Far More than the Greatest Basketball Player of All Time
Interview by Anthony Al-Jamie
It's little wonder that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been called the greatest basketball player of all time. After a record-breaking college career under the great John Wooden at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the 7'2" history major made history himself during 20 seasons from 1969 to 1989 in the National Basketball Association (NBA) playing center first for the Milwaukee Bucks and then the Los Angeles Lakers. He continued to break record after record as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, a six-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) and a 19-time NBA All-Star, reaching the finals with eight NBA championship teams (six as a player and two as an assistant coach). Born in New York City on April 16, 1947 as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, the basketball hall of famer, who was known on the court for his trademark "skyhook" jump shot, is also known off the court as an actor, martial artist, historian, philosopher, public speaker, businessman, philanthropist, education advocate and as a best-selling and highly regarded author. Kareem has traveled the world for his sport and was appointed as a U.S. global cultural ambassador by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie met with living legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to explore his remarkable life both on and off the court.
TJ: When you were young what did you want to grow up to be?
JABBAR: When I was young, I wanted to be a baseball player... or a cowboy!
TJ: Did you play baseball?
JABBAR: I played little league. I have always been a baseball fan. I’ve been a Dodgers fan my whole life.
TJ: Before turning pro you were offered a million dollars to join the Harlem Globetrotters. Did you consider taking it?
JABBAR: I didn’t think about that too seriously when they made the offer because graduating from college was a goal I wanted to achieve before I did anything and I couldn’t do that if I took their money.
TJ: After graduating from UCLA, you then went on to take the job with the Milwaukee Bucks for $1.4 million and you turned down the New York Nets for $3.25 million. Is that correct?
JABBAR: The Nets offered me less than the Bucks did initially and I told them there was going to be only one offer from each. After I heard the Bucks’ offer and the Nets’ offer, the Bucks’ offer was more. I took the Bucks’ offer and then the Nets said they wanted to come back with another offer. I didn’t feel the Bucks should be penalized for negotiating in good faith and I did not want them to look at me like I was corrupt. I went with the Bucks’ offer.
TJ: Did you regret boycotting the 1968 Olympics?
JABBAR: No, and the boycott really didn’t take place. I didn’t go because I had a good job where I was making money I needed so I could finish my college studies. Being strapped for money, I stayed with my summer job instead of flying out for the Olympic games.
TJ: Oh, so the so-called boycott wasn’t really as politically motivated as the media made it out to be?
JABBAR: It wasn’t as politically motivated as everyone wanted to make it. There was a lot of political activity but a black boycott of the Olympics didn’t take place.
TJ: Can you tell us about meeting Martin Luther King?
JABBAR:I met him in the summer of 1964, just briefly. I was working at a summer program as a journalist and he spoke to participants of our program so they gave me press-event credentials. I had the experience of being with the press corps and interviewing Dr. King. I say that now. I was at the time, like, “Yeah, OK.” It was like another day. But looking back, it was very special. He had just been voted Man of the Year earlier in 1963 in Time Magazine. When you’re sixteen and seventeen years old, certain things don’t impress you that should impress you (laughs).
TJ: What kind of influence did he have on you?
JABBAR: Well, I think Dr. King’s influence on me did not really come around until well after he had died. I think just seeing how things developed with the successes of the civil rights movement and just understanding that the struggle wasn’t over and that we really had a lot of work to do. I think it tempered my own thoughts.
TJ: Who else had a big influence on you?
JABBAR: Well, a lot of people: Malcolm X and a lot of things I read in high school and college influenced me: Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison… Mark Twain was way ahead of his time. He was an amazing man!
TJ: I understand you studied Jeet Kune Do under Bruce Lee. How long did that last?
JABBAR: Four years.
TJ: And how did you meet him?
JABBAR: I met him while I was going to UCLA. I had started doing martial arts. I started in aikido and I wanted to continue studying and somebody recommended that I meet Bruce Lee so I started studying with him. It was during my junior year at UCLA.
TJ: What was your relationship like with Bruce Lee?
JABBAR: We got to be good friends. I got to know his family: Linda, his son… that was really tough when his son Brandon died in the accident like that.
TJ: Oh, so you were close with the whole family!
JABBAR: I used to babysit Brandon. Sometimes I would take care of Brandon so Linda could get her shopping done because he was a handful. I was always happy to help. I was always around the house. Bruce’s mom came over from Hong Kong one time so I got to meet his mom and his brother Robert.
TJ: Was there any mystery behind Bruce Lee’s passing?
JABBAR: No, he had a brain aneurism and he died. Brain aneurisms are hard to predict. You don’t know about it until it happens. The only way is you’ve got to be lucky enough to survive it. But with Brandon, that was... wow. Brandon was on his way to becoming a very capable actor.
TJ: What was Bruce’s character like?
JABBAR: Bruce was all about family and friends. That was him. He was always laughing. He was a very personable guy. A practical joker. A good guy.
TJ: Did you ever fight Bruce Lee?
JABBAR: Well, we sparred. He enjoyed it. My arms were long and gave him a very difficult time. He enjoyed problems that he couldn’t solve and that’s the type of thing you have to prepare for.
TJ: Do you still practice martial arts?
JABBAR: Every now and then I will get out the heavy bag and I’ll box and do some of the stuff I studied with Bruce but I don’t do that very much anymore. I do more yoga than anything.
TJ: How many times have you been to Japan?
JABBAR: I’ve been to Japan four or five times.
TJ: What did you do during your visits to Japan?
JABBAR: The very first time I went, we played with the NBA players association when we played some exhibition games and then I went with Magic Johnson one time and played some exhibition games. The time I went for Adidas, I was doing basketball clinics teaching basketball skills.
TJ: Did you get a chance to travel throughout Japan at all?
JABBAR: Yeah, when I went with the NBA we took the bullet train from Tokyo down to Osaka. I always enjoyed Japanese culture and I was really into martial arts. When I was a freshman at UCLA, another student took me to see a “Zatoichi” movie – a very charismatic figure.
TJ: Do you have any athlete or celebrity friends in Japan?
JABBAR: Yes, when I was there with the NBA in 1981… at that point I had seen many samurai movies, and the people arranged for me to visit Tatsuya Nakadai—at his home! It was amazing. You know, what a wonderful guy! Very humble, gracious man. He invited me into his home and we talked a bit about some of his movies. It was a really nice experience for me. It’s been thirty odd years but I always enjoyed his movies “Seppuku” and “Sword of Doom.”
TJ: Do you have any other good memories from Japan?
JABBAR: I had a great time at the Blue Note in Tokyo. I’m a jazz fan and the Blue Note was a very nice club.
TJ: What do you like the most about Japan?
JABBAR: Well, I enjoy the fact that they made such incredible progress in the 20th century. When the 20th century started, it was a very underdeveloped country. By the end of the 20th century, they were one of the world’s economic powers. Very modern. That’s an incredible thing to achieve in less than a hundred years.
TJ: I understand you have done some work in China. Have been to China recently?
JABBAR: I think I was last in China in 2008. I went to Shanghai.
TJ: How was Shanghai?
JABBAR: Very interesting! The architecture is like “Star Wars” (laughs). All the buildings they are making in China have made a great leap forward to modernize the country.
TJ: Have you been to other cities in China?
JABBAR: Yes, I was in Beijing when the NBA played some exhibition games over there and I went with the team.
TJ: I read that you expect to see more players from China in the NBA in the future?
JABBAR: Yes. There have been a few already. You had Yao Ming and the Lakers had drafted one young man whose name was Sun. Basketball players from all over the world are coming to the NBA and China is no exception.
TJ: Is there anything about China that stood out that you particularly enjoyed?
JABBAR: Well, I enjoyed Beijing and the Forbidden City was extraordinary.
TJ: You’re a historian, aren’t you?
JABBAR: I am, so being able to see all of that was interesting.
TJ: What is your favorite kind of food?
JABBAR: I’m all over the place. My family is from the West Indies and I like that style of cooking. I like Thai food. I like Indian food. I like Chinese food. French cooking is interesting. I’ve been all over the world.
TJ: Is there somewhere you’d like to go that you haven’t been to?
JABBAR: I haven’t been to Machu Picchu in Peru. I want to go there. I think I’ve been to every other place I wanted to go to.
TJ: What’s your favorite place you’ve ever been to?
JABBAR: I like the Caribbean and Paris.
TJ: And what do you like about Paris?
JABBAR: It’s just a very sophisticated city – a very livable city. Everything you could want in a city is there. They have a very refined and elegant lifestyle.
TJ: What is it about travel that you enjoy the most?
JABBAR: I think travel helps you understand the world that we live in. Until you go and experience it, you really don’t understand it.
TJ: Have you studied any foreign languages?
JABBAR: I’ve studied Arabic, French and Spanish. I did pretty good with Arabic but I didn’t continue and if you don’t use it you lose it. When I was studying about Islam, I wanted to know a lot about Arabic so I did learn the fundamentals of it. My middle son took Japanese in high school. He can speak it a little bit but he said it had gotten to a point where he had to read Chinese characters… whoa!
TJ: Do you recommend that young kids learn a foreign language?
JABBAR: Yes, I do. The world is a big place. The 21st century is going to be all about being international, so I think we need to have language skills. It makes us able to communicate with people a lot easier.
TJ: You are a prolific writer. I see you’ve done a lot of writing. How did you develop your writing skills?
JABBAR: Through reading, mainly. I got into writing while I was still in grade school and in high school I took part in a summer program. I was in a journalism workshop and I had aspirations to be a journalist at one point. I was an English major at UCLA so my whole life I have pursued and enjoyed reading and writing.
TJ: What is it about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that you admire?
JABBAR: I think Barack Obama did just an incredible job in motivating people and winning two elections. It’s a shame that he had so much opposition from the Republican Party. He could have gotten a lot more done, but I think he’s done a remarkable job. I think Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State and as an ambassador has done a remarkable job and her achievements are pretty significant.
TJ: What do you think about ObamaCare?
JABBAR: I think it would have worked even better than it is working if he hadn’t been opposed by the Republican Party. They are irrational in their hatred of President Obama and that’s a shame.
TJ: You have many childhood heroes on your website. Why are there so many musicians on that list?
JABBAR: My dad was a jazz musician so music has been part of my life and musicians have been among my heroes.
TJ: And do you play an instrument?
JABBAR: No, I had a piano but I wouldn’t practice. I wanted to play baseball and then baseball eventually morphed into basketball.
TJ: Could you have played baseball competitively?
JABBAR: Maybe. But I didn’t have Randy Johnson as a role model back in those days.
TJ: Did you pitch at all?
JABBAR: I probably could have pitched. I could throw it really hard. But control? Nobody worked with me. You need good coaching if you are going to pitch. People have to show you how to make the ball go where you want it to go.
TJ: And being halfway down that field is a great advantage!
JABBAR: Yes, it’s a great advantage. I remember when I was in little league everybody wanted to check my birth certificate.
TJ: If you hadn’t gotten into basketball, do you think you would have gotten into another sport or would you have done something else?
JABBAR: I don’t know. I wanted to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was a Dodgers fan. I went to one or two games at Ebbets Field.
TJ: You’ve done a lot of acting. Are you interested in doing more of it?
JABBAR: No, not really. It’s kind of hard. The only roles I had were playing myself, so that got old pretty quick.
TJ: What role do you think you would have been best suited for?
JABBAR: I could have played one of those monster roles where they put you in a strange suit.
TJ: Did you experience a lot of discrimination like that? For example where you would have liked to have played a Shakespearean role or something in high school and there was just no way because of your height?
JABBAR: Not really. My height is what it is and I have to deal with that. I didn’t have any undying expectations to be an actor.
TJ: Have there been any disadvantages due to your height?
JABBAR: Well, you know, sometimes you don’t fit in things. Especially when I go to Japan! Everything is for Japanese who aren’t very tall, but other than that…
TJ: Can you tell us about your involvement with STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math?
JABBAR: The State of California wants to emphasize STEM education, especially for kids in grade school because that’s when kids get the idea of what is possible for them, especially in terms of employment. They can immediately begin to focus on what they are going to do with their lives and when they have an idea about science, technology, engineering and math and know there are jobs there, they will seek those out. So I think it is a great idea that we are able to start helping kids understand what they can do to have the type of life they want to have. If they want to go to college, do well and then get a great job, science, technology, engineering and math are part of the keys. Many companies in America need engineers of all types and if the inner cities where the education system is not as successful as it should be can get up to speed in those areas, it is going to be possible for more students to become qualified.
TJ: Do you think athletes in the NBA should get their MBA?
JABBAR: I think people in the NBA should qualify themselves somehow to do things beyond just playing basketball. That’s something that makes a lot of sense. Having a good educational foundation will allow someone who had the opportunity to play in the NBA and make that kind of money to enter the business world and do significant things.
TJ: Does the NBA do anything to promote the emotional and educational growth of the players?
JABBAR: Yeah, they do. Now they have an orientation for rookies to try to give them an idea of what they are up against and some of the pitfalls.
TJ: But do they educate them for post-career things?
JABBAR: The National Basketball Players Association has counselors and stuff that are available for NBA players. I don’t know a whole lot about that but it is something that is available.
TJ: You have had some serious health issues you have been overcoming. What advice would you give to someone who has been diagnosed with a serious illness?
JABBAR: I would tell them to find out everything they can about what it is that is inflicting them. When I was first diagnosed with leukemia, I had no idea there were so many kinds of leukemia and that it could be treated. I thought I had a death sentence. That wasn’t the case. I had no idea. I was very fortunate that one of my middle sons was in med school at the time. He said, “Look, you’ve got to find out what you’re dealing with. If you can, treat it, because you can survive it.” And he was absolutely right.
TJ: That must have been an extremely difficult time when you were diagnosed.
JABBAR: Actually, it was just bad for about a month but I almost immediately responded to the treatment and my blood started to get better. It wasn’t like I had lived under the gun for a long amount of time. The treatment worked and I continue to treat it.
TJ: How did you treat it?
JABBAR: With my particular type of leukemia I just take an oral treatment but for some people they have bone marrow transplants and stuff like that. There are ways of treating leukemia causing it to not be life-threatening.
TJ: Did it change the way you think?
JABBAR: Well, it certainly impacted me. I’ve had it now six years. Fifteen years ago there was no way to treat it. You would have died in three years. So now they have this treatment and people who have the type of leukemia I have aren’t dying. What is interesting is the method they have for figuring out how to treat my type of leukemia is working on other types of cancer. So it’s a path to treating cancers other than leukemia.
TJ: And how do you feel? You look great!
JABBAR: I feel fine. The side effects were minimal.
TJ: Does it make you look younger? Because you look young!
JABBAR: No, no. I think that’s my mom and dad...
TJ: I read that you think college players should be paid. Do you feel there are a lot of college players who are getting paid under the table?
JABBAR: Probably. There probably are, but college players deserve to get paid. They are exploited. I don’t like seeing that. I didn’t like it when it happened to me. I can see why. They are so cynical and the wine and dine thing is so popular. You’ve got the president of the NCAA making close to $2 million a year and the guys putting the people in the stands can’t get anything.
TJ: Who is holding that back?
JABBAR: I think it’s the NCAA. You’ve got kids who go to a state university and the state university is selling you the jersey and making hundreds of thousands of dollars while the kid doesn’t get anything.
TJ: And if the kid doesn’t make it to the pros, they get nothing.
JABBAR: They get nothing and they can lose their scholarship if they get hurt while they are playing. California has an active rule that says that any schools that offer scholarships have to have an insurance policy that will guarantee the student athlete the opportunity to finish school if they get hurt. The state makes the schools do that. The NCAA should be doing that but they’re not. A guy goes and plays football and gets his knee torn up his freshman year. Bye! There supposedly is some method where they can make an insurance claim but then there are certain conditions. It’s only if you are permanently disabled. So if you can walk… even though you can’t play football, but you can walk, you are not permanently disabled. So nobody’s been able to take advantage of this. It’s totally cynical and it’s wrong.
TJ: And it’s how they raise all their money, right? It’s those 50-yard line tickets that get them those big donations.
JABBAR: It really stinks.
TJ: Would you like to coach college ball?
JABBAR: I probably would have. I’m 67 years old now and I think those opportunities are beyond me but I think I could have done a good job. I’ve done some work with individuals who have come to me. Joakim Noah comes to mind. I think I did a pretty good job with Andrew Bynum.
TJ: So would you consider taking a coaching job if it were offered to you?
JABBAR: I might. It would have to be the right job. I’ve only interviewed for two jobs.
TJ: Really! You’re the greatest basketball player of all time. Why wouldn’t a head coaching position be available to you?
JABBAR: Politics, I think. My personality is such that people don’t know what they are getting, so they keep their distance.
TJ: You are both intelligent and articulate. It seems you would make a perfect coach. I don’t get it.
JABBAR: I would want someone with those qualities, but maybe some people see that as a threat. I don’t know. I can’t say.
TJ: What do you think is the most important thing for a coach? What is the skill they need to have?
JABBAR: To understand how to get people prepared physically, mentally and emotionally and keep a team at its peak level of performance.
TJ: If you were a coach what core team values would you try to instill in your players?
JABBAR: The fundamentals of the game have to do with getting high percentage shots, being in shape and knowing how to play defense as a team rather than as an individual. You just have to work on those things on a daily basis and get guys that can play together and understand how to win as a unit. Too many young players now see it as what an individual does during a crucial moment of the game. And they are way off. It’s about what the team does over the period of the whole game that nails down the victory.
TJ: Is there a book you would have your players read?
JABBAR: “Practical Modern Basketball” by John R. Wooden. That’s a good one.
TJ: If you could choose any five players to be on your team, do you have a list in mind?
JABBAR: Impossible to do that. There are so many great players over so many eras.
TJ: How about with current players?
JABBAR: Players right now? Off the top of my head… Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, LeBron, Tim Duncan, and LaMarcus Aldridge.
TJ: What skills do you think you have acquired in running your business that would help you as a coach?
JABBAR: Just having people who can work together. Team cohesion is such a crucial factor in any successful group effort. Team cohesion is absolutely essential.
TJ: Regarding Donald Sterling, do you have any advice for NBA players on how to move forward?
JABBAR: Let the commissioner’s office do their thing. They understand what’s going on and how serious it is and they’re doing the right thing about it. What Sterling said and his attitude is so provocative, it makes you want to do something but the commissioner’s office is doing a great job in handling it so they should just let them do that. They need to be professional and do what they need to do for the owners and fans that aren’t like Sterling. The majority of them are not like Sterling so they just have to understand that and Sterling will be dealt with.
TJ: I read in a Time Magazine article that you also were upset by the fact that the conversation was recorded and played for the public.
JABBAR: It just added to the sleaziness of it all. We still don’t know what that was all about.
TJ: Do you ever catch yourself being prejudiced?
JABBAR: Racially? No. If I see someone that is predictable, yeah. And certain people and certain cultures are predictable but that’s just the way of the world.
TJ: You mentioned in a Time Magazine article about being particular in choosing your friends. Who do you consider to be your closest friends?
JABBAR: Geez, so many guys I grew up with when I was a kid in New York are my closest friends.
TJ: Anyone from the NBA?
JABBAR: Oh yeah, there’s a number of guys from the NBA: James Worthy, Norm Nixon, a guy I played with in Milwaukee - Greg Smith, Bill Walton…
TJ: What do basketball players have to work on today to take the game to a higher level?
JABBAR: Understanding the dynamics of the game. A lot of people are bored now with the game because every team seems like there are two guys playing while three guys are over on the other side of the court, just running around in circles and it’s hard for these players to understand that it’s a five-man game. Every minute of the game, the more people you get involved, the easier it is to get certain things done. So I think that knowledge really has to be emphasized for team playing.
TJ: I understand you are involved in the company Starguard Collectables. What does this business do?
JABBAR: Well, we have a memorabilia business where we sell unique memorabilia that is verifiable. We have a deal with Amazon. One of the reasons Amazon liked us for the deal is that our stuff is certifiable. Too many people are getting ripped off. That’s why we saw a niche there, so that’s Starguard Collectables.
TJ: Can you tell us about your documentary on HBO?
JABBAR: It’s about my life. It’s just about me. We did one called “On the Shoulders of Giants.” That was about the early days of professional basketball. This one is about the things I have done and seen in my life.
TJ: Do you have any books coming out?
JABBAR: I have another book coming out for my children series. I did a trilogy.
TJ: If you could do anything differently in your life, what would you do?
JABBAR: I would probably have had a better understanding of how to deal with the press when I got out of college. It would have saved me a lot of grief because Wooden told us not to trust the press and not to talk with them while I was going to UCLA so it created a suspicion that kind of overshadowed how I should have dealt with the press.
TJ: Oh, I see. So you took those words of advice and that didn’t work out.
JABBAR: It was tough because he had never been in a situation where the media attention on me and the team that I played on at UCLA was so intense. He had never seen that. It was a totally new and different kind of thing.
TJ: So what is the most important thing to you in life right now?
JABBAR: Just being able to be there for my kids. They’re living their lives and I’m very happy with that. Just having an opportunity to see them do well. It means everything to me.
TJ: How old are your kids?
JABBAR: My oldest just turned 42. My youngest is 22. He’ll be 23 in September.
TJ: And how many kids do you have?
JABBAR: Five. Three boys and two girls.
TJ: Did you learn anything from your kids?
TJ: You mean in dealing with them?
JABBAR: I mean they can’t learn everything as quickly as you might like but if you’re patient, that really helps them to understand they don’t have to get there two minutes from now. tj
The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.