Re-Introducing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

My conversation with the NBA's all-time leading scorer. Plus, a Juneteenth preview.

I like to think of Wavemaker Conversations as a place where curiosity meets hope.

That seems to be a place where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lives.

I sat down with Abdul-Jabbar in 2013 for an episode of CNN Profiles, a radio program I used to host.

I’m bringing this out of the archives now for a couple of reasons.

  1. The NBA playoffs are in full swing — and Abdul-Jabbar’s recollections of how he would keep a defense off-balance and out of position, are helping me watch these games with a more discerning eye.

  2. The NBA recently announced the creation of an annual Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award — recognizing players who demonstrate “a commitment to equality, respect and inclusion.”

Giant Steps

Our conversation begins with a kind of Name That Tune. You can sample it in the following 48-second clip.

That sparked some reflections on the role of jazz in Abdul-Jabbar’s life — his father was a trombone player, educated at Juilliard.

Which led to his insights on the overlap between basketball and improv.

It was definitely like a jazz quintet. You have to move the ball around. The whole idea of reacting to something that your teammate does in time is part of a jazz experience and it's also part of the game of basketball. When there's a really good team, they can read each other, and when somebody does something that creates opportunities for other people, everybody reacts in the right way.

Abdul-Jabbar shared with me how his mother introduced him to his first love — baseball. And why that wasn’t meant to be.

He shared how he first learned the basics of his signature shot - the sky hook - in fifth grade.

And he revealed the secret of what made the sky hook so successful.

The Pivot

When he retired from basketball in 1989, at the age of 42, having shot an insanely high 56 percent from the field, he pivoted — to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, author.

His works on Black history include a beautifully illustrated children’s book called What Color Is My World?: The Lost History Of African-American Inventors.

My mission now is to encourage young people, especially young minority kids, that their education is the most important thing in their life. Any of them that are pursuing careers in entertainment or sports, that's great, but your education is something that will sustain you for the rest of your life. I would not be who I am now, if I had not gotten my education at UCLA and prepared myself to be a writer and a historian.

We also talked about parenting — he is the father of five.

And we circled back to jazz — and his love of the singing of Sarah Vaughan — which led to his confession that he’s a romantic at heart.

I asked him how he defines that.

“Somebody who believes in the goodness of everything and looks for it all the time.”


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A Juneteenth Preview

On June 19th, 1865, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger, upon arriving in Galveston, Texas, at the end of the Civil War, issued General Order No. 3, which stated, in part:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer….

If you are interested in learning more about the upcoming Juneteenth (“June” plus “nineteenth”) holiday that commemorates the end of slavery — and listening to the voices of some of America’s most compelling and popular contemporary Black authors — I have a recommendation.

This coming Thursday, the Nantucket Book Festival is featuring a blockbuster panel on Zoom. Please click the image below to register. This promises to be a memorable literary, historical, and cultural conversation.