When I was in kindergarten my parents signed me up for co-ed basketball, an activity in which I was routinely tackled by my own teammates and traveling was much preferred to dribbling and passing. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went a bit further in his basketball career than I did. He left the NBA in 1989 as the all-time leading scorer, six-time champion, and 19-time All-Star player. After the NBA, he continued his career as an activist, advocating for compensation for college athletes, increased cancer research (after surviving cancer himself), and against Islamophobia. He earned the Double Helix Medal as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, the country’s highest civilian honor.
On Monday night, Abdul-Jabbar joined Brown University to speak about his life. On my way to the lecture at Salomon, I saw students taking pictures as a seven-foot-tall man stepped out of a black limousine. Shrouded by a security team that barely reached his chest, the man was unmistakably Abdul-Jabbar. I watched as his long, athletic body moved through the crowd and he chatted with people, smiling.
Inside, the lecture hall was full of Brown students and professors excitedly awaiting his arrival. After an introduction, Abdul-Jabbar stepped out from backstage and the room went silent. Barely able to tear my eyes away from him, I looked around and saw that everyone else’s eyes were also following his every movement. We all watched as he took a seat a seemingly unreasonably small table with a petite Simply Lemonade.
Before the lecture I unfortunately didn’t know much about Abdul-Jabbar, except that he was an athlete and activist. I didn’t know about his legendary NBA status, or the extensive collection of books he’s authored, or his “coming out” as Muslim in 1971. With such a heroic figure in the room, it’s no wonder we could feel something. Abdul-Jabbar has some sort of magnetism that allows him to speak as calmly and quietly as he likes and still, every word will fall upon your ears to be stored for later.
The lecture, according to Abdul-Jabbar, would be on “the things that made [him] become who [he is].” It was based around a slideshow of pictures from various points in his life with people he knew, places he went, and things he did. In every picture he towered over peers, parents, mentors, and friends. Abdul-Jabbar talked about how in high school, he participated in a mentoring program in Harlem called H.A.R.Y.O.U. ACT. He discussed the significance of Harlem to him as a black teenager growing up on the heels of the Harlem Renaissance. He told of how he attended UCLA after receiving a letter from Jackie Robinson recommending it for the academics and the athletics.
A common theme in Abdul-Jabbar’s life was his contact with influential Black Americans. After receiving the letter from Robinson, Abdul-Jabbar went to a lecture by Alex Haley at UCLA where Haley spoke about his struggle to find his identity and roots as a Black American. Still in college, Abdul-Jabbar befriended Muhammed Ali, who Abdul-Jabbar says taught him integrity and leadership. Because of that, he says, he figured out the difference between just being popular, and being a real leader.
Throughout his life, Abdul-Jabbar continued to meet influential individuals and was moved by the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X taught him the necessity of activism for Black Americans. Abdul-Jabbar is thankful to have witnessed the mid-to-late 60s, telling the audience, “my guiding light was the Civil Rights Movement.”
On Muhammed Ali’s protest and decision not to fight anymore, Abdul-Jabbar said, “this type of activism is not something that’s convenient. Ali had to make a choice—stand up against the Vietnam War or make a lot of money—and he had the courage to do the right thing.” At the 1968 Olympics, a young Abdul-Jabbar also had the courage to do the right thing, standing up to the anti-semitic commissioner Avery Brundage and boycotting.
In 1971, Abdul-Jabbar converted to Islam after being raised Christian, and finally declared it to the world. “I know what my activism has cost me,” he said, “but being able to assert my identity is the most important thing for me. That is always the person I want to be. We need to pursue the things that make us whole.”
Another value important to Abdul-Jabbar is education. As the first in his family to get a college degree, he told the audience that knowledge is power, especially for minorities, and said that his biggest driving force is to get young people to educate themselves.
Abdul-Jabbar closed by talking about activism today, saying that we must include everybody. We have to stand up and tell the world that the Nazi’s Charlottesville is not representative of us. Abdul-Jabbar wants America to grow to be the best place in the world. However, we have a lot of work to do, he said, and it’s not going to be convenient.