Catching Up With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The NBA legend on Black History Month, athlete activism and his famous skyhook.
by February 25, 2015

When the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired at 42 from the Los Angeles Lakers, in 1989, having amassed a record 38,387 total career points, he looked as if he could still suit up and get buckets down on the low block with that unstoppable, ambidextrous sky hook.

Even now, as the 7-2 legend walks into the adidas suite at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York City, on Friday the 13th, the first day of NBA All-Star weekend, he moves with the same fluidity, poise and grace that made No. 33 one of the most legendary jersey numbers in basketball history.

But these days, the former Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr. is no longer focused on playing the game, he’s focused on teaching it and using it to reach the youth.

Case in point—it’s Black History Month and the former UCLA star teamed up with the good people at Three Stripes to help reflect on and honor the African-American experience with a special Black History Month Collection.

“I thought it was great that adidas would go along with the whole idea of using shoes to promote the awareness and consciousness among black kids,” says Kareem, who was born on April 16, 1947, just one day after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. “So it was a no-brainer really to do it. I’m glad I did it and I think it worked pretty well.”

The line of four limited edition kicks features the Crazy 8 and current signature silhouettes for Derrick Rose, John Wall and Damian Lillard, all in golden sepia colorways, with inspirational quotes and details about Kareem’s Hall of Fame career.

But did the 19-time All Star design the shoes himself?

“My design input was back in the ’70s,” he says with a laugh. “When I used to go over to Europe all the time. But the Crazy 8 shoe is a really great shoe for people who play. It’s awesome.”

With the Super Bowl, Grammys, All-Star Game and the Oscars, February is full of entertaining distractions and Kareem knows that it’s an uphill battle to get the new generation of kids interested in the African-American diaspora.

“It’s gonna take young people in communities to get behind it and just tune into what I’m trying to communicate about pride and achievement and getting things done in the community,” he said. “The whole idea of giving back to the community in a way that helps the community improve is something that black athletes can have a dramatic impact on.”

With the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, professional athletes have been galvanized to join in on the protests demanding equal justice. There was a time when members of the old guard like Jim Brown and Kareem had to press the current generation of pro ballers to press for transformation. That hasn’t been the case of late, with players donning “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts before games and speaking out to express their sense of righteous indignation. Not surprisingly, Kareem loves this new movement.

“Just the fact they’re paying attention is significant,” he said. “Because they will be able to figure out what is crucial for their community. What happened in Ferguson or here in New York how that’s going down in their community and what they need to do about it. So I’m glad to see that there’s some consciousness coming around and it’s not focused on anger dealing with problems and issues. I thought the young man who plays for the Cleveland browns talked about he was worried about his son after he saw what happened to Tamir Rice. He said I have a young son that could happen to him so this is really connecting with the incident and a real issue in the community so this is great and I’m glad it’s happening because this young man is going about it the right way and raising consciousness his concerns are he’s voicing concerns in his community, so I’m totally supportive of that and glad to see it’s happening.”

But what exactly spawned this new sense of awareness and need to speak out?

“I think after the incidents occurred people said, ‘Hey there’s something wrong here.’ Everybody was just concerned and really wanting to have an impact on something that could be a much worse problem if we don’t do something about it. It’s the right thing happening at the right time and I’m glad to see it.”

Although glad to see adults getting involved in their communities, Kareem thinks that the youth is the key to true progress, which is why he founded the Skyhook Foundation.

“I hope the young people get an understanding that education is the key, economics is the key,” he said. “It’s not just about having fun in hoops and stuff like that, which is great, but what’s gonna happen in your community? What are you gonna do to make your community a better place? A place where you wanna live and thrive and be in business, raise your children, those types of things. You gotta start thinking about the bigger picture.”

In addition to his outreach, Kareem is also releasing a new book aimed at helping kids get an insight about making the change from puberty to adulthood.

“I have a book coming out called ‘Stealing the Game’ [Learn more in the next print ish! —Ed.] about kids playing and growing up with the game and the things that they go through,” he said. “My book is based vaguely on me growing up and the guy that I collaborate with has kids in junior high school high school age, so it’s stuff that he sees vividly and stuff that I remember vividly about being tall and trying to fit in and basketball being an outlet and all the emotion and bravado that goes into the game amongst the kids with rivals.”

Los Angeles Lakers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

With such a vast wealth of life and basketball knowledge, it’s surprising that current players in the league like Dwight Howard, for example, haven’t sought out his tutelage. Only one player, the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah, has asked the six-time MVP for one-on-one coaching.

“I had a lot of success with Joakim Noah,” he said. “He came to me and said, ‘It’s some things I need to learn.’ I showed it to him, he figured it out and he was Defensive Player of the Year the following year, so I’m happy to see that the knowledge transferred.”

His skyhook was virtually unblockable. The numbers don’t lie. Kareem was the eighth most accurate scorer of all time with a .559 field goal percentage using it as his primary offensive weapon. Yet, no one has added it to their repertoire or perfected it like Kareem. Why? Is there a secret to it that no one knows about?

“There’s no secret to it,” he said. “It’s just you have to learn how to shoot it and use it. It’s not that difficult. What I see is a lot of kids when they learn the game, they don’t learn post up moves. Nobody’s teaching it to them. If you teach it to them and they see that it’s an effective weapon, they’ll use it. But you have to put the tool in their hands.”

Truth be told, the center position is a long way from the back-to-the-basket beasts that ruled the paint in Kareem’s day. It’s all about facing the basket now, shooting three-pointers and trying to take defenders off the dribble. But what about points in the paint?

“Getting points in the paint and creating points by getting fouled in the paint that puts an additional pressure on the team you’re playing against and too many players don’t know how to use that situation to their advantage,” he said. “You have to learn the game on a subtle level using all the tools and situations that are available. The game hasn’t changed that much it’s just that there are fewer players that focus on that part of the game. That’s still a very important part of the game to have someone with post up moves you have an inside threat that is a problem for other teams that’s still a reality it’s just that fewer players are pursuing the game that way. I think it has to do with style. The three-point shot is very seductive, the fans love it. So everybody wants to shoot three pointers.”

Kareem is without a doubt one of the best to ever lace ‘em up. Ever. But where does he go from here? Coaching? Team ownership?

“I would be open to that [ownership] but a whole lot of things have to happen,” he said. “Right now, I feel my involvement with the game is about right. I’m making an impact, but I’m not overexposed.”

Considering the influence he’s had on the game we all love, there’s no such thing as overexposure when it comes to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Long live the goggled Captain and original member of Showtime—you epitomize greatness.

Photos via adidas, Getty Images