Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Making A Difference
April 3, 2009
By Richard Lapchick; Special to ESPN.com
The image is striking: An African-American man who is a Muslim talking to audiences about Jewish people who were leaders in the early civil rights movement and how African-Americans and Jews shared a common fight against oppression. And to add to this eye-catching image, the speaker -- the man working to rebuild bridges between the African-American and Jewish communities -- is a giant in the sports world.
The man is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It's happening. Abdul-Jabbar is a speaker in high demand at Holocaust events and for groups fighting anti-Semitism. And to those who know him, that role isn't surprising at all.
Kareem recently told me, "It is important that African-Americans and Jewish Americans understand their common history, especially at the beginning of the early civil rights movement. Jews supported what African-Americans were trying to achieve in attempts to attain equality. Jewish lawyers worked for the NAACP and played a key role."
Forty years ago, Abdul-Jabbar, still playing as Lew Alcindor, ended his amazing college basketball career with a third straight national championship, this one coming in UCLA's 92-72 victory over Purdue, as well as a third straight award as the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament. That season, 1968-69, he also won the first Naismith College Player of the Year Award.
Twenty years ago, he retired from the game as the NBA's all-time leading scorer, a six-time league champion, a six-time league MVP and a 19-time All-Star. Many consider him the greatest player of all time.
I met Lew Alcindor when I was a 13-year-old and he was 12, and we remain friends to this day. He is the most intelligent athlete I know -- a person of conscience who stands up for what he believes.
Last year, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose Black Power salute on the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics is one of our most enduring images of the civil rights movement, were finally and rightly celebrated for their courage. That moment was captured in statues; their story was told in documentaries made in the United States, Britain and Australia; and they were honored across the globe for their bold protest against injustice at the Games. It's easy to forget, however, that Smith and Carlos competed in Mexico City because protest organizers could not pull off a proposed boycott of the Olympics by black athletes.
Alcindor, then a 20-year-old UCLA junior, and a handful of others did not compete in the Olympic basketball trials because they believed the boycott was going to happen. Therefore, they were not part of the Olympic team. Those players were as passionate and outspoken as any who were ostracized by much of America and later celebrated for their fight against discrimination.
In that era, many white Americans did not welcome African-Americans speaking out against racism, whether the protestors were civil rights advocates such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King or athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell. I believe Ali, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar were able to keep competing because they simply were so extraordinarily gifted athletically, although Ali was kept out of boxing for three years for his stance against the Vietnam War. An outspoken athlete with lesser talent than those three brought to their sports would not have been able to continue his athletic career.
Now, years later, Ali is perhaps the most beloved sports figure of all time. After many years of estrangement, Boston and Russell are in a lovefest. And Abdul-Jabbar is a renaissance man.
Kareem has written six books on, among other things, Native Americans, the Harlem Renaissance and World War II. He knows martial arts through his friendship with Bruce Lee. He does yoga, is a jazz historian and breeds horses. He has appeared in movies and on TV; has his own blog; and is about to produce a multimedia show with music, dance and theater in New York, Philadelphia and at Washington's Kennedy Center, culminating with a performance at the White House.
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