It’s been nearly 50 years since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became one of the first big-name athletes to take a knee when he refused to play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1968.
So much has changed. And so much hasn’t. This is what Abdul-Jabbar, now 70, sees when he looks out at America’s current social and political landscape, with athletes using their platforms to draw attention to racism and women — including some athletes — calling attention to the way they have been sexually harassed in the workplace.
“This is just the other end of the sandwich, so to speak, that started back in the ’50s and ’60s with the civil rights movement and the gains,” Abdul-Jabbar said when we talked by phone. “But after a while, those gains seemed to be rather limited. We’ve come to a different point in the road where we have other things that need to be accomplished in order for minorities and women to realize a meaningful place in American society.
“So here we go again. And it’s some of the same stuff.”
In “Becoming Kareem,” his new book aimed at kids 10 and up, Abdul-Jabbar tells a coming-of-age story that details, among other things, his political awakening and decision not to play for the U.S. Olympic team in Mexico City.
As a part of a politically active generation of athletes that included Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Abdul-Jabbar feels a sense of pride in seeing what the current generation of athletes is doing. He noted that he is particularly impressed by the leadership of the 49ers’ Eric Reid and how he has been able to articulate the issues that players are concerned about.
“I am reassured because it shows me that this generation understands the issues and they are using their resources to fight for it and they don’t care about the consequences,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “[Reid] is articulate. He’s informed. They’re not disrespecting the country and the flag. They’re trying to bring attention to an issue that’s important to them, and he can articulate that issue.”
Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points. It’s fair to say, however, that he paid a price for his outspokenness; he never got to enjoy the popularity that less outspoken superstars such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson did.
“It definitely hurt me,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I’m a shy guy to begin with. I really didn’t want to do it, but who was going to say the things that needed to be said? That’s how I felt about it. That’s how I took the path I did.
“Public perception seemed to be that I was a grouch, that I didn’t like people. That wasn’t the case. I was shy and didn’t fight it the way I needed to fight it. It hurt me, but that was me learning what life was about, I guess.”
Abdul-Jabbar said he is encouraged that more Americans are starting to listen to minorities and women when they talk about the struggles they face.
“Look at what we’re just now starting to admit about the way women have been victimized systematically over the past couple of centuries,” he said. “When [the 20th century] started, they couldn’t even vote.”
Abdul-Jabbar believes that the way the country recoiled in horror at the events that happened during the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, shows that some progress is being made.
“The response from across America was, ‘That’s not the America I believe in, that’s not the U.S.,’ ” he said. “It came from New England to California, Washington state to Florida. People across the country said ‘no.’ [Thirty years ago], that would not have happened. There would have been too much complacency and too many people that didn’t understand the issues.”
Abdul-Jabbar has always made an effort to understand the issues. He grew up in a difficult time in America, one not so dissimilar from today. At this stage of his life, he said what he wants to do is reach out and help others, which is one reason he wrote this book, which begins with his childhood in Harlem and ends shortly after he starts his NBA career.
Said Abdul-Jabbar: “I think growing up is probably the hardest thing we do.”