A Few Moments With a Lakers Legend: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Paul PeszkoSenior Writer IDecember 9, 2009

15 Apr 1994: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar being interviewed.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The sky was overcast and the weather damp and chilly.  The threat of rain had been in the air all morning.  Yet it could not dampen the enthusiasm of the fans that had begun lining up outside the Best Buy store in Atwater, CA at 1 a.m. 

Many were decked out in Lakers gear.  Some wore the familiar number 33.

They were there to have their photos taken with a Lakers’ legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time NBA leading scorer, at an event sponsored by Windows 7.  Some were too young to have seen Abdul-Jabbar in action.  But when you are in the presence of a six-time MVP and perennial NBA All-Star, age does not matter.

One young man dressed in a Lakers’ warm-up outfit, when asked if he had ever seen Abdul-Jabbar play, responded, “No, I didn’t have the chance.  But it should be a good day though.”

That was how most of these fans felt.  Despite the chill in the air, it was a good day as long as they could have their photo taken with one of the greatest players in the storied history of the NBA.

When Abdul-Jabbar arrived, he looked as trim and athletic as he did on the basketball court some 20 years ago.  Like Michael Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t carry the bulky frame that one sees on many athletes soon after they retire.

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Of course, that’s not surprising for a man who played the toughest position in professional basketball as far as hard contact is concerned until he was 42, a feat unheard of today.

I found Abdul-Jabbar to be quite congenial and open.  He is focused and intent, not at all intimidating like some reporters had sensed during his playing days.  

He has a quote from John Wooden on his website: “Talent is God given; be humble.  Fame is man given; be thankful.  Conceit is self given; be careful.”

I think that best describes Abdul-Jabbar’s character today.  He’s modest, considering all of his accomplishments, and thankful for his enduring fame.  

What some might have misconstrued as conceit or arrogance in the past was a deep-rooted sense of self-confidence.

Abdul-Jabbar first came on the national scene when he attended UCLA during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.  There has never been a time in America as violent or chaotic as far as college campuses are concerned.

BR: How did the protests and all the turmoil going on at UCLA and campuses all over the country at that time affect you as a student-athlete?

Kareem: I was aware of what was going on, and some of it was pretty serious, especially the stuff about the Vietnam War.  But I was there to get my degree and tried to focus on that.  That was the reason why I was there.

BR: College basketball is synonymous with the name John Wooden.  How did Coach Wooden influence you during your time at UCLA?

Kareem: I think that John Wooden wanted me to understand that I could be both an athlete and a scholar and that I shouldn’t feet that only one of those avenues was open to me.  He wanted me to realize my full potential in both areas.  I think that’s really the most important part of what I’ve gotten from him.

BR: You played in three NCAA Finals and a number of NBA Finals.  Was there an emotional difference between playing in the NCAA Final Four and playing in the NBA Finals?

Kareem: Yeah, I think there’s a difference.  When you’re doing something as a professional career, it’s different.  Playing in the NBA is a lot more intense just because everybody’s a paid professional.  But the enthusiasm that everybody has for college basketball that’s the same.

BR: Was there a particular player that you remember as a lock-down defender who always seemed to push you to the limit?  Someone you had to go full out against when you played him?

Kareem: I did very well against everybody I played.  I don’t think anybody ever was able to control me.  I played against some very good defensive players.  I think Nate Thurman probably was the best defensive player I played against.

A lot of guys beat on me and said that they played defense, but they actually didn’t play good defense.

BR: Changing hats for a moment, besides having been one of the greatest basketball players of all time, you’re an historian and an author.  You have researched various subjects in your books from a Black American tank battalion during the Battle of the Bulge to the culture of the White Mountain Apaches and more recently the Harlem Renaissance in On the Shoulders of Giants.  

I know one of the subjects you would like to investigate in the future is the Underground Railroad.  Not a Laker Legend but one of the legends of the West, Wild Bill Hitchcock, was involved with the Underground Railroad.

Kareem: Yes, he was.  His family actually ran a station on the Underground Railroad in Central Illinois.  Very few people have even discussed this whole issue.  He accompanied his dad and uncle helping fugitives get to Chicago and Southern Wisconsin.  They put them on boats there, and they crossed the Great Lakes.  When they got to Canada, they were free.  Those wonderful things that his family did, most people don’t know anything about.

BR: One of the wonderful things that you are doing now is the Skyhook Foundation.  Why did you feel compelled to start it?

Kareem: I actually have an advantage just because people understand who I am.  If I can bring a good cause to people, a lot of them will rally around it.

BR: Can you briefly describe the work that the Skyhook Foundation does?

Kareem: Basically to use sports and education to better our disadvantaged youths.  The whole idea for me was that sports made me understand that I had a way to get my education.  Coaches and other mentors told me I should pursue my education, and sports facilitated that.  A lot of kids don’t see themselves as being, let’s say, an electrical engineer.  But they do think that they can run a football.  By taking the avenue of sports they find that the mind is something they can develop and sharpen, and yes, they can be electrical engineers.  Hopefully one facilitates the other. 

The crowd was getting anxious for Abdul-Jabbar to join them for photos.  So as we concluded our brief interview, he mentioned that he was not at all displeased that Brandon Jennings had broken his rookie one-game scoring record with a 55-point performance.

After all, that’s why we keep records in the first place—to set a standard for others to meet or go beyond.

If you would like to learn more about the fascinating life of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and all the wonderful projects that he has going, visit his website at www.kareemabduljabbar.com.