By Andrew Boldt
At a dais, nearly 50 years ago, on June, 4, 1967 at Cleveland’s Muhammad Ali Summit, sat Lew Alcindor, who was then a sophomore at the University of California- Los Angeles. Alcindor sat alongside NFL player Jim Brown and Bill Russell, as they were supporting Muhammad Ali, as he objected to his induction into the Vietnam War.
On Thursday, March 3, a similar-looking, 7-foot-2 man, this time with bald head and pleated slacks, is seated next to the bespectacled Ubadydullah Evans, the Executive Director of American Learning Institute for Muslims. This is the same man, but his name is now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and he is looking to bring people up to speed.
This time, however, he wanted to transcend silence as if it were the outstretched arms of a defender. He didn’t mince words.
“Mr. Trump, who has said that he’s going to make America, beautiful, excuse me, great again – it was dog-whistle talk to make America a place of white supremacy again,” says Abdul-Jabbar.
He’s been retired from the National Basketball Association for almost 30 years. He’s written op-eds for the New York Times, and he’s been a Muslim. But now he is vocal, too. Abdul-Jabbar spoke at the Milwaukee Theatre for over two hours about everything from hearing the legendary Duke Ellington growing up, to being given food from Magic Johnson’s mother, to the origin of his skyhook, which was coined by Eddie Doucette, the former radio play-byplay voice of the Bucks.
Over 1,000 people attended the event, which lasted two hours and was free for University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students. Fans were also a part of a Q&A session that lasted nearly 30 minutes.
Omar Saleh, who is a junior and the President of the Muslim Student Association at UWM, says he and former MSA President Firas Hamid had been trying to land Abdul-Jabbar for over a year.
He says he was awestruck by a conversation that occurred backstage between Evans and Abdul-Jabbar prior to the sit-down conversation, in which Kareem said, with a grin, “We need to reach out to people, and they need to get to know us. Once they get to know us, I’m sure you’ll see it yourself… they like us.”
Two key factors influenced Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion, who was born Lew Alcindor and raised Catholic in Brooklyn, New York: Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, as well as his roommates, who hailed from Middle Eastern countries at the University of California-Los Angeles.
When the three-time NCAA champion was drafted out of UCLA by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, many of those, not just in Milwaukee neighborhoods, but in America, had difficulty warming up to a person of Islamic faith.
Though he says that he’s impressed by how much more accepting Americans have become toward the religion, he wants to transcend silence.
“When people are saying bad things about Islam, (Muslims) need to engage, they need to tell people what it’s all about,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “Make it hard on the people who want to segregate you and put you down – confront them.”
“We’re tired about speaking about cliché topics and always having to defend our religion, because of some propaganda,” says 28-year-old Noman Hussain, who is an Imam at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee.
Hussain agreed with NBA’s all-time leading scorer in that the Muslim- American community is going to be the true example of Islam, and is going to be a shining light for the true understanding of Islamic values.
Regardless of who’s facing adversity, the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner says there are some who dodge the responsibility, but there are some who go out and act without rancor and a desire for revenge. He cited Colin Kaepernick as an example.
According to Abdul-Jabbar, minority Americans have to stay sharp about the adversity facing their communities. He thinks it’s essential for African Americans to register to vote, run for office and be aware of the agenda given by state legislatures, all to debunk a potential regression.
Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time Most Valuable Player and 19-time NBA All-Star, also answered questions about his time around the NBA, both as a spectator and as a player. He recalled a time when Power Memorial High School would host Knicks’ practices, and, in return, students could go to Madison Square Garden.
This exchange, of which was largely influenced by his high-school coach, allowed him to watch his idol, Bill Russell, lace up over 15 times for the historic Celtics’ teams of the 1960s.
A vocal proponent of education, Abdul-Jabbar says he was motivated by his grandmother, a woman who emigrated from the West Indies in 1917, who told him that, if he didn’t go to school, he would be an “ignorant rich.”
Abdul-Jabbar, who says he’s always felt that he “had the right to be who I am,” has been a long practitioner of yoga, a former student of martial arts, as well as a devoted fan of music, particularly jazz. He also is a founder of the Skyhook Foundation, which stresses involvement from inner-city kids in the sciences, engineering and mathematics.
The 68-year-old Abdul-Jabbar held people’s attention, as if his lanky frame was still on the court dazzling audiences with his moves around rim. Though he was once a pupil to the likes of John Wooden, Pat Riley and Bruce Lee, though he was once a recluse at his locker, he has since used those experiences as an instrument more defining than his signature skyhook, or his ability to corral rebounds.
His instrument differs from Duke Ellington’s iconic piano or Charlie Parker’s saxophone, however. Kareem’s instrument is his voice, and it is more present than ever.