What makes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar an icon? Was it the six NBA championships and MVP awards? The Skyhook? His membership with iconic pro and college squads or guest roles in movies like the Zucker Brothers’ zany Airplane and Bruce Lee’s Game of Death?
The answer is, of course, all of those things contribute to one of the most decorated and revered Hall of Fame careers in American sports history. Yet there’s more to his legacy than even all of that, and there’s a very good reason why, close to 30 years after retiring from basketball, he’s just as relevant as ever: Abdul-Jabbar is a role model for today’s generation of activist athletes from his old league’s biggest stars giving a Black Lives Matter speech in front of millions to Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest.
Now, with his 12th book, Coach Wooden And Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court, Abdul-Jabbar gives a glimpse into his personal growth and evolution, juxtaposed with the story of his personal relationship with his coach, UCLA legend John Wooden. He also writes of the many racial incidents he has dealt throughout his life and basketball career, and how the New York Times bestselling author sees a direct link between what he and other high-profile Black athletes like boxing legend Muhammad Ali went through in the Sixties and Seventies and Kaepernick’s current situation.
Abdul-Jabbar believes Kaepernick is being ostracized for his beliefs. He thinks that the free agent quarterback, called “the greatest political lightning rod in sports,” who some believe is being blackballed for his political outspokenness, is dealing with the same thing Ali dealt with when he said he wouldn’t go off to fight in the Vietnam War.
Abdul-Jabbar should know. Unfortunately, he has seen it all before.
“I started paying attention to what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement when I was in grade school. Before I got out of high school, I got the opportunity to see what Jim Crow racism was all about,” Abdul-Jabbar tells Rolling Stone. “Black Americans who had aspirations of a better life wanted to see some change. I was one of those people.”
That’s what makes Coach Wooden And Me such an interesting read. Abdul-Jabbar’s book isn’t just about a player who butts heads with his coach and later realizes that the coach was trying to help him become a better man type tale. It’s a story about two individuals who learned a lot about life from each other. Abdul-Jabbar was a Black kid from New York City who tried to find his way in a world with increased activism, while Wooden, a white man from rural Indiana, wanted to insulate his players from the world outside of Westwood, California. Wooden wanted Abdul-Jabbar and his teammates to focus on basketball and becoming better American citizens.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar had other plans in terms of juggling basketball and fighting injustice.
“If you’re going to wait for a convenient time to do the social activism, you won’t get anything done because these issues have a life of their own and you have to deal with them. You can’t wait until it’s convenient,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “It was very interesting to hear [Congressman] John Lewis talk about these things. Things he went through when he was a civil rights activists being beaten up and he still come out with a positive attitude. He said unless you put your life on the line, you’re not fully committed. This is worth risking your life for and you might possibly die. You have to make a commitment.”
Abdul-Jabbar, who was the best player one of college basketball’s most famous dynasties, believes Wooden initially had a hard time understanding that the world was changing around him. “Civil rights marches continued. Anti-war protests had begun. Women demanded rights most people didn’t realize they had been denied. Rebellion was in the air. Nothing could stop it, even a well-meaning coach,” Abdul-Jabbar writes in the book.
The two had their differences, yet through it all, the legendary UCLA Bruin and Los Angeles Laker stayed in touch Wooden until his death in 2010. It might not be a feel-good story about a player and coach realizing they’re not so different in the end, but Abdul-Jabbar does show that we can learn from just about anybody even if we have our differences. It’s a message that almost seems antiquated in 2017.
“Even though I was close with my dad, I developed a close relationship with Coach Wooden. It took on different dimensions until the day he passed away,” Abdul-Jabbar says.
He also implemented Coach Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” beyond the basketball court.
“It definitely stuck with me. Coach Wooden used basketball as a metaphor for life. The things we learned from the game were implemented in our lives. It helped us become better teammates,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “These are things that helped us become better teammates. We’re better fathers and husbands for it. And better citizens. I think that’s what Coach Wooden was about. He influenced the young men he coached to become better people.”