As a college and pro basketball player, former Bruin center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is universally acknowledged as one of the best of all time. In the three years he played for UCLA, the Bruins won three NCAA championships and went 88-2. Over 20 NBA seasons, he won six league most valuable player awards, was a critical part of six championship teams and played on 15 All-NBA teams and in 19 all-star games. He was named to the all-defensive team 11 times and retired with 38,387 points — still the NBA career scoring record.
But something that today’s UCLA undergrads — most of whom were born well after he retired in 1989 — may not know about him is that for Abdul-Jabbar sports were never the endgame. “I can do more than stuff a ball through a hoop. My greatest asset is my mind,” he proudly notes on his website.
Beyond being an NBA Hall-of-Famer, Abdul-Jabbar, 69, is also a New York Times-bestselling author, a prominent Twitter presence (@kaj33), historian, Washington Post and Time magazine columnist, and advocate for equality and justice. And the numbers are even more impressive. As the writer of dozens of newspaper and magazine columns as well as author of nine books, millions of people have read his words and ideas. And millions more watched on the final night of the Democratic National Convention on July 28 when he spoke about Muslim U.S. soldier Humayan Khan, who died in combat.
“The first place [his family] visited upon arriving in America was the Jefferson Memorial,” Abdul-Jabbar said from center stage at the convention in Philadelphia. “The words engraved there read, ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal, hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.’ And at its core, discrimination is a result of fear. Those who think Americans scare easily enough to abandon our country's ideals in exchange for a false sense of security underestimate our resolve. To them, we say only this: not here, not ever.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s remarks at the DNC were in line with his post-basketball career of advocating for education and equality (in 2012, he was selected by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be a U.S. global cultural ambassador). Abdul-Jabbar currently serves as chairman of the Skyhook Foundation, which takes 85 inner-city kids each week outdoors for environmental and STEM education.
Since hanging up his Lakers uniform, Abdul-Jabbar, who got his degree from UCLA in history and is also an Optimist, has been a prolific author regularly highlighting the achievements of people of color, especially those of African Americans in U.S. history, some of whom were highlighted in his book “Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement.”
His books have covered the Harlem Renaissance (“On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance”), one season coaching a high school basketball team on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation (“A Season on the Reservation: My Sojourn With the White Mountain Apaches”), the first all-black armored unit to see combat in WWII (“Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes”) and the history of African-American inventors (“What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors”). He received the NAACP Image Award for both “On the Shoulders of Giants” and “What Color is My World?”
On Sept. 13, Abdul-Jabbar, who was awarded the UCLA Medal in 1997, will return to campus to sign copies of his latest book, “Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White.” Especially relevant given that the United States will choose its next president in less than two months, the book is a collection of essays he wrote about race, politics, values and faith. In the pieces, Abdul-Jabbar also offers solutions to problems, such as racism in sports, that are grounded in his lifetime experiences in sports and life in general.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar regrets he is unable to attend Tuesday’s book signing at UCLA. The 1 p.m. event in Ackerman Union has been cancelled.