People in the streets. A government in turmoil. Social unrest — and activism — everywhere you look.
It all rings bit familiar to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The man who's scored more career points than anyone in NBA history (more than Jordan, more than Chamberlain, more than anyone) converted to Islam and changed his name from Lew Alcindor in 1971 at 24 years old.
Decades after sinking his last sky-hook, Abdul-Jabbar remains a powerful voice for progress in America — and he sees many parallels between today's tumultuous times and the era in which he came up.
"The level of political and social involvement today is very reminiscent of the beginnings of the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and anti-war movements that pushed America forward," Abdul-Jabbar recently told Mashable via email. "It’s actually very exciting to see how America will define itself over the next few years."
Image: Nick Ut/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Self-definition is a central theme of Abdul-Jabbar's latest project, a memoir for kids called Becoming Kareem. The book recounts his journey into adulthood, from his socially awkward early years in New York City, to his ascent as a basketball star and his subsequent political awakening.
Abdul-Jabbar has written dozens of books ranging from history to fiction since hanging up the sneakers, but this is his first autobiographical work aimed at young readers. We recently traded emails with the baller-turned-activist-turned-author to discuss his new project, America's current social climate and whether anyone still calls him Lew.
Image: little, brown
You've written many books and columns, so why this book and why now? What are you hoping kids will get out of it beyond the facts of a famous person's life?
I love writing for children as much as I do for adults. I’ve written several books for children and young adults. My children’s book, What Color Is My World: The Lost History of African-American Inventors, taught kids about the many black inventors and innovators that are often overlooked in the classrooms yet who affected our everyday lives. I also wrote a couple middle school books about a group of school kids from diverse ethnic backgrounds who play basketball together and solve mysteries.
Becoming Kareem is my most personal book because in it I detail my struggles growing up—literally and figuratively—to develop from a classic Good Boy trying to be what others want me to be to finding my own voice and becoming who I want to be. But it’s also an exciting story about how I went from being a pretty klutzy kid to a successful athlete.
Social turmoil and the Civil Rights Movement were the backdrop for part of your career and something with which many fans associate you. What parallels do you see between that era and what's happening in America today?
There’s a lot of talk today of how divided we are as Americans. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
More people are now galvanized to speak up and become more active in politics. Political conflict can force people to become more articulate and informed about their beliefs, and that leads to people getting past their initial aggressiveness and arrogance and start finding common ground.
The level of political and social involvement today is very reminiscent of the beginnings of the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and anti-war movements that pushed America forward. It’s actually very exciting to see how America will define itself over the next few years.
Speaking generally, do you think today's pro athletes as a whole are more or less socially conscious and socially active compared to the pro athlete population of your era? Who do you see today carrying the torch once held by yourself, Muhammad Ali and others?
There are many highly articulate and passionate athletes who are bravely speaking out on various political issues, despite the potential damage to their careers and endorsement deals. LeBron James is one of the most famous social advocates, but there are others who are just as committed, including Maya Moore from the WNBA, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony, Colin Kaepernick, and so on.
It’s a tribute to them that there are too many for me to list here. The great thing about this rise in athletes being more socially responsible is the example they are setting for today’s youth that athletes aren’t just selfish money-hungry jocks.
I understand the new book discusses you converting to Islam and changing your name in 1971. What was the response from fellow players, media and fans like at the time?
People were either curious, indifferent, or furious. Most my teammates were curious about what Islam was and supportive of my decision because they knew I’d been exploring most world religions for some time, looking for what best fit me. This was a time when Islam was not yet a familiar religion to most Americans, so many didn’t care one way or another.
But a number of fans and sports writers interpreted my conversion as an attack on America and its values. Of course, I saw it as embracing American ideals of reinventing yourself according to your own beliefs rather than tradition.
Islam is a highly politicized and demonized thing in some quarters these days. But what does the religion mean and represent to you?
Each person has to find the religion that best fits their needs. What I like about most religions is that they strive to help people find a path to do the right thing—and that right thing is to live humble, helpful lives.
For me, Islam was a way to follow that while at the same time connecting with my cultural roots in Africa. Between 20 and 30 percent of slaves were Muslim and I felt an affinity with their experience. I traveled through Africa and the Middle East and studied Arabic at Harvard University in order to fully immerse myself in Islam.
Today, Islam illuminates the path of kindness and respect for humanity that I wish to continue to follow.
The title of your book is Becoming Kareem. Does the name 'Lew Alcindor,' bring up any particular feelings to you now, more than 40 years after your change?
It’s less an emotional reaction than a philosophical one. I’m long past caring about the name, though I do resent it when fans deliberately call me Lew because it shows a lack of respect for my choice. Alcindor was the name of the white man who owned my ancestors, so the name felt more like a brand. Also, I didn’t want my achievements to glorify his name.
Is there anyone from way back, family or anyone, who still calls you Lew? Or are you Kareem to everyone now?
Anyone who knows me, cares about me, or respects me calls me Kareem.