on.
For some time, I've been asked how I feel about life in general and my own philosophy in particular, especially in regard to the black-white scene. For someone who has been through the whole spectrum of human emotions in connection with this subject, and who has seen his philosophy change as I have, this is no easy task. But the peace and inner strength I have drawn from my faith and the people I have known point me in the direction that all of us might try to follow.
When I was hung up with the misunderstanding that racism breeds, I was a blinded individual. I can see the same blindness affecting my brothers even now in their attempts to be really free. Equally blinded are those who put down Afro-Americans without cause. The only answer to this blindness is the communication that results from a sincere effort to know all your brothers in the family of man.
When the time comes that everyone can see his fellow man as a real person, that battle just might be won.