PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s exploits on the basketball court earned him six NBA titles, six league MVP awards and a career total of 38,387 points — the most ever scored by a single player. But it was his work off the court, his efforts as an activist, writer and mentor, that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
During a speech on Monday, Oct. 15, at Brown University, Abdul-Jabbar described the life journey that would eventually earn him the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“You don’t get that medal for just hoops,” Abdul-Jabbar told a packed De Ciccio Family Auditorium during an event sponsored by the student-run Brown Lecture Board. “No one was more surprised than me when I got the call from the White House, but I was very proud. For me... it was the pinnacle of being acknowledged for what I’ve tried to do with my life.”
Abdul-Jabbar said his social awareness took root early, growing up in Harlem in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement spurred by prominent black artists, writers and intellectuals like Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois.
“Harlem was a very important place for black Americans,” he said. “For the longest time, starting at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the only place in America where they could go to show their worth.”
“Growing up in Harlem,” he added, “we had a chance to see what success was all about.”
He also had the chance in 1964, as a young journalist working with the Harlem Youth Action Project, to cover a news conference with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a moment, as the conspicuously tall cub reporter stood amid prominent writers from the nation's top news outlets, that would make a significant impression on his life.
“Just having that contact with him and realizing what he’s all about helped motivate me,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I put it all together at that point. I understood what my community was about.”
That sense of social consciousness and commitment to activism remained with him throughout his life in the public eye. Abdul-Jabbar said his resolve to work for social change got a boost from his friend Muhammad Ali, who made the controversial choice in 1967 to refuse to go to Vietnam. It was a decision that cost Ali dearly in terms of his career, but it was clear to Abdul-Jabbar that it was made out of courage and conviction.
“It made it easy for me as someone following in his footsteps to make the choices that I made because I could see what integrity meant,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It might have cost him some money, but black Americans loved him and they understood where his heart was at, and it was inspiring to all of us.”
In 1971, Abdul-Jabbar took a powerful stand of his own, declaring publicly that he was Muslim and changing his name from Lew Alcindor. He knew the decision might cost him money and endorsements. He was even harassed by the IRS on the orders of President Nixon. But he never regretted it.
“I know that it has cost me,” he said. “But being able to assert an identity that is in harmony with who I am, what my ancestry is all about and what my moral and political feelings are all about, that was the most important thing.”
“That’s one of the wonderful things about life in America,” he continued. “We can all define ourselves and we have the freedom to speak our minds and pursue the things that make us feel whole and make us feel useful.”
But as a nation, the obligation to try and better ourselves is ever-present, Abdul-Jabbar said. The recent events of Charlottesville, Virginia, were a grim reminder of that.
“That’s why I promote who I am the way that I do,” he said. “Because I want America to continue to be the best place in the world, and we’ve got work to do.”
When asked during a question-and-answer session following his remarks about the national anthem protests spurred by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Abdul-Jabbar lamented that much of the conversation about the protests seems to be missing the key point.
"People are focusing on the demonstrations as opposed to the issue that is important to Colin and the other players in the NFL and NBA and other black Americans. And that is the fact that unfortunately black Americans are too liable to be shot for no reason in America, and we've got to see that change."
But there was one issue on which Abdul-Jabbar refused to take a stand. A student asked him who he would pick for is team: Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.
"That's very difficult," he said. "I'd take either one of them."