RACHEL BELLE

NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks politics, ‘Airplane!’ and books

Mar 8, 2018, 5:54 PM | Updated: 6:22 pm
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar...
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played professional basketball between 1969–1989. (Photo by Dan Winters))
(Photo by Dan Winters)
LISTEN: Exclusive Interview: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is speaking in Seattle this weekend

Retired basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes with a lot of impressive stats:

After playing 20 seasons in the NBA, he remains the all-time NBA points leader with 38,387 points scored. ESPN voted him the greatest center of all time and greatest player in college basketball history. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016 and trained in martial arts with Bruce Lee.

RELATED: Why is the national anthem always played before a game?

But in his new autobiography, “Becoming Kareem,” he starts at childhood, sharing his life story and his road to becoming the 70-year-old man he is today. As a child, Abdul-Jabbar was a bookworm, and one of three black kids at his school. He shared a story about the time his high school basketball coach called him the n-word.

“I was not playing very well in the game; we had a very big game coming up and and I was kind of goofing off in the game before that, not playing very hard and not very focused,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It really outraged my coach and he lost his temper and used the n-word in describing what I was doing.”

“I was very, very sensitive to that word and he made a mistake,” he said. “The man was not a racist. He just made a mistake in a moment where he lost his temper. But it really had a negative effect on my relationship with him.”

Abdul-Jabbar says that wasn’t a defining moment in his life, but he did go on to become an activist on issues surrounding race.

“I first spoke up about something, I think, very publicly, after Dr. King was assassinated,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I took part in a demonstration on UCLA’s campus. I think that was the first public demonstration that I did.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Politics and sports

These days he spends time mentoring professional players who are taking political stands on the field and court, like those who refuse to stand for the national anthem.

“Just because someone makes their living as an athlete does not mean that they do not have a conscious and a moral center,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They have in no way forfeited their right to speak out on issues that are important to them. Some people say, ‘Just shut up and dribble.’ I think that was a pretty idiotic statement. Athletes have the same rights as anyone else to express their political views.”

I asked Abdul-Jabbar what he thinks is the biggest issue African Americans face today.

“I think African Americans are trying to catch up with the rest of American society,” he said. “It’s made hard by the lingering effects of institutionalized racism; racism that we don’t even acknowledge. It’s very hard to get people to be aware of some of these issues. They’re so much a part of our culture and seem to be intractable. It’s going to take time and we’re going to have setbacks.”

Airplane!

Preparing for this interview, I asked a lot of colleagues and friends for advice on what to ask Abdul-Jabbar. Every single person said the same thing: ask him about his role as Roger Murdock in the 1980 film, “Airplane!”

“The part fell in my lap because they wanted Pete Rose, who was a baseball player,” he said. “They wanted him to play the part. But it was in the summer and he was playing baseball. So they figured I would be a good substitute and that’s how I got the part.”

RELATED: NFL fans react to Michael Bennett’s anthem protest

Why did his cameo become a classic that people are still talking about 38 years after the film was released?

“I think the fact that I was so out of character,” he said. “I was always supposed to be this uptight guy who didn’t like to engage with people and here I am playing somebody who has a secret life as an airline pilot. You see me in the film in my basketball uniform. The Lakers had a great year that year and it all seemed to fall into place.”

It’s not easy being tall

Abdul-Jabbar is tall. Seven feet two inches tall, to be exact.

“The best thing about being tall is if you work out a little bit and get in good shape, you look good in your clothes when you’re tall,” he said. “The most difficult thing is, when you get into situations where you are not average height, sometimes you have to accommodate yourself to things that do not fit your size. I was in Japan and went to a hotel and the shower was not going to work. Stuff like that.”

Abdul-Jabbar no longer plays basketball, not even for fun with friends. He doesn’t even have a favorite basketball team. At least, that he will admit to.

“I only feel like that about baseball,” he said. “I’ve been a lifetime Dodgers fan.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the keynote speaker at the King County Library Foundation’s Literary Lions Gala Saturday. He’s doing a book event at Amazon Books in Bellevue Square, Sunday, March 11, 2018, 2-4 p.m.

  • listen to rachel belleTune in to KIRO Radio on weekdays to hear Rachel Belle.
Who is Rachel Belle?

Your Last Meal

Rachel Belle

supply chain...
Rachel Belle

Start your holiday shopping now or risk supply chain issues

Now is the time to start holiday gift shopping because if you don't buy soon, supply chain issues may make it tough to get what you want later.
12 days ago
Dick's...
Rachel Belle

How does Dick’s Drive-In pay workers $19 an hour with a menu completely under $5?

Dick's Drive-In recently raised its base pay, as did Taco Time, which is now offering employees $20 an hour at select locations. How do they keep prices low and pay high?
13 days ago
botox...
Rachel Belle

Don’t like how you look on Zoom? Many young Americans are now getting Botox

More people are turning to Botox to get rid of lines and wrinkles, but is it safe? How does one age naturally in a youth obsessed country? Experts weigh in.
19 days ago
certified wildlife habitat...
Rachel Belle

Turn your backyard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat

The National Wildlife Federation will help you make your yard a habitable home for bees, birds, bugs and critters. And they'll give you an official sign!
1 month ago
Emily Cherkin and Ben Gitenstein, pictured months after 9/11. (Photo courtesy of Emily Cherkin)...
Rachel Belle

‘You either got married or broke up’: 20 years later, a Seattle couple on falling in love in NYC in the wake of 9/11

On Sept. 11, 2001, Seattle's Emily Cherkin and Ben Gitenstein were 22 years old and separately taking the subway into Manhattan when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers. This is their story.
1 month ago
dirty work...
Rachel Belle

New book ‘Dirty Work’ reveals psychological toll of working unsavory jobs nobody wants

A new book by Eyal Press called "Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America" takes a deeper look at jobs no one wants to do.
2 months ago

Sponsored Articles

...

How to Have a Stress-Free Real Estate Experience

The real estate industry has adapted and sellers are taking full advantage of new real estate models. One of which is Every Door Real Estate.
...
IQ Air

How Poor Air Quality Is Affecting Our Future Athletes

You cannot control your child’s breathing environment 100% of the time, but you can make a huge impact.
...
Swedish Health Services

Special Coverage: National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for men with prostate cancer. The most technologically advanced treatment option in the Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform.
...
Marysville Police Department

Police Opportunities in a Growing, Supportive Washington Community

Marysville PD is looking for both lateral and entry level officers. Begin or continue your career in law enforcement for a growing, supportive community.
...
Comcast

Small, Minority-Owned Businesses in King County and Pierce County Can Now Apply For $10,000 Relief Grants Through Comcast RISE

Businesses in King County and Pierce County can apply beginning on October 1, 2021, at www.ComcastRISE.com for a chance to receive a $10,000 relief grant.
Courtesy of JWatch Photography....
Experience Anacortes

Summer Fun Activities in Anacortes

With minimal travel time required and every activity under the sun, Anacortes is the perfect vacation spot for all ages.
NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks politics, ‘Airplane!’ and books