Kareem: ‘America has to start talking’
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Art Spander in John Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, articles, basketball, sports and society

By Art Spander

LOS ANGELES — He was called The Big Fellow. A description both accurate and incomplete. We learned there was so much more to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than just his physical presence, as imposing as it was.

Beyond the 7-foot-2 basketball player was the student. And the author. And perhaps most important of all in a time of sporting strife, sideline anthem sit-downs, spectator disenchantment, the thinker.   

Abdul-Jabbar was honored the other night, presented the Roy Firestone Award by Westcoast Sports Associates, a group of young professionals who with proceeds from their annual dinner — this was the 22nd — fund athletic activities for underprivileged kids.

Firestone, the longtime TV sports interviewer, was the original recipient, in 1996, and is now the event’s host.

The idea is to recognize a sports figure who has been involved in charitable work. The list includes Jim Brown, Arnold Palmer, Joe Montana, Hank Aaron and Steve Young. That Abdul-Jabbar, so private for so long, was willing to accept surprised some.

Maybe at 70 he has mellowed a bit. Maybe he realizes with his reputation beyond the basketball court, winner a year ago of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, there come obligations, a sky hook version of noblesse oblige.  

The way it works with the award is that a well-prepared Firestone and the honoree sit facing each other center stage, Firestone probing, the subject responding.

“We promised not to get into politics,” said Firestone as the program concluded, “but beside the obvious, what can we do as a people to come together — not just taking a knee like Colin Kaepernick — come together again as a country?”

Abdul-Jabbar never hesitated. “People say what this is all about,” he said. “It’s all about talking to your fellow Americans, no matter what they look like, or their ethnic background or religious background, their socioeconomic background. Talk, and we can discuss the problems we have to solve. But until we start talking to each other, nothing’s going to happen.

“This is the greatest country in the world. We can solve any problems.”

The all-time NBA scoring champion, a six-time MVP, a man who was among the leaders of the black boycott of the American team in the 1968 Olympics, sounding very much like a politician — and drawing an ovation from an audience ready to head home.

The years pass quickly. In the mind’s eye it is 1971, and Kareem still was being called Lew Alcindor, although “Jabbar” (no Abdul) was on the back of his jersey with Milwaukee.

That was some Bucks team, ’70-’71, Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge, Lucius Allen and of course Kareem, who was in his second season. It would play — and beat, four games to one — the San Francisco Warriors in the second round of playoffs on the way to the championship.

Because a flower show was being held at Milwaukee Arena, the Bucks' home games that playoff were at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I was the Warriors beat man for the San Francisco Chronicle then, and on an off-day I interviewed Kareem, who was grudgingly cooperative.

“He’s naturally shy,” Firestone told me some 45 years later. Having seen photos of Kareem, who then was Lew, in elementary school, a head taller than any of his classmates, I understood. He hoped to blend in — to do the impossible and be like everyone else.

Now he is proud to stand tall, literally and metaphorically. The insults — his coach at Power Memorial High in New York called him the “N” word to motivate him — and the slights no longer matter. As his college coach, John Wooden, told him, forgive.

“At a certain point, Coach Wooden got through to me,” said Abdul-Jabbar, whose latest book of the six he has written, Coach Wooden and Me, released in June, deals with the relationship between an old coach and a younger athlete.

They ended up having more in common than either would have imagined. Maybe that also is true for all of society.

Article originally appeared on Art Spander (http://artspander.com/).
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