Man at His Best

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: What I've Learned

The all-time NBA scoring leader and author talks racism, dunking, and Steph Curry's three-pointers.

BY MIKE SAGER | Apr 17, 2016 | Culture

Walter Iooss Jr.

There are always people who think they have a hilarious height joke you haven't heard before.

I've enjoyed being tall [seven feet two]. I'm able to notice things before other people. That is one advantage. When I was young and living in New York, I'd be standing on the subway platform and people would want to know "What train is coming? Is that the D train?" I could see over all the people on the platform.

I started shooting the hook shot when I was in the fifth grade. My grade school coach, Farrell Hopkins, had some guys come and show me post and pivot moves, and they showed me the George Mikan drill. Mikan used the hook shot.

Bruce Lee said he was not concerned about someone who had practiced ten thousand kicks. He was more concerned about a person who had practiced one kick ten thousand times. I was that person. That's why the hook was such a formidable weapon.

When my high school coach used the word nigger, it destroyed a whole lot of trust. He was the white person in my life who was always saying that racism was dumb. When he said it during a game, he was trying to press my buttons—he just overreached. He was not a racist and should not be remembered as such. He just screwed up and he paid a price for it. And I guess I paid a price for it, too.

Having grown up in a country that tolerated Jim Crow laws, I was attracted to the teachings of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad spoke out against racism and slavery. I think that is the single most important thing that made me more disposed to be Muslim.

When they banned the dunk in college, I felt like they were trying to inhibit my game, but I realised almost immediately that all of the shots I could dunk I could just as easily lay off the glass—and it was still going to be two points, so I didn't have anything to worry about. It was strange to think an entire institution, the NCAA, was changing its rules just because of me. It gets to you because as an individual you never expect you'll be seen as that much of a threat.

The most basic aspect of monotheism is pretty simple. It's supposed to be what Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all about. When he was asked, "What is the essence of the Torah?" the Jewish scholar Hillel said, "To treat others how you wish to be treated." That is the message throughout all of the monotheistic religions. To me, it is simple yet profound how we humans can't put this into practice.

The increase in rhetoric and hate crimes against Muslim-Americans and Syrian refugees is the triumph of fear over ideals. Those engaged in both are doing more to sabotage American values than the terrorists.

The back-to-the-basket moves, the graceful footwork in the paint—that's part of the game that is fading. The three-point shot has taken over everybody's mentality. Why settle for two points when you can have three?

I watched this thing showing Stephen Curry doing his workout. He shot 100 three-pointers and he made 94—including 77 in a row. I never heard of anything like that. It's like, wow. It's unbelievable.

There are milestones that have happened with my kids that are more important to me than any of the trophies or championships I have won. One of my sons is an orthopaedic surgeon. Seeing him get out of med school was great. My other son is a counsellor; he just had a daughter and I'm a grandfather now. Things like that are neat.

The way heart disease can sneak up on you—now, that's scary. A couple guys I played against are dead now. Caldwell Jones is dead, Sam Lacey, Darryl Dawkins. Darryl was 10 years younger than me. It's just hard. It's crazy.

What have I learned about women? You can't live with them and you can't live without them. Yep. That's what I've learned.

See that trophy right there? The baseball one? That's the first trophy I ever got. The John J. Woeful Memorial trophy, 1959. I wanted to play baseball. I wanted to play for the Dodgers.

American politics is fuelled by fear and frustration. This has prompted many in the white middle class to seek a saviour rather than someone with rational and realistic policies. It's like asking the balloon clown at a kids' party to start juggling chain saws.

The third of the 10 books I've written or cowritten was a history book, Black Profiles in Courage. It came out in 1996. I wrote it because there were no books at the time that gave an overview of American history which included the achievements of black Americans. At the time, most white Americans didn't give much thought to the subject. It was very important to me.

Being iconic is kind of strange because you think of yourself as just being the same ordinary person you've been your whole life. We all have our strengths and our foibles. To me, I'm me, then as now.

When people meet someone they perceive to be famous, it's almost like their circuits cross. It's like their brains short out for a second. They have to say something or do something. Often it's a little weird or inappropriate.

The goggles give you a real sense of comfort if you've ever had an eye injury.

It wasn't hard to get me the ball.

From: Esquire US.