Who could have predicted that the most political, thoughtful and consistently interventionist athlete of 2015 would be a 68-year-old Hall of Fame legend, a man who spent most of his career not talking?
But that’s the case with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Young Kareem was part of a singularly political group of athletes while also winning three NCAA titles at UCLA. As a 20-year-old college sophomore known as Lew Alcindor, he was at the table of the Ali Summit where Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Bobby Mitchell and a host of other athletes pledged to support Muhammad Ali in his efforts to resist being drafted into the Vietnam War. In 1968, he did not participate at the Olympics out of solidarity with John Carlos, Tommie Smith and the other rebel athletes of the day.
Then Kareem went to the pros for two decades and gave us at most a thin political gruel. He spelled out why he was so quiet—reporters called it sullen—in his 1985 memoir Giant Steps. Here he explained his discomfort being in public and his belief that a white-dominated media never gave him a fair shake. “I’ve had to deal with that ugly blend of racism and envy my entire career,” he wrote, “and what it’s done is sharpen my killer instinct, made me super-intense. If I’ve become aloof and almost impervious to criticism, it’s because I’ve come to expect it. Still, it never feels good.”
Surely the changing times also fed Kareem’s move toward being more reticent. Today, it seems like Kareem is feeling, if not good, then at least confident in his belief that if he opens his mouth, his voice will be heard. His columns for TIME magazine’s website and The Washington Post have a tendency to go viral and his takes straddle the line between meditative and searing.
There are many examples to choose from but my favorite was when Kareem compared Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Kareem dismissed the mainstream media’s take that they were two peas in a pod because they were “outsider” candidates. Instead he pointed out what makes them different.
He wrote, “Ernest Hemingway once said that courage was ‘grace under pressure.’ Two presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, have recently tested this proposition. And how each man responded revealed the type of person he is and the type of president he would make: Trump authored his own doom, and Sanders opened immense new possibilities as a compassionate person and serious candidate for president.”
The comparison was how Trump reacted to being challenged on his history of sexism, contrasted with the ways Sanders reacted after being pushed by the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump doubled down on his misogyny while Sanders actually shifted his platform and rhetoric to deal more with anti-racist and criminal justice issues.
The column actually got less press than the response. Trump sent Kareem a copy of his article and scrawled on it with a black sharpie, “Now I know why the press always treated you so badly—they couldn’t stand you. The fact is that you don’t have a clue about life and what has to be done to make America great again!” It is certainly true that the press did treat Kareem badly. But guess what? Now he’s part of the press and we are profoundly richer for the fact that this great man has chosen to share his voice.
As we went to press, he was at it again, challenging the GOAT himself, Michael Jordan. Many have ripped MJ over the years for his lack of a public social conscience, but few if any in the NBA have done the same. Yet here was Kareem on NPR saying, “He took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s gotta live with it.” For a player whose consistency and technical genius on court was once described as “boring,” Kareem is the Dominique of pundits. Agree or disagree, he’s a human highlight reel.
Dave Zirin is a SLAM contributor and the Sports Editor of The Nation. Follow him on Twitter @EdgeofSports.