Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Q&A: Hall of Famer Discusses His Complex Image, State of NBA

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterNovember 2, 2015

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 15:  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar attends the Sears Shooting Stars Competition 2014 as part of the 2014 NBA All-Star Weekend at the Smoothie King Center on February 15, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, author, activist, actor and, oh yes, NBA Hall of Famer recently stopped by Bleacher Report's office in New York City to talk a little bit about Kareem: Minority of One, a documentary about his life that will debut on HBO on Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 10 p.m. ET. The six-time NBA champion also discussed (in full on B/R's YouTube channel) his struggles to get a coaching job in the league, the social activism of today's players and whether the Warriors remind him of his Showtime Lakers. 

Bleacher Report: I'm curious about the title. Why "a minority of one"? What does that signify?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: That had to do with the fact that I've been, more or less, by myself with a lot of my opinions, initially. Then everyone found maybe I was on the right track. I started out being, more or less, a voice alone in the wilderness.

B/R: You mention in the film your own reticence with people, your shyness. I think to a lot of the public, there's been a part of you that feels like it has been closed off at times. This documentary is the first time you've really decided to be upfront with everything—personal life, professional. Why now?

KA-J: Well, my father passed away in 2005, and in the eight years between when my mom passed away and when my dad passed away, I got to know my dad in ways that I'd never known him my whole life. I'm a lot like my dad: I don't talk very much, and it really kept me from understanding him until he needed me to take care of him. I learned things about him I hadn't known, and I didn't want to go through that with my own children, and many people that I'd known that may have been put off by my shyness, so I figured I'd come forth and speak on those subjects now while I still remember. It's hard to get all the facts of your life down and mash them into 90 minutes, but we managed to do it.

B/R: There are a lot of sensitive moments in this film related to your family, in particular, the difficulty of being away from your kids during your playing career, the estrangement for a time from your parents. How difficult was it to finally discuss some of those things in a public way?

KA-J: I was surprised that it wasn't that difficult. Once you make a decision, you follow through with it and let the chips fall, but I didn't think telling the truth about my life was going to negatively impact my life that much at this point.

B/R: There's a very solo aspect to your life, especially early on and through your career. In the film you say, "I'm just a person like any other person." The fame part of the celebrity was always uneasy for you, it seems. Does that ever change over time?

KA-J: Dealing with celebrity and sticking out for so long, I don't know anything else. I haven't had any other experience where I had anonymity or I fit in—I certainly don't disappear in a crowd. That's just been a part of my life that I had to accommodate.   

B/R: Do you find yourself, at all, more at ease now? Whether it's crowds or people seeking you out to say, "Hey, I'm a big fan?"

KA-J: I don't know if I like it anymore, but I'm dealing with it in an easier way. It's something that I've accepted, and when you accept that this is what you have to deal with, you find ways to accommodate it that don't put a whole lot of stress on your life.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar greets the crowd at the 2015 All-Star Game in New York.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar greets the crowd at the 2015 All-Star Game in New York.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

B/R: You're an accomplished author, essayist, scholar—you're still very plugged into the issues of our time. What were some of the first triggers for you to decide, "You know what, I'm not just an athlete. I'm a member of society, and there are things I need to speak about"?

KA-J: The first was the murder of Emmett Till. I was eight years old when he got murdered and I didn't understand what had happened. I was old enough to kind of grasp that he had done something wrong, but I couldn't figure out what it was. And my parents couldn't explain it to me. They really hadn't thought about all of the issues and figured it out in terms of being able to explain it to a child, so I was keenly interested in what happened during the Civil Rights Movement. There's a picture of me in the movie at a news conference with Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and I got to ask him a question and talk with him. It really affected me, just to interact with him. Within five years of that—four years—he had been assassinated. So a lot of this was personal. I was recruited by a number of schools in the south at a time when all the schools down there were segregated, and that had its effect on me and my outlook.

B/R: What was the first thing that you can remember actually taking more of a public stand on that set you apart a little, where you then had to deal with a little bit of the backlash?

KA-J: The Harlem Riots in the summer of '64. I covered it as a correspondent for our weekly newspaper that I was involved with. It was a summer program to give the kids in Harlem an opportunity to learn about their community, and what they could do to make it a better place. It helped me to understand what was going on in this country and what had to be done about it, or at least start thinking about what could be done about it.

Abdul-Jabbar (far right, front row) joined Bill Russell (far left, front) and Jim Brown (second from right, front) in supporting Muhammad Ali's decision to refuse to be drafted in 1967.
Abdul-Jabbar (far right, front row) joined Bill Russell (far left, front) and Jim Brown (second from right, front) in supporting Muhammad Ali's decision to refuse to be drafted in 1967.Tony Tomsic/Getty Images

B/R: The modern athlete has often been criticized about being more disengaged or for caring only about the paycheck, or the endorsements, or not wanting to alienate corporate or mainstream America. But in the last couple of years, especially in the NBA, there's been a movement to engage. LeBron James has been very upfront recently talking about gun control. He and his teammates in Miami had made a statement during the Trayvon Martin case. And there were the T-shirts with the "I Can't Breathe" last season. Do you find that encouraging?

KA-J: I appreciate the consciousness aspect of it, because these are young men that are concerned about what's happening in our country, and I really I don't see any difference between what they're doing and their connection with the Civil Rights Movement, because it's an extension of that same movement.

The issue that summer of '64 was an unarmed black kid getting shot in the streets of Harlem, and over the past couple of years we've seen a number of unarmed black youth that were killed by police and law enforcement that really leave a lot of questions. So, we still have the same issues. It all has to do with civil rights and human rights, and these people are concerned.

B/R: Did the Thabo Sefolosha case resonate with you? Police brutality was one of the things that animated you early on, and also your father and grandfather were police officers. I imagine there's a certain complexity in your own thinking there.

KA-J: Yeah. Police officers have incredibly difficult jobs and we need them. They are the blue line between order and chaos, so we have to respect them and try to make their jobs doable, but at the same time, they have to respect the people they are out there to protect and serve. It's a two-way street, and I think they are always conscious of that. You know, police officers sometimes get a little bit arrogant with their power and look down on the people they're supposed to be protecting and serving.

B/R: You talk at length in the documentary that your relations with the media were a little frosty. You even say that at some point that you felt that it really did hurt you. This is a new era where athletes, celebrities of all stripes can put their message out there at any time on social media—Twitter or otherwise. Do you find that to be kind of a freeing thing?

KA-J: I think it's good. When I started playing, I had to deal with a very conservative core of press people who thought that athletes are out there to play the game and keep their mouths shut, except if they're answering questions the press wanted to ask. We had a place and we were supposed to stay in our place. I never agreed with that and I had my own opinions and I was willing to defend them, and I guess that made me somewhat of a maverick, and that's one of the reasons that the relationship was as difficult as it was.

B/R: Was there a moment, in particular, where you felt the press hurt you?

KA-J: There was an interview I did with Joe Garagiola where he suggested that if I didn't like what was happening in the country then I should leave the country. He didn't like the tone of what I had to say and the fact that I was not going to go to the Olympics. At least in that interview I got to give my opinion, but that's what I was up against. The people that were interviewing me and that were trying to convey my thoughts had their own biases, and they were going to give precedence to their opinions as opposed to mine.


B/R: What do you hope most people can take away from this film?

KA-J: That they can realize that the reason I was so hard to understand had to do with my shyness and my reticence to people I thought might be looking to make me look bad. Part of that had to do with the fact that when I was at UCLA, Coach Wooden told us not to talk to the press. He felt that they could be a distraction, and it was more negative that could come about from that interaction than positive. That type of suspiciousness and standoffishness really did not serve me well as a professional athlete. That took me a while to figure out and navigate in a way that I could accept.

B/R: You would do it differently now?

KA-J: Absolutely. I started while I was still playing.

B/R: But not soon enough to maybe turn the tide of the opinion?

KA-J: Yeah, I was already cast as the moody black guy and it was hard to escape that caricature.

B/R: Do you think that image hurt you within NBA corridors? I know you wanted to get into coaching and it seemed like it was difficult to break through.

KA-J: The NBA part of it always had to do with the fact that a lot of the teams felt that I was too much my own man, and I would be a difficult person to have as a head coach.


B/R: At the end of the documentary, there's a poignant moment where the voiceover says, "After all he's been through, he's free." Are you feeling free now?

KA-J: Well, yeah. I've adjusted to living a life, probably, I could've started 20-25 years ago. Well actually, I did start writing 20-25 years ago, but I could've been more enthusiastic about it. I was just trying it as something to do, even though I understood that I had the training and I had the mindset to apply myself that way, but it took a while before I got to the point where I could be comfortable with it, but I'm comfortable with it now.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter,@HowardBeck.