Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is anything but a one-dimensional basketball legend.
The 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar, 69, who scored an NBA-record 38,387 points in a 20-year career, has been an actor and remains an author and motivational speaker.
“I started on the writing part of it before I ever played professional basketball,” Abdul-Jabbar said Thursday at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he was the speaker at the annual Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities Foundation Dinner. “I went to college to get a degree. I wanted to write. I’ve enjoyed writing my whole life — ever since I was in grade school. It’s been something I had ambition to do.
“There was a history book I wanted to write, starting from the day I graduated (from UCLA). I didn’t get a chance to do it until after I got through playing professional basketball — and then five or six years after that. Sometimes it takes a while for your dreams to materialize, but if you maintain your qualifications and your fervor, you can get it done.”
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Abdul-Jabbar said he was interested in visiting SIUE because of a friendship he’s enjoyed since the mid-1990s with Jackson, who played basketball at Edwardsville High and the University of Illinois and has owned the Harlem Globetrotters since 1993.
“He asked me to come and just bring some attention to what he’s trying to do, because it really dovetails with my message of trying to get people to talk to each other and get past all this fear. That’s what it’s all about,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We would like to see some changes made that will affect how Americans talk to each other and solve problems because that’s the only thing that’s lacking. It’s crucial, and we hope it gets changed.”
Abdul-Jabbar said it’s time for people of all races and religious beliefs to “reach across the aisle, across town, across the inter-religious differences ... and come together on what we all believe that has to do with right and wrong and the best way forward.”
“When you can start conversations like that, problems get solved,” he said. “It always happen. It takes a while, but if you have the patience to listen and the patience to express your side of the argument with respect and not with anger, we start to have breakthroughs and make progress. That’s what I hope for.”
Many of the nearly 500 people who attended the dinner were high school and college students. The entire boys and girls basketball teams from Edwardsville High School were in the crowd along with athletes from all the other high schools in Madison County.
Abdul-Jabbar’s message throughout the event centered around education.
“Education is the key,” he said. “If you don’t understand what’s going on, you can’t contribute. Getting a complete education and being able to follow through on a career path is a key for anybody to be successful. That’s something I always emphasize. For people who are disadvantaged, especially minorities, that’s the way out.
“My story really is pretty typical of somebody who comes from ... I’m from a part of New York City called Harlem, a black neighborhood. It wasn’t a wealthy place, but we did understand education made things happen. That was the message I got from my family, especially my grandmother, who was pretty strict. That’s what enabled me to do what I’ve done with my life — just the fact that I took the time to understand I needed to learn a few things.”
Abdul-Jabbar in November received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House. He called it “a tremendous honor and a big thrill.”
“I was there with a whole lot of people who I’ve enjoyed and have affected my life and inspired me,” he said. “It was nice to be included with that group and nice to be honored by President Obama. I thought he did a great job (as president) despite all the hostility and resistance he had to endure. He did an awesome job, and I’m proud of him as a black American.”
Abdul-Jabbar, who had the best hook shot in history, also had time to talk basketball. He said post play isn’t taught like it used to be since the evolution of the 3-point shot.
“The 3-point shot has totally revolutionized the game,” he said. “I always give this example: In 1985, probably the best (Los Angeles) Lakers team I played on, from the first day of the season until the last day of the playoffs, we made 90-odd 3-point shots. In 2015, the Golden State Warriors, from the first day of the season until the last day of the playoffs, made 1,077 3-point shots – more than 10 times what we made.
“It’s a different game from what we played. The game was played a lot closer to the basket, and people enjoyed that. Now people enjoy Stephen Curry shooting it from where they’re making popcorn.”
Before the main event, Abdul-Jabbar had a brief question-and-answer session with high school and college athletes. Abdul-Jabbar again stressed education.
“What you do in the classroom, what you do with those books, that’s what is going to take you through life,” he said. “Knowledge is power. Don’t forget that.”
One of the student-athletes asked Abdul-Jabbar to compare his achievements during his NBA career with what he’s accomplished in life since his playing days.
Abdul-Jabbar said athletics is a distant second, and he shared a story about his son, 35-year-old Amir, a physician who once performed a life-saving operation.
“I scored 45 points once against the (Detroit) Pistons,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “What I did against the Pistons doesn’t matter much in the long term. What my son did in surgery was incredible.”
Abdul-Jabbar also stressed setting reasonable goals to avoid letdowns.
“The best way to not set yourself up for disappointment is to not set your goals so high that you can’t reach them,” he said.
He also said Wilt Chamberlain was the most difficult player he guarded during his career in the NBA. Chamberlain outweighed Abdul-Jabbar by 30 pounds, so Abdul-Jabbar said he had to use his quickness to counteract Chamberlain.
“It wasn’t easy, and I’m glad it’s over,” cracked Abdul-Jabbar.