Profile in Courage

This past Saturday, Kobe Bryant passed Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list, moving into the fourth slot behind only Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It got us thinking about the guy on the top of the list, and how tough it’ll be for Kobe—or anyone, really—to score more points than Abdul-Jabbar did during his lengthy career (38,387, that is). That brings us to the feature below, a wide-ranging interview with Cap himself, originally published in SLAM 19 (August, ’97). Enjoy.—Ed.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

by Zack Burgess

“The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.” – Paul Valery

In ’47, a boy was born in New York City. He grew quickly and soon towered over his peers. The awkward youngster turned his attention to basketball. As he grew older, stumbling footsteps grew surer, and his size became less of a burden. On the playgrounds and in the gyms, this young seven-footer developed what would become the NBA’s most lethal weapon—the skyhook.

While playing at Power Memorial High, he was christened the king of New York. While playing at UCLA, they actually changed the rules to try and stop him (the no-dunking rule). While with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, this man defined the game like Chamberlain and Russell had before him. But the game never defined him. Even as a youngster, he knew there was something beyond the game, something more to life than putting a ball through a hoop. He knew that one day, that part of his life would come to an end.

The ’89 Playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers swept their way to the Finals, rolling over Portland, Seattle and Phoenix. All that stood in the way of their third straight title was the Detroit Pistons. On June 13, the Lakers lost Game Four at home to the Bad Boys, 105-97. It was the end of a four-game Pistons sweep. It was also the end of a dynasty, and, more importantly, the end of an era. In a somber Laker locker room, 42-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar removed his purple-and-gold No. 33 jersey for the last time. After six titles, six Most Valuable Player awards, 18 All-Star games, 38,387 regular-season points and 18 playoff appearances, the Captain finally called it a career.

He left many of us with two questions still unanswered: Will there ever be a sight more graceful than the skyhook? And who really is the greatest ever to play the game?

While Cap scored more points and played more minutes (57,446) than any player in NBA history, statistics do not begin to define this legendary man. There are some things that transcend sports—integrity, convictions, faith. And Abdul-Jabbar realized, even as a young man, that he could never achieve true greatness without first addressing these fundamental issues.

The year was ’67. The then-Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr., a bright, athletic and introspective 20-year-old UCLA student, headed to Cleveland to take his place among the black superheroes of the time—Jim Brown, Willie Davis, Bill Russell, John Wooten. They converged at a media-frenzied press conference to support Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army. Ali placed his very public stamp on the politics of the time, as Alcindor would soon put his own quiet mark on this very tumultuous era. A man of few words, Alcindor’s actions spoke volumes.

In ’68, the country was in an uproar over Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the Olympic victory stand in Mexico City. Alcindor, the best college basketball player in the country, refused to participate in the Olympics at all, citing American racism as the reason. His boycott offered dignity to a depressed and napping African-American people ripped to pieces by civil oppression and the Vietnam War.

He once said, “Jocks have the image of not being too intelligent, and blacks do, too. The combination of these images really gives a negative image to kids.

“It is my hope, especially for black kids, that this situation will change. It would be a great situation if young blacks would be able to make a different statement with their lives.”

Every day, Alcindor woke up with a mission. At Power Memorial High, it was to dominate New York City basketball. At UCLA, he led the Bruins on an 88-game win streak and to three straight National Championships, winning himself three straight Most-Outstanding-Player Awards in the process. In ’71, after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first and only NBA Championship, the 7-2 center changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (which means generous, servant of Allah and powerful).

“Oh no, not another one!” was the cry that reverberated after his name change. He was derided and ridiculed. “He’s such a clean-cut, good boy. Why make such a radical change?” But Abdul-Jabbar was not moved by people’s perceptions. Nor did he betray his introspective nature by defending himself. His public reticence is still in full effect—he avoids interviews like the plague and elaborates on his points about as often as the Hale-Bopp comet visits. Indeed, Cap’s only concern then was with what he was. All these years later, it still is.

SLAM: What were your Laker years like?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Phenomenal. It was the ultimate success. Eight times I played for the world title and won it five. As a professional athlete, you cannot ask for more.

SLAM: You had a long, incredibly successful run. Do you miss the game?

KAJ: Not really. I had a wonderful career. You can’t dwell on something as wonderful as what I was able to experience as a player.

SLAM: Over the span of your basketball career—high school, college and pro—what were the best and worst times?

KAJ: The best times? Consistently being a part of winning teams. The worst? I got involved with some people that I should not have been involved with that made things bad for me. But when I look at the balance of my life, I’m happy.

SLAM: Considering what you saw over a 20-year basketball career, what do you think of this as today’s NBA athlete gets younger and younger?

KAJ: Nothing has really changed. Baseball has been dealing with these things since the ’50s. White kids have been going into baseball and tennis right out of high school all along, and nobody says anything. But black people are perceived as needing education more than whites.

It’s also that the NCAA is upset that their exclusive little cartel is being tampered with. They see that they now have to make their so-called intentions real and start educating people. It’s a very hypocritical process. Dexter Manley [former defensive end for the Washington Redskins] went to Oklahoma State and was illiterate. Fraudulent is what I would call it.

SLAM: Talk about the trade from Milwaukee [to the Lakers] for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Myers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters. You were clearly one of the top five players in the League at that time. How did the trade come about?

KAJ: I don’t know the business end of it all. I told them I wasn’t going to stay. I wanted to go to New York. But [the Knicks] didn’t have the money, so I ended up in L.A. I guess that is why they call Jerry West the best GM since Red Auerbach, because he’s willing to go out and get winners.

SLAM: What was your greatest NBA moment?

KAJ: Beating the Celtics in ’85. We owed them one. That was the highlight for me.

SLAM: Of all the NBA records you hold, which do you consider your greatest achievement?

KAJ: My Playoff record of points scored (5,762). That is one I think will stand for a long time.

SLAM: In your opinion, who is the greatest center to play the game?

KAJ: That’s really tough. Wilt [Chamberlain] would say himself, and he would also go on to criticize George Mikan. But when you think about what Mikan did, it really is amazing. He was a pathfinder, the first big man to be considered a great athlete. He is the reason the rest of us learned to play the position. What Mikan did is unprecedented; we have to give him his respect. Overall though, I would have to say Bill Russell. He won 11 championships.

SLAM: So, who do you think is the greatest player ever to play the game, then?

KAJ: Oscar Robertson. Maybe Michael Jordan. Those two without question.

SLAM: Have things really changed that much with today’s players, or is it just a case of a generation of great basketball players getting older? You know, the “when I was your age” thing.

KAJ: Today the athletes are physically more gifted, but they are not as fundamentally sound. That is why you have all this sloppy play in the league today. And while they start playing organized basketball at an earlier age, they are not learning the basics earlier. Things have changed.

Today’s athletes are just a microcosm of what exists in this country today. Kids are harder to control at home, which makes them harder to coach. Everyone wants to be a separate personality. Which is not good for the game.

SLAM: Do you ever get to any Laker games?

KAJ: No. I can’t sit in the stands.

SLAM: Everyone remembers you in Game of Death with Bruce Lee. What was that experience like, and when did you get involved in martial arts?

KAJ: I got into martial arts at UCLA. Then I started working out with Bruce Lee. Through martial arts, you really get a chance to understand yourself and what your potential is.

SLAM: You said that John Wooden taught you never to get too high with wins or too low with losses?

KAJ: Wooden taught you how to deal with your potential and how to sustain excellence. From him I understood that the only time you should be upset with failure is when you did not give your total effort. When you look at things like this, it makes you more in tune with your success and failures.

SLAM: Talk about your conversion from Christianity to Islam and what it has meant to you as a person.

KAJ: I just felt that the Gospel as we know it has been tampered with by humans. And if you study the Koran, you know that its prophets are valid prophets that are accepted by both the Christian and Jewish faith. Islam was just more pure and divine to me. Through Islam, I saw myself a lot clearer.

SLAM: What gave you the inspiration to write your recent book, Black Profiles in Courage?

KAJ: What caused it all had to do with my son. He was in ninth grade at the time. He had an assignment to write a history paper and couldn’t find any material on any historical black Americans. He looked everywhere—the school library, a couple of other libraries, etc. By the time he got to me, he was pretty desperate. I was able to help him, but it really pointed out a need for a book that really covered the subject.

SLAM: There are so many heroes to look to in the black experience. How did you narrow the selection of people to feature in the book?

KAJ: The people in the book are not common names among people, except for maybe two—Frederick Douglas and one other. Too often, our history is the civil rights movement and slavery. I wanted people to know about the black explorers and people who fought the British to help liberate this country. Too often [conventional history] robs black children of the truth.

SLAM: Henry Louis Gates said in the book that it demonstrates the “importance of scholarship, study, and intellectual reflection—the crucial importance of the life of the mind.” Could you elaborate on that?

KAJ: It is time for blacks to put the collective effort of educating our children on our shoulders. The way to educate is to write our own books and make time to help and teach in our communities. This book is one of the ways to do it.

SLAM: You said that everyone should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Why?

KAJ: Malcolm’s life kind of crystallized the black experience in America. I think he’s exemplary of someone who raised themselves up by their bootstraps, as they say. He was morally in a bad place and not educated. Instead of letting jail snuff out his life, he became the type of person that made his life matter. He did not use jail as excuse as to why we should not make a difference.

SLAM: What do you feel when you see that our children feel that it is easier to become Michael Jordan than Vernon Jordan [an advisor to the President of the United States]?

KAJ: This happens because, through marketing and television, they see what has been approved by the dominant culture. They think that this is the way to be. We have got to teach the children that there are other ways. Not everyone can be Michael Jordan, but many can be Vernon Jordan. Whatever they decide, we need to teach them that it takes time and discipline.

SLAM: What are your views on the changes that have come out of the civil rights movement? Considering the state of the country, has it all been for the better?

KAJ: I don’t know if it was all for the better. But when you look at the good and the bad, the good far outweighs the bad. Unfortunately, blacks have lost a sense of direction. We have not yet learned to transfer the success of the ’60s and ’70s into economic success. You can’t change the dance unless you change the music. We are still dancing to the same tune. What worked in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s does not work today. The new millenium is coming, and we have to wake up.