In his 70 years, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has seen a lot. He came of age in a racially volatile era, so while he was disappointed by what happened to LeBron James this week – someone spray-painted the N-word on the gate of James’ Los Angeles home – he wasn’t exactly stunned.
“There’s been a lot of progress made, but more recently – because of the divisive nature of politics in our country – people now feel emboldened to say things that most Americans think aren’t cool,” Abdul-Jabbar said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “Berating people on the basis of race has no place in our society, so what happened to LeBron really is an indication that people want to push the clock backwards – and we can’t do that.”
Abdul-Jabbar was born in 1947, lived through the Civil Rights Era, and played college ball at UCLA from 1966-69. During that time, he had many meaningful conversations with John Wooden about being a minority in America.
“Coach Wooden couldn’t do anything on his own other than advise us the best way to proceed, if we wanted his advice,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He didn’t force it on us. He would ask us questions, though, about how he felt about different issues. Some of the things that we experienced together, Coach Wooden and I, it really helped him understand how bad it could be for black America. He had no idea because he didn’t see how it could beat you down every day. He didn’t think it was that big of a deal at first. He learned a lot. He learned, especially from his experience just watching what I went through just dealing with the public.”
Abdul-Jabbar embraced activism in college and in the NBA. In fact, he was one of the leading voices for African Americans, along with Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell.
“For me, it wasn’t that difficult,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I wanted to do something. I wanted to contribute. I had watched the Civil Rights Movement my whole life – ever since the murder of Emmett Till (in 1955). I was 8 years old when that happened, and I was bewildered. I started paying attention. I couldn’t figure it out, but I wanted to do something. Most black Americans at that time, we didn’t see ourselves as heroes, but we all had to take part in that struggle. So many people gave so much.
“I’ve had in recent years the privilege of getting to know Representative John Lewis,” Abdul-Jabbar continued. “What an incredible human being. And he’s not bitter about anything. I would think that someone who’s been through what he’s been through might be bitter, but he’s a very loving and forward-thinking person. He knows that we still have work to do, and he’s very cheerful about it.”
Back in the day, though, Kareem and his contemporaries often received backlash for their activism.
“Of course,” he said. “That was what black Americans were supposed to do: know their place, keep their mouth shut, and be thankful for any concessions to equal treatment that were given. We were supposed be very thankful for that and considered ungrateful if we continued to complain about the stuff that wasn’t right.”
Gio and Jones wondered where America will be in 10 or 15 years. Will racism be as prevalent as it is, or will it improve?
“I think in 15 years, people will look back and say, ‘That really stunk what happened with LeBron. There’s no place for that. That’s not America,’” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We’ve taken several steps away from that type of conduct and those types of attitudes. I think the majority of people in our country have moved on, but there are some people trying to bring that ugliness back, and it’s so unfortunate.”