The Venerable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Holds Court on Ali, Kap and More

The venerable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is uniquely suited to speak upon the current sociopolitical atmosphere. His basketball accolades are the stuff of legend, having been the proverbial St. John the Baptist at the dawn of sports activism, Kareem witnesses the occurrence of one who appears to have knowingly sacrificed his career to bring light to social injustice, police brutality and institutional racism.  

Largely because of him, white supremacy is a contemporary, relevant term.

Once upon a time, seemingly forever ago these days, the regal Abdul-Jabbar was misidentified as surly and brooding by sportswriters who covered him in the National Basketball Association. Some so-called journalists, misinformed racist ax-grinders engaged in subterfuge disguised as discourse, once alluded to him as having radical roots. 

However, in a recent interview with Donald McCrae published at The Guardian, Abdul-Jabbar opened up about a great number of issues.  Filled with hilarious anecdotes and sobering realizations, I went in and pulled out some jewels.

On being at the Cleveland Summit:

Were talking about 50 years since the Cleveland Summit, wow. We were tense about what we were going to do and Ali was the opposite. He said: Weve got to fight this in court and Im going to start a speaking tour. Ali had figured out what he had to do in order to make the dollars while fighting the case was essential to his identity. Bill Russell said: Ive got no concerns about Ali. Its the rest of us Im worried about. Ali had such conviction but he was cracking jokes and asking us if we were going to be as dumb as Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt wanted to box Ali. Oh my God. 

On why Black folks loved Muhammad Ali:

Black Americans wanted to protect Ali because he spoke for us when we had no voice. When he said: Aint no Viet Cong ever called me the N-word, we figured that one out real quick. Ali was a winner and people supported him because of his class as a human being. But some of the things we fought against then are still happening. Each generation faces these same old problems.

On being called the N-word by an old lady, and how coach John Wooden recalled the affair differently.

Wooden was mortified when a little old lady stared up at the teenage Kareem and said: Ive never seen a nigger that tall. Even though he would later say that he learned more about mans inhumanity to man by witnessing all that his protg endured over the years, Woodens memory of that encounter softened the womans racial insult by saying that she had called Kareem a big black freak.

 He would never see a little grey-haired lady using such language. When it doesnt affect your life its hard for you to see. Men dont understand what attractive women go through. We dont get on a bus and have somebody squeeze our breast. We have no idea how bad it can be. For people to understand your predicament youve got to figure out how to convey that reality. It takes time.

Kareems first act of activism was the boycotting of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a gloved black fist on the medal stand at the same games. 

Race riots occurred in Newark and Detroit in 1967, and all hell broke lose when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated the following year. All that made it easy for Kareem to say no to USA basketball. 

Dr Harry Edwards helped me realize how much power I had. The Olympics are a great event but what happened overwhelmed any patriotism. I had to make a stand. I wanted the country to live up to the words of the founding fathers and make sure they applied to people of color and to women. I was trying to hold America to that standard.

He did that while in college!  And you could probably bet your blue suede Pumas that Abdul-Jabbar’s protest soured sportswriters and reporters against him before he even played a single game in the NBA. Judging how the media is attacking Kap, that would be easy money.

 On Colin Kaepernick:

Yeah. The whole issue of equal treatment under the law is still being worked out here because for so long our political and legal culture has denied black Americans equal treatment. But I was surprised Kaepernick had that awareness. It made me think: I wonder how many other NFL athletes are also aware? From there it has bloomed. This generation has a very good idea on how to confront racism. I talked to Colin a couple of days ago on the phone and Im really proud of him. Hes filed an issue with the Players Association about the owners colluding to keep him from working. Thats the best legal approach to it. I hope he prevails.

In the article,  Kareem’s stories and observations continue to amuse.  The piece also includes a story from about how he was sent a handwritten insult from Donald Trump, as well other many other anecdotes that are well worth reading in their entirety. 

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