Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Jazz, Fighting Bruce Lee, Growing Up in Harlem, and Basketball (Ep. 6 — Live at Mason)
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on segregation, Islam, Harlem vs. LA, Earl Manigault, jazz, fighting Bruce Lee, Kareem’s conservatism, dancing with Thelonious Monk, and why no one today can shoot a skyhook.
Listen to the full conversation
You can also watch a video of the conversation here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of America’s leading public intellectuals. I would describe him as an offshoot of the Harlem Renaissance, and what he and I share in common is a fascination with the character of Mycroft Holmes, the subject of Kareem’s latest book — and that of course, is Sherlock Holmes’s brother.
On modern day segregation
We’re going to start with some questions. I’d like to turn to the topic of segregation. What I find interesting is that according to some metrics, in this country, racial segregation has become worse rather than better.
Just a simple example — in 1988, 43 percent of black students were in majority-white schools. Today, that’s gone down to 23 percent. Now we have an African-American president. In some ways, the country seems less prejudiced. How has this happened? What has gone wrong?
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: My opinion on that is the fact that the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act led to other acts that tried as hard as they could to eliminate segregation in housing, the practice of redlining and those types of things, where blacks and other minorities were denied access to neighborhoods that had been all white.
Now that we’ve dealt with that situation changing for a good 30 years or so, the majority of the housing patterns that have developed from that is what we used to call de facto segregation — people moving to where they want to move, and living with the people that they want to live with.
Maybe — and this is just a maybe, but I think it’s pretty accurate — that has caused another round of de facto segregation, where people are now living where they want to live, but the racial makeup of the neighborhood, or the composition of the neighborhood, is still quite similar to when segregation was the law, and people didn’t self-segregate. I think that’s what it’s all about.
COWEN: I’m an economist, as you may know, and I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t entertain the idea of making building easier to do in cities such as San Francisco, in essence to deregulate high-density residential construction and get a lot more mixing in school districts. Does that make sense to you?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Yes, it could, if you can enforce it. The trick is always in enforcement. People pay lip service to an ideal, and then the reality of it ends up being a little bit short, and we’re still disappointed.
COWEN: Let me ask you another question about this new segregation. You may not be able to tell just by looking at me, but I actually grew up as a nerdy white guy.
COWEN: I can look at the numbers and see the same problem that you see, but in terms of a feel for how the new segregation has developed, due to your different life experience, what do you think it is that you grasp that maybe I can read about, but don’t fully, intuitively get, and that you could explain to us? Do you see what I’m asking?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Are you asking about the way — the patterns?
COWEN: The way it actually works and feels. Something that’s not in the numbers, but that you understand better than I do, because you have a different, and in some ways deeper, richer, longer life experience.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I would think that the fact that as a black American, I can [now] go and buy a home in any neighborhood that I can afford to move into, and the law is going to back me, I think that is a big factor in all of this.
If black people can go where they want to go, and no one is going to oppose them, I think that’s a good thing, and that is people making their own choices without any coercion from the law, enforcing something that some people find odious.
COWEN: I think you’re 68 years old, according to Wikipedia.
COWEN: You’ve been in this country for a while. The general question of prejudice through a kind of bigotry of soft expectations: how much better is that today in your opinion?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I don’t think the soft expectations have benefited minority communities very well. I think we still suffer from that. A lot of people seem to be able to accept it and understand it because they know how terrible our public school systems are and how they have failed, in many cases, to educate the students in their districts.
I think that failure has led to a lot of these problems and has given rise to a segregation of schooling where you have private schools that are for wealthy white people and the public schools that have very poor teachers and very bad facilities that are for everyone else. We suffer because of that.
COWEN: What’s your view of charter schools?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Charter schools are an attempt to stem the flow of that dynamic. I hope that they get something done.
The grade school I went to in Manhattan is now a charter school. It was a Catholic school. It’s been taken over as a charter school. That seems to be the trend.
COWEN: As you know, here at Arlington we’re very close to Howard University. If you look at trends, there seems to be a long-term decline in all or mostly or majority black colleges and universities. Enrollments are significantly down.
But they’ve played a very important role in African-American and also Caribbean intellectual history. Do you think there’s still room for institutions such as Howard? Do you think their future is promising? How do you see those developing? What’s your view there?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I don’t know how they’re going to survive over the long term because the whole concept of segregated schooling doesn’t really work. We have to figure out a new template to make it work for everyone.
We have to figure out a way in America to make our educational system work for everybody, all groups. All socioeconomic levels need to be able to be included. That’s not happening right now.
COWEN: I’m pleased to report, by the way, that a few years ago there was a study. George Mason came out, I think, as the second most mixed ethnically, racially, and otherwise university in the whole country. We’ve tried here to do that.
ABDUL-JABBAR: That’s great.
COWEN: One reader writes to me, “Ask Kareem what are some highly leveraged actions we could take to improve systematic poverty in this country.”
ABDUL-JABBAR: I don’t know how we’re going to work on the poverty situation unless, again, the educational system is up to speed and can educate people so they can escape poverty. You can’t escape poverty given that you can barely read and write. That’s not going to work.
You can get a job lifting things or you can get a job — I have a friend, his son is an underachiever at school. I told him to tell him if you can memorize eight words he can be employed for the rest of his life.
The guy said, “What are those eight words?” I said, “Welcome to McDonald’s. May I take your order?”
That’s what it’s coming down to.
COWEN: Speaking of policies, the war on drugs. Is it working? Is it racist? Is it wrecking our inner cities? What’s your view?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think the war on drugs was racist. I don’t think it’s the same now. People are starting to see that drug addiction can affect any and everybody.
There was an article in the New York Times last week about how now that the scourge of heroin addiction has entered the suburbs and majority-white communities they’re starting to understand what it’s all about. The futility in just using incarceration to try to cure the problem.
We have to do a better job teaching people about their self-worth. And we have to do a better job at giving opportunity to people who, if they don’t sell drugs, they can’t participate in any economy. The drug-selling economy is the only one that they can participate in. That’s a recipe for failure.
COWEN: Would you decriminalize and, in essence, stop the war on drugs?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I don’t think you can completely decriminalize it. But you have to understand that there is something that we want to rescue from the situation, and that’s people’s lives. I think people’s lives should be given the priority in how to solve this problem — getting people off of these things and understanding that it’s very detrimental to their future.
On conservatism’s place in Kareem’s thought
COWEN: Here’s a sentence you wrote in your book, Kareem. I’ll read it out loud. Tell me if you would still say the same, because that book is now a few years old. “The Republican agenda seems basically indifferent to people’s hardships, but I agree with its position that handouts are not the solution to social problems.”
ABDUL-JABBAR: I still agree with that, but they have to be open to the fact that the solutions that they have put forward haven’t worked. I am still anxious to hear from some of the conservatives what the conservative solution is for chronic underemployment and the failure of our educational system.
We need a solution to that. Why haven’t the conservatives come forward with a solution? They seem to think that they have the answer. What’s going on with that?
COWEN: Some of that may be indifference, right?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think it’s indifference or the fact that the contempt that they have for the people who are the first victims of it, which are poor people of color who that’s the only economy they can get into.
They are almost forced into criminal activity because of their lack of education and the vulnerability that they have, being raised the way that they’ve been raised.
COWEN: As we were chatting back in the green room I was saying I read you, in essence, as a kind of modern conservative. Not in the sense of being a contemporary Republican, but in terms of patriotism, respect for the military, belief in some kind of capitalism and getting ahead, work ethic. And that you’re actually, today, one of America’s leading conservative intellectuals, I would say.
Would you accept that or push back?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I value all of those things that you just mentioned, all of those scenarios that you just mentioned. I think they’re very valuable. And they have made America a great place.
We can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Those ideas and ideals have served this country very well. I don’t think we need to abandon them. We just have to find a way to extend them to all segments of society.
COWEN: Two thinkers I want to bring up who share some biographical commonalities with you but came out with very different points. Amiri Baraka, originally LeRoi Jones, he converted to Islam, was an intellectual, a great poet, extremely talented. Like you, very much a polymath.
But he stayed very radically left. He had a black nationalist period, he had a communist period, went through a lot of transformations, but no one would really describe him as any kind of conservative.
You, like Baraka, converted to Islam but have a very different point of view. What accounts for that difference in the two of you? I believe you knew him, even.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I did know Amiri. I think the difference is I believe in what happened in Europe during what they call the Enlightenment. That needs to happen to black Americans, absolutely a type of enlightenment where they get a grasp of what is afflicting them and what the cures are.
I think that the American model is the best in the world but in order to get everybody involved in it we have to have it open to everyone. That hasn’t always been the case.
COWEN: Open to far less segregation and very different attitudes.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Yeah, with less segregation and just the whole concept of trying to get the best and the brightest, get them the best education that we can so that they can do what they want within their power to continue to make America the great place that it is.
COWEN: When I prepare for these talks I do some background reading. Some of the reading I did for this — I read biographies or works on Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Jackie Robinson. Robinson, early on, he even endorsed Richard Nixon, which he later regretted. He learned Nixon was a liar and a fraud, but that he even had that inclination.
Arthur Ashe, yourself. I wondered if there isn’t a pattern where African-American athletes are, in the way that you are, actually somewhat conservative. If I compare that to African-American intellectuals, people like Cornel West, they seem to be more radical on average.
Whether you would agree with that characterization. If so, what do you think accounts for it?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think people like Cornel West, I wouldn’t necessarily say that they were radical. But they keep having to deal with the failure of any sincere efforts by the people in power in this country to do something meaningful about these problems that we’ve been talking about.
The people who can do something about it just want to serve their communities and let everyone else suffer. I think people like Cornel, their frustration and anger at that type of hypocrisy and betrayal is really what motivates them.
COWEN: In terms of the athletes, again not being Republicans in the sense of today’s Republican Party but a kind of conservatism. Do you think that’s there in a lot of them?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Certainly. I think there’s a very conservative strain in, let’s say, the black community. But they absolutely advocate for change because things have to change in order to make success more accessible.
On jazz and dancing with Thelonious Monk
COWEN: These talks are wide ranging so some questions about jazz. What’s your favorite Thelonious Monk story?
ABDUL-JABBAR: My favorite Thelonious Monk story occurred when I went to hear Thelonious several nights at the Village Vanguard. I mean like 20 or 30 nights.
ABDUL-JABBAR: [reacting to laugher] I can explain that.
COWEN: It doesn’t need explanation. It’s the opposite which requires explanation.
ABDUL-JABBAR: It was an incredible cultural experience. But a good friend of mine was the babysitter for Thelonious’s drummer. So one night he had a hot date. He said, “Kareem, you’ve got to stand in for me and babysit Cory.” Cory Riley, who is — Ben Riley’s the drummer.
I said, “OK, I’ll do that.” I went and did it. Ben’s wife came home. She didn’t know me. She was like — .
But she knew who I was. Because I would do that for Ben’s family, they said, “Once Inez gets home, you can come on down to the Vanguard and catch the act.”
Starting from when I was in high school through college, I went to the Village Vanguard anytime Thelonious was there and I was in town, I tried to go. It was a great part of my life.
Starting from when I was in high school through college, I went to the Village Vanguard anytime Thelonious [Monk] was there and I was in town, I tried to go. It was a great part of my life.
The funny story was Thelonious would get up and dance sometimes in the club. The New York cabaret laws are really weird. You can’t dance in the club but you can stand and rock around with the music or something. I don’t know.
Thelonious would get up and dance. Then me and my friend who babysat for Ben, we would get up and dance with them.
Max Gordon was the owner of the Vanguard. He said, “Look, you can’t dance with Mr. Monk. I’m going to have problems with the cabaret commission.” Because if you are dancing in this, it’s no longer a jazz club, it’s a dance hall, and he would have all kinds of difficult problems and get summoned by the City of New York.
We’re trying to dance, and Mr. Gordon is pulling at us all night, “You got to sit down.” And then Thelonious looked at us like we can’t muscle in on his act, and he continued dancing, and then he sat down. That was a pretty funny night seeing this little — Mr. Gordon was only about 5’2” or 5’3” yanking on me and trying to say, “Sit down and let everybody see the stage.”
COWEN: My other favorite jazz player, Sun Ra, what did you think of him?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, I thought Sun Ra was pretty incredible. While I was in college, he would play at another club in New York called Slugs’ Saloon. He would play on Monday nights. It was just him on Monday night, and you never knew what group he would show up with. He’d bring in different sidemen each time.
He was fascinating because he would play straight-ahead jazz and then go off into some very esoteric, ultramodern, bizarre kind of stuff. Think about the difference between cubism and Renoir, and that’s kind of the difference in some of the things that he put out there, but he was a brilliant pianist and a great performer.
COWEN: Let’s talk about Miles Davis just a bit. I find people play the album Kind of Blue too much. It’s a very good album, but it’s become like the Mona Lisa of jazz. You’ve heard, seen it so many times, it’s not that fresh anymore. What in your opinion is the most underappreciated or underrated Miles Davis album and why?
ABDUL-JABBAR: For me, the most under-appreciated one is Seven Steps to Heaven. And that shows, I think, Miles’ best group. There’s a big argument, what was Miles’ best group, the one that had Cannonball Adderley, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland or Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter?
People from both of those groups play on that one album, and all of the cuts are awesome, so I would say that that’s probably the best one that does not get very much attention.
COWEN: I like Fillmore East a lot, a kind of souped up Bitches Brew. Sketches of Spain, the whole Jack Johnson, that ambient period. There’s just a lot in the career of Miles Davis.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, yeah, and for me number two is Porgy and Bess.
COWEN: Sure, beautiful.
ABDUL-JABBAR: That is incredible, and I think just the whole collaboration of the Gershwins and other people of their ilk, with the Harlem Renaissance. Very interesting. If you read the stories of the Gershwins and their good friend Fats Waller, lots of laughs, and Fats had to go to jail a couple of times for some of the things the that he did.
For example, he would sell — Fats Waller was a great pianist and songwriter. If he would get a good song, he would sell it to one publishing company, and then later on that afternoon, he’d sell it to another publishing company, and then two days after that go find some other publishing companies to sell it to. He ended up in the hoosegow for that, but Fats had a very interesting life.
COWEN: Today, are jazz and rap merging into something useful, or is jazz just dead? Where is this all headed?
I know for a fact that jazz isn’t dead because it has taken on around the world — so many people around the world want to play jazz. You see jazz musicians now coming from all kinds of places that you would not think of like Azerbaijan and Indonesia and people that can sit down and play all of Duke Ellington’s repertoire.
There was an alto saxophonist from Azerbaijan that had all of Charlie Parker’s licks down — all of them. That’s all he had done. It’s incredible.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I know for a fact that jazz isn’t dead because it has taken on around the world — so many people around the world want to play jazz. You see jazz musicians now coming from all kinds of places that you would not think of like Azerbaijan and Indonesia and people that can sit down and play all of Duke Ellington’s repertoire.
There was an alto saxophonist from Azerbaijan that had all of Charlie Parker’s licks down — all of them. That’s all he had done. It’s incredible.
I think the fact that jazz has affected music around the world and there are still people who enjoy classical jazz will make it survive. The whole idea of prophets being strangers in their own country, I think, is more or less what has happened to jazz, but I don’t think it’s dead. I wouldn’t use that term.
On Harlem and Los Angeles
COWEN: You mentioned the Harlem Renaissance a moment ago. Of course, you’re from Harlem, and your father’s side originally from Trinidad. But if we think to the Harlem Renaissance, a lot of people know Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston but the lesser-known figures — you’ve written a great book on the Harlem Renaissance — as the years pass, of the lesser-known figures, who sticks with you as most underappreciated or passing a test of time or one that deserves and extra plug from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar today?
ABDUL-JABBAR: The one that I enjoy the most was Chester Himes, who wrote these crazy detective novels, but so enjoyable, about people that he felt typified people in Harlem. If any of you saw the movie Cotton Comes to Harlem, the original novel was written by Chester Himes.
He wrote these really crazy detective novels that make you laugh and make you wonder about what type of a place Harlem could be, and I’ve enjoyed those probably the most of all the things that I’ve read coming from the Harlem Renaissance.
COWEN: Harlem as a place. It’s very expensive now. It has a lot more retail. It’s changed a great deal, even the last 10 years, as I’ve gone a number of times. What do you think is the future of Harlem as a location, and has it remained the cultural beating heart of New York City? What’s it going to look like in 20 years’ time?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Harlem is gentrifying now, people who want to have a spacious apartment are combing Harlem right now as I speak, so they can live in Manhattan and still have some space.
I actually tried to move back to Harlem, and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t deal with the winter. You can tell I’ve become a Californian.
COWEN: We all can sympathize with that today.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I saw all the snow out here, so I know I did the right thing, but the whole ambiance of Harlem will change, just as the population changes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that we move on.
COWEN: Did Los Angeles, speaking of places, peak in the 1980s? Then Hollywood was a much bigger deal. Silicon Valley wasn’t so important. There was Michael Milken. Actually, this other thing called Showtime, which we know a little about.
Today, LA seems like it’s still a wonderful place to live, but less exciting, less culturally central. Would you agree with that description, or am I missing something?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think you’re missing something. I think it’s become more culturally relevant because the movie industry has had more or less a renaissance, and the whole idea of having a place where you can make movies completely is still very appealing.
It’s taken its own identity. It’s not just the place that you go after you leave San Francisco. Probably now you go to LA first and then go to San Francisco on your way home, so I think that Los Angeles is still a very vital and vibrant place.
On Mycroft Holmes
COWEN: Let’s take a few minutes and get to your book, Mycroft Holmes, which I enjoyed very much. I would recommend to you all. If you’ll oblige me, let me just speak for two or three minutes about how I read the book, and then you respond to that.
COWEN: If you look at the cover, here’s your name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and there’s the name of Mycroft Holmes. I think that’s on purpose. In a sense you are Mycroft Holmes. He was Sherlock’s older brother who collected information, knew more than Sherlock, had more information. He advised the British government.
In a sense, you’re coming out of not quite a retirement, but you’re Mycroft. You’ve been collecting information all this while. This book is like announcing the real Kareem is now here in the public, and the actual story of this book is you reimagining a world in some ways the way you would like it to be.
Mycroft goes off to solve a crime with this fellow Cyrus Douglas who is black and from Trinidad, and they do this as equals. So it’s a rewrite of colonial history. Your father’s family came from Trinidad. In the story, they go to Trinidad. At the end of the story, Cyrus — this is now in Victorian England — is actually allowed to enter the royal enclosure.
You look at page 60. There’s an apparently obscure reference to James Cowles Prichard. Who’s ever heard of him?
But, of course, in 1813, James Cowles Prichard, if you think about it just a bit, wrote a work which in Victorian England was considered the defining statement of the equality of the races and the unity of mankind. Not mentioned in your book, but, of course, Mycroft would know such a thing.
Finally, on page 10 of your book, we have Mycroft humming the tune of Figaro from Rossini, and anyone who knows even the slightest bit of information from your life knows you’ve been a fan of The Barber of Seville since high school.
Therefore, I conclude you’re Mycroft. This is your fantasy. This is the real Kareem. Mycroft and Cyrus are both you, and this is your coming out party saying “I really am a writer. I’m a novelist. Here’s the real me.” Yes or no?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Where do I begin? I think that I tend to be more Cyrus Douglas than Mycroft, and just my vision of their interaction is the fact that there was a lot of value in the colonies that the Victorian British did not appreciate.
In forming his friendship with Cyrus Douglas, Mycroft actually gets a glimpse at how the British colonial system has affected people for the good and the bad, and he has the courage to develop a friendship with a black person, which was frowned upon, really, by the British. But he can see, obviously, that it has no value, that gold is where you find it and golden people is where you find it.
I think that’s why their friendship is so strong because Mycroft appreciates the fact that Cyrus is a good person with a good moral center, and he accommodates him as a friend because of that.
Mycroft, being not necessarily well-to-do, but a British citizen with all of the wonderful parts of his life are coming up. He’s just recently graduated from Cambridge, and he has a beautiful fiancée, and he has a great job with the British Foreign Office, which has found him to be a very capable administrator. It’s all looking up for him, and then things start to happen.
I can’t tell you about that. You have to buy the book.
COWEN: It’s a very deep book. There’s much more in here, I think, than reviewers are picking up on.
COWEN: That’s one point I’d like to stress.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: Now, we have a segment of these chats. It’s called Overrated/Underrated. I go through some names, you tell me if you think that they’re overrated or underrated and if so why.
COWEN: First one: John le Carré, overrated or underrated?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think John le Carré, all the credit he gets he deserves. He’s an incredible author, and just his understanding of the Cold War enabled him to write these wonderful novels.
I’ve read most of these in the ’70s and ’80s, starting with — well, when I was in high school, we read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and then as an adult, I read everything that he’s written just about.
Really, he doesn’t get enough credit, I think. John le Carré actually was an operative for British intelligence. He worked in Germany, and he was betrayed by Kim Philby, who was the mole in — if you read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you know that there was a mole in the British foreign service. That actually happened, and John le Carré, his group was compromised by that, and they had to disappear out of Berlin and get back to England. Philby did a lot of damage to their network of espionage and intelligence people.
COWEN: Michael Jackson, not the man, but the music.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, I think Michael Jackson certainly deserves all the credit he got. He was an incredible performer. I knew Michael, not very well, but I knew Michael. On Sundays, a good friend of mine would take them to do normal things.
Their dad was this typical stage dad from hell who just wanted them to work and make all this money, but my friend just was very intense that they get to do some normal things.
On Sundays — this was while I was going to UCLA — he would take them to a gym, and we’d play basketball, and then he’d treat me to brunch. So it was a good deal for me, and I got to know the Jacksons. Great kids. It’s really tragic about Michael, but he certainly deserved all the credit he got.
COWEN: We know how close you were with Bruce Lee, but what about Jackie Chan?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Jackie Chan has done a great job. I think he’s an incredible actor. I think he has really continued the tradition of Bruce Lee in another way in that he has continued to make the martial arts popular and have kids realize that they too can be close to superheroes.
COWEN: Here’s a guy, I think he was from Harlem way back when. He’s called Earl “The Goat” Manigault, and he never really made it to the NBA, but many people claim that if he had, he would’ve just been a brilliant, fantastic player. You played pick-up games with him when you were a teenager, right?
COWEN: Overrated or underrated? How good could he have been?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Earl was overrated.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I’m not saying that because of envy. Earl couldn’t shoot the ball from beyond eight feet. He could leap out of the gym, but he couldn’t shoot the ball beyond eight feet, and he wasn’t interested in passing it. He wouldn’t make it very far on any team if you don’t want to pass the ball.
Earl [Manigault] couldn’t shoot the ball from beyond eight feet. He could leap out of the gym, but he couldn’t shoot the ball beyond eight feet, and he wasn’t interested in passing it. He wouldn’t make it very far on any team if you don’t want to pass the ball.
I don’t think Earl would’ve made it very far because he had to have the ball by himself. He was a one-on-one player. He didn’t understand the team game. That’s why I’m critical of Earl, but nice guy. He messed up his life with drugs, but tried to make up for it in the latter part of his life by being involved with the community projects that told kids to stay off of drugs.
I have a great deal of respect for the way he went out. He went out trying to do the right thing.
COWEN: Your most underrated game. I have a nomination. Going back to 1989, I still remember this game. The Lakers were playing against the Detroit Pistons.
Unfortunately, that was the year of the Pistons. It was your very last year in the NBA, but in game three, although you were down 2–0 coming back to the home court, you put up a spectacular performance with 28 points, 13 rebounds, played your heart out.
In my view, there’s something especially noble to a performance which in a way was maybe in a hopeless setting, but I’ve always admired that game of yours more than a lot of the victories. What’s your response, and how well do you remember that game?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I thank you for remembering that game. The problem that we had with the Pistons was when the series started, Magic Johnson got hurt and Byron Scott got hurt, and we had to play that series without our starting backcourt, so we got swept. Nothing you can do about that, but I didn’t want people to see me going out on a bum note, so I gave it my best effort.
On the skyhook’s obsolescence
COWEN: A few basketball questions. I know you’ve been asked this before, but I’d like to press on the details a bit. Your skyhook was unstoppable, pretty much. You’re the leading scorer in NBA history. You won a finals MVP award 14 years apart. That’s maybe your greatest record, actually. No one could stop it. My guess is no one today could stop it.
Very few players, if any, have really had a significant skyhook, and why don’t they learn it?
ABDUL-JABBAR: The reason that young kids today don’t learn how to shoot hook shots is because everybody is so enamored with the three-point shot. So the kids, they don’t want two points. They don’t want to work with their back to the basket. That’s not cool. They want to go out there in the stratosphere and shoot three-pointers.
I didn’t think that that worked. For the longest time, that did not work as solid basketball strategy. But now when we have a time — when you have people like Stephen Curry, who can shoot the ball, he can — I’ve never seen anybody shoot like that. I’ll give you an explanation.
They showed Stephan shooting 100 three-point shots in practice. He made 92 out of 100 from the three-point arc, including 77 in a row. This is just practicing. Anybody that can shoot like that is on a different plane from all the guys that I played against, and the people that I saw when I first started watching the game in 1960. I never seen anybody shoot the ball like that.
If that is the coming talent level of NBA players, they’re going to be forgetting a lot about the guys that played in my era and the earlier eras of the NBA because the talent level of the guys playing now has really risen.
But they’re not teaching the kids how to score in the paint with their back to the basket, and, therefore, a lot of them don’t get to learn the hook shot, and they don’t get to realize that if you get close to the basket, a lot more of your shots will go in. They don’t seem to understand that.
That was the first thing that I learned, and so I worked on that hook shot and learned how to get positioned close to the basket where I can get my hook shot off.
But they’re not teaching the kids how to score in the paint with their back to the basket, and, therefore, a lot of them don’t get to learn the hook shot, and they don’t get to realize that if you get close to the basket, a lot more of your shots will go in. They don’t seem to understand that.
COWEN: Let me push on this a bit. I recall reading in one of your memoirs that you took dance lessons early on, and when I watched you play — I was a kid, you were younger — I was always most impressed by your footwork. It seemed to me you had the very best footwork.
I read in one of your books that you practiced this footwork like crazy, for hours and hours and hours in seventh and eighth grade.
A lot of big guys aren’t going to shoot three-pointers no matter what — could the real answer be that your footwork was so good and you learned it so early, it’s just hard to do? People are doing slam dunks and other things, and you had this graceful footwork, and you combined that in this coordinated fashion with the reach, the angle, everything, and it’s just so hard to put that whole package together?
ABDUL-JABBAR: It’s not hard to put the package together, but you have to want to put it together. These guys that are playing today, they don’t want to. It takes too much time. They get pushed. They don’t like that. They want to be out there in the stratosphere shooting three-pointers, and it’s wonderful.
A lot of the games now deteriorate into a three-point shooting contest, and it’s really made a lot of people start to criticize the game because — just the other night, Kobe shot like 4 for 18 from three-point range.
COWEN: That was one of his better nights for this year, right?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Right, and the fans aren’t going to continue to enjoy that, but when you got someone like Stephen Curry who can shoot close to 50 percent from three-point range, that ends up being an advantage for his team.
COWEN: Do you blame the economic incentives behind the culture of celebrity or is it more of a moral failing or is it mix of the two?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think it has to do with just lotto fever. People want as much as they can get for as little effort. A three-point shot is worth 50 percent more than a shot from inside the three-point arc. There can be a strategy that says if you got people that can make those shots, it’s going to work to your advantage.
COWEN: You gave some instruction to Joakim Noah over the last year. He’s injured right now, I believe. Did you try to suggest he learn a skyhook?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I tried to show Joakim the skyhook, he wasn’t interested. I did show him some things that he could do defensively and how to help his team, and the next season after I’d worked with him he won Defensive Player of the Year.
I know I had some impact, and he thanked me, and I thank him for giving me the opportunity. It’s worked out pretty well.
It was going well with Andrew Bynum, but Andrew finally got to sign his contract for $50 million, and then at that point Andrew thought that I didn’t know anything and that he didn’t have to listen to me, and we don’t know where Andrew is right now.
COWEN: Economic incentive.
ABDUL-JABBAR: He’s only 27 years old this year, and he’s not playing in the NBA. He hasn’t played in a couple of years, and he’s not going to make it because he wasn’t able to follow through on really learning all the fundamentals.
I would make him do the fundamentals every day before practice, and he just thought it was boring, but now that he’s not getting paid like he was, I think he might have a different opinion about that, but it’s too late now.
COWEN: You’ve said in your other interviews that actually you applied the methods of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes to basketball — studying your opponents, seeing things which they didn’t, understanding their weak points, understanding how you could take advantage of them.
This Sherlock Holmes metaphor, you’ve carried that with you really since high school or maybe longer. Is that correct?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a rookie.
COWEN: Rookie in the NBA?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Rookie in the NBA. So, jeez, I realized that my power of observation could maybe enable me to get some knowledge that other people might miss out on, and I paid attention.
...Bob [Lanier] and the coach were nicotine fiends, and they’d go in the shower and smoke cigarettes at halftime.
I heard that, and I said, jeez, if he’s doing that — I realized that if I could get Bob to run a lot in the second half, he’d be in pain. And so I did.
The classic tale I tell about my powers of observation had to do — we had to play Detroit. They had Bob Lanier, a very fine center. And the ball boys, I overheard them talking about — they didn’t like going in the locker room after halftime because Bob and the coach were nicotine fiends, and they’d go in the shower and smoke cigarettes at halftime.
I heard that, and I said, jeez, if he’s doing that — I realized that if I could get Bob to run a lot in the second half, he’d be in pain. And so I did.
But just getting those little tidbits of information, they can open up doors for you that you might not appreciate.
On the culture of Islam
COWEN: Let me try a few questions about religion, and Islam in particular. If I think of Islam, this is what I see. I see a world where probably more people are deeply attached to Islam than to any other religion, so it has a great attraction. It seems to me economically it’s helped a great number of them.
In this country, if you look at statistics, Arab-Americans earn more than the national average. Admittedly, they’re not all Muslims, but still. Theologically, a lot of it makes a great deal of sense to me — more than Christianity. There’s intensity of yearning in the aesthetic and the notion of the great distance between God and man makes sense to me.
It’s in some ways pretty individualistic. It’s highly cosmopolitan, and it doesn’t, in most cases, rely too much on a centralized clergy. That said, it’s striking how few Americans have converted to Islam, and you have.
Given these favorable features of Islam, what do you think first is the cultural disconnect between the United States and Islam — and this is even pre-9/11, right, that won’t really explain it — and how have you personally managed to bridge that?
I know that’s sort of a mouthful, but do you see what I’m getting at?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I do see what you’re getting at. What I see is the fact that in Western Europe they had the Enlightenment where people realized that the Inquisition was not the way to go. Burning people at the stake and torturing them and taking their property because they did not share the same religious beliefs as you did was unjust and not what Jesus of Nazareth taught his followers.
The Muslim world has not had any opportunity to have an enlightenment. They went from the time of the Prophet, which was seen as the ideal time, to despots. Kings and military rulers are the norm in the countries that are majority Muslim.
Fair governance, not being able to arrest somebody without charges, that’s a given in the Western world. In the Islamic world, that wasn’t the case. If Nasser didn’t like you, you were going to jail despite the fact that you hadn’t broken any laws or committed any crimes. And that goes again and again for most of the states that are majority Muslim.
They really haven’t had the opportunity to have an enlightenment. At a certain point, the people in Europe decided they weren’t going to burn people who they considered to be heretics. They would have a just way to deal with it.
In America, we figured it out by separating church and state — the ideal situation — to have people, to let them have their own moral center and let them believe whatever they wanted to believe about their moral and spiritual center. We have a set of laws that everybody has to respect and obey that enable everyone to have equal opportunity. That should be it.
COWEN: So your vision of Islam has separation of church and state as an ideal?
ABDUL-JABBAR: It would.
COWEN: If we ask the kind of political economy question — this is my worry, and I hope I’m not — now, there’s so many incorrect or just lies said in the media. If I look at even the Muslim democracies around the world — take Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, which are not hotbeds of terror — they’re what you’d call normal countries. But there seems to be some problem they’ve had separating state and religion. Do you think there’s a tension between the doctrines of Islam themselves and the desire to separate state and religion?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, no. I think that has to do with the distribution of wealth.
ABDUL-JABBAR: All those countries that you mentioned have a lot of mineral wealth, oil mainly, but some other mineral wealth, and the people who are in charge of the state want to keep a hold of the wealth. They don’t necessarily care about the morality or the laws. They just want to keep control of the wealth. The man who ruled Indonesia for so long, Suharto, he had billions in the bank.
This corruption is endemic in the Islamic world, and the people in charge in the Islamic world say, “Well, we try to rule justly,” but it’s not. The family of the ruling party or the ruling clique, whatever it is, they get the priority on goods, services, and resources. Everybody else can go to hell.
That is really what the problem is in the Islamic world. There isn’t a real democratic distribution of wealth, and there isn’t a real equality of opportunity. The way they think — .
COWEN: They have a kind of segregation problem, right?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Right. The Koran is the first of the books to guarantee women the right to divorce, the right to own property and to be in business, and, as you can see in the Arab world, that’s the first thing that they got rid of.
The way that Islam is interpreted in all of those countries really goes contrary to a lot of what the Prophet said was the way to practice Islam, and it is for that reason that it comes across so bizarrely, where people say, “Oh, we have this beautiful religion of Islam, but, yeah, we have a lot of political prisoners. Don’t worry about them.”
They go hand-in-hand, and the fact that you can be unjust on that level but say that Islam is beautiful and wonderful is total hypocrisy. That’s a very unfortunate thing, but that’s what has happened.
COWEN: You’ve written that when you were young, you used to visit the Cloisters in New York.
COWEN: Medieval art, a lot of it was religious. In some way, you must find Islam, Islamic art — you’ve collected Persian carpets — more beautiful. I know this is hard to express, but is there a way you could try to articulate for us, probably most people in this audience not being Muslims, but your take on what is more beautiful that you would like to carry to all of the listeners?
How would you put that? What has it meant to you?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, OK. I think in Islam, because you can’t depict people or animals, they put all their artistic expression into architecture and abstract art. So in the Islamic world, buildings and books, et cetera, they are developed — the carpets are developed — it’s an interesting thing the Prophet said that depictions of humans in carpets are OK because we walk on them, and we’re not showing that are worshiping the pictures in the carpets because we walk on them with our feet.
There is leeway there and ways of interpreting what the Prophet had to say in ways that are logical and make sense for a modern society, but because of the corruption that I talked about earlier, the people who rule in the Islamic world, they don’t care about that. They just want to hold onto political and military power and all the money.
That type of corruption has led to the really bizarre and undemocratic states that we see that populate the Muslim world.
COWEN: Are you a long-term optimist about this situation?
ABDUL-JABBAR: As a young man, I was very optimistic about it. I’m not that optimistic about it now. It seems to be entrenched. Look at what’s happening in Syria. The Assad family, they’re not going to give up power. The only way that they will be removed from power is through military means. That’s not the way things are supposed to be going.
COWEN: Put aside the Middle East. Obviously huge problems. Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, for that matter, have a pretty big share of the world’s Muslims. They have their share of problems but they don’t have those problems, right?
COWEN: Are you an optimist about those countries and the role of Islam in helping those countries develop constructively?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I’m more optimistic about those countries because they have a history of dealing with a lot of diverse beliefs. In Nigeria you have people who worship idols and stuff. You have Muslims. They get along together. They don’t say, “Well, jeez. You don’t think like I think. I think I’ve got to kill you.”
Until all this Boko Haram. These are, again, terrorists.
I think that it will continue to be like that. The one country that I saw after what they call the Arab Spring — Tunisia. Tunisia has managed to make a move to democracy that’s for real.
Wow, that’s the only country that made it that far, but you notice they don’t have a lot of oil. They’re not trying to plot on each other. Next door in Libya it’s insane, just greed and avarice have really affected their mindset to the point where they can’t do anything rational.
COWEN: If there is an Islamic enlightenment in our future, do you think it will come from the US and the UK or from where?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think it will come from the West. It won’t come from the places that I mentioned that are run by despots.
COWEN: What do you think, most generally, is the role of American or British Muslims in the Islamic world with respect to that? How do you view your own work and commentary getting into that?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think it’s our job to show what Islam actually is. I’m happy about certain things that happened. I’m just talking about Southern California now. A number of the Islamic organizations have gotten together.
They’ve gone on drives for charity. They’ve opened up homeless shelters and done things to show that they care about America, they can appreciate the way America functions, and it’s OK with them. As a Muslim, we have to show that we can get along with everybody.
That’s not happening, unfortunately, in the other parts of the world. Here in America and Great Britain, as you mentioned, they can see how democracy works, and see that it can work.
I was cultural ambassador for Secretary of State Clinton, and they sent me to Brazil. The people in Brazil were amazed that Barack Obama could be elected president. They said a black American could never be elected president, and we elected Barack Obama president. That gave them a different idea about what democracy actually could do and achieve in their country, in Brazil.
Brazil is trying to make an effort to be more inclusive. The wealth is unevenly distributed between whites and black Brazilians. They want to change that. They want to educate the minorities and the black people in Brazil and bring them into the economy, because that will open up society to everybody.
These problems aren’t necessarily exclusively coming from Islamic countries. All over the world, corruption and dishonesty by the ruling parties have made things more difficult.
COWEN: Let me try a question integrating religion and politics. As a Muslim, you must, in some ways, be a social conservative. I’m not saying the same way Jerry Falwell is, but in some ways, a social conservative.
You’ve in some regards spoken out on behalf of Bernie Sanders, I think mostly on economic issues. But the Democratic Party, it’s mostly social liberals.
Do you ever just wake up and feel that somehow there is no place you belong intellectually, and is this despairing, liberating, or what? Do you ever have these thoughts?
ABDUL-JABBAR: No. I don’t have them, because within my own heart, I’m at peace with myself and how I’ve lived my life. I’ve tried to live it morally, but as far as Islamic communities are concerned, we’ve got work to do. It’s pretty simple, but all communities, really, have work to do.
It’s not just Muslims. All of us — Muslim, Christian, Jew, or agnostic — we have work to do, because our Constitution and our traditions require that.
On movies, acting, and fighting Bruce Lee
COWEN: Other than the movies you’re in, which I love, by the way, what’s your favorite movie, and why?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, jeez. Why would you ask me that?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I’m a big movie fan, so just the classic movies, The Maltese Falcon, I totally enjoy that. I can continue, Shane, The Shootist, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
COWEN: This is all consistent with Chester Himes, too, right?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Yes. I liked reading Cotton Comes to Harlem, I didn’t like the movie.
That’s tough. You’d have to give me different genres and stuff and let me go through it. I enjoy movies very much and hopefully will get Mycroft done as a movie.
COWEN: When you’re there in Game of Death, and you’re sitting in that chair — different than this chair, I might add, and Bruce Lee is approaching, and you’re just sitting there. Of course you remember the scene, what are you thinking?
ABDUL-JABBAR: We’ve got to get the timing right, because we don’t want to shoot this again.
COWEN: How long did it take to do that scene? It’s about, what, 17 minutes?
COWEN: Sheer perfection.
ABDUL-JABBAR: It took us about a day.
COWEN: It took you a day?
ABDUL-JABBAR: They work very quickly in Hong Kong. We shot it in Hong Kong, and they work very quickly in Hong Kong, because they don’t do audio. It was so noisy in Hong Kong during the time that the British ran the place, that there was always traffic noise and people in the street 24/7.
They would do the audio portion of any movies that they made in studio with the actors talking into microphones so that they could get all the words to appear on the screen. Then they’d do the sound effects separately also.
COWEN: What did Bruce learn having to fight against you?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Bruce learned that it’s hard fighting somebody with long arms.
COWEN: Bruce was what, 5’7”, 5’8”?
ABDUL-JABBAR: He was 5’8”, yeah, about 155 pounds.
COWEN: What did you learn having to fight against Bruce?
ABDUL-JABBAR: That there are some very tough guys at 155 pounds.
ABDUL-JABBAR: What you learn is you can’t have a preconceived idea of what is ideal for you as a martial artist. You have to go and experience some of the different martial arts and take from them what you can that works for you personally. I think that is the way people train now.
The Ultimate Fighting really is how Bruce trained, very eclectically, taking techniques and ideas from any of the different martial arts and using them. Bruce Lee thought that Sugar Ray Robinson was the best boxer that he ever saw. I would have to agree with that.
COWEN: Bruce taught you. You taught Bruce some things. John Wooden taught you. You’ve taught Joakim Noah. You’ve written a whole book about your experience teaching Native Americans basketball, but not just basketball, really teaching them life and many other things.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I try.
COWEN: Education has been a major theme in your career. You finished UCLA. Throughout your life have done very well. What is it you think you’ve learned about education — we’re here at a university — that you get and we don’t, that you would like to tell us?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve gotten everything. I certainly would not have the nerve to think that everybody here doesn’t get something that I got.
I just try to tell people that knowledge is power. You’ve got to accumulate as much power as you can. That requires that you go to the library and that you read and experience life in ways that enable you to use that power.
COWEN: If you look back on your life, all the different things you’ve done, and you had to sum up, what’s the underlying unity in all the different phases of your career — hanging out with jazz musicians as a kid, listening to racine, playing with John Wooden, winning so many NBA titles, MVP awards, writing, I think, 11 books.
Having been in a number of very successful movies, having made a few movies yourself as executive producer and being in them, other things I haven’t mentioned, your Time column, being on Twitter, working with Hilary Clinton.
There’s actually still much more, but if you had to try to sum all that up in terms of the unity, how that all ties into the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar philosophy, how would you put it?
ABDUL-JABBAR: [laughs] I would have to say that, stealing this from somebody that I can’t remember the quote I’m stealing — life is short, but it’s very wide. Try to get into the width of it and experience as many things as you can, and maybe you’ll learn a few things.
COWEN: Kareem, thank you very much. We appreciate it.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, Kareem. Thanks for coming, that was fascinating.
I was wondering, do you think NCAA athletes should be paid for the value they create for the universities? Do you see that ever happening?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I definitely think NCAA athletes should be paid. I think it will happen. I just remember someone explaining to me how much money UCLA made by the fact that I was there and we won three consecutive NCAA championships.
He asked me, “How much of that money did you get?”
I said, “None.”
He said, “You’ve got to think about that.”
That hasn’t changed. I think it should change because they’re just exploiting the athletes. There’s a way that they can be equitable about paying the athletes. Taking what they take by providing a platform, but I think the athletes should be paid.
They should be guaranteed, at least if they go to a college on scholarship they should be guaranteed the fact that they can continue at that school until they graduate.
I think that is the minimum that they should get. I think they should be given a stipend. It’s not like we’re going to make them rich, but give them the money to live on so that they can have a life.
I was going to UCLA. I couldn’t work in the off-season or anything like that in ways that the NCAA prescribed. Someone on an academic scholarship or the guys in the band, they could go and work. It wasn’t equitable.
I think they should think about a way to not exploit the athletes and give them the opportunity to be comfortable while they go to college.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you for your contributions. My question is, has anybody approached you about doing your life story in a movie since we were talking about movies earlier?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Just in November on HBO a documentary on my life story was done. It’s called Kareem: Minority of One. You can go on HBO online and you can see it. It’s been done already.
COWEN: Yes, over here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thanks a lot, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar. Thank you especially for portions of your collection that made its way to Schomburg more than a dozen or so years ago. I thoroughly, thoroughly appreciated it.
Assuming it’s been asked already, pardon me, I came through hell and high snow to get here. How does it feel to be on the verge of being noted more for being a historian and archivist of Af-Am material than a legendary NBA player? Thanks.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I’m very pleased that I have been able to be successful in a way that enables me to be considered in the way that you just mentioned. That people would see me as a historian and commentator on life here in America.
That’s why I went to UCLA, really, to get my education, to have that foundation in my life. It’s the reason that I went to college. I guess that’s the reason why I’m here tonight.
Thank you for your question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you tell us about your relationship with Coach John Wooden and how it changed in later years, if it did?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I can’t give Coach Wooden enough credit for the example that he set in terms of integrity and living a moral life. He was totally committed to his Christian faith and in teaching young men about basketball that would enable them to learn about how to be good citizens.
He wanted us to be good citizens. He wanted us to be good parents. He wanted us to be good husbands and get our degrees. That was his primary focus.
If you go to all of the NCAA Division I coaches today, many of them would give up an arm, a leg, or a favorite child to win the NCAA tournament. I’m convinced of that, definitely. But Coach Wooden wasn’t into that. His primary focus was that we’d learn a few things and then if we did well in the NCAA tournament that was OK.
He had his priorities right. He taught us in that way. Those of us who understand that have benefited greatly.
I think his graduation rate was in the 60th percentile. Sixty percent of the guys that played for Coach Wooden got their degrees and graduated from UCLA. That’s pretty amazing. The average for most Division I colleges is in the single digits.
Sixty percent of the guys that played for Coach Wooden got their degrees and graduated from UCLA. That’s pretty amazing. The average for most Division I colleges is in the single digits.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You’ve been a hero to lots of kids growing up. I’m curious about who your heroes have been throughout your life.
A second question if you don’t mind. I do recall, I think, that Dr. J actually did block the skyhook once. Is that correct?
ABDUL-JABBAR: No, Dr. J didn’t do that.
ABDUL-JABBAR: He did his own thing where he didn’t come back down and touch the ground for what seemed to be an inordinate length of time. No, Dr. J didn’t shoot the skyhook.
What was the first part of your question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Who have your heroes been?
ABDUL-JABBAR: My heroes. Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Wild Bill Hickok, and W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Dr. King.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you very much for being here. Thank you for bringing up Game of Death, one of my favorite movies of all time.
My question is if you could tell me a little bit about your friendship with Bruce Lee. And a second question, Bruce was only able to beat you because of a weakness you had in the movie. In a fair fight, do you think you could take him?
ABDUL-JABBAR: In a fair fight I wouldn’t have any issues with Bruce. I don’t think we would ever get to a fair fight.
I gave him a lot of problems when we worked out because my arms are so long. I was agile enough to move and avoid him a little bit. We never had any arguments that would engender a fair fight. Thank goodness for that.
I got to meet Bruce because I started studying martial arts while I was in college. I wanted to continue after I left New York and went back to school at UCLA. Somebody introduced me to Bruce. We developed a friendship. That’s how our friendship evolved.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you very much.
ABDUL-JABBAR: You’re welcome.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Kareem, congratulations. We the people have just elected you president of the United States of America.
It is now your first 100 days in office and you are given the following list of potential priorities, including providing universal health care, addressing global terrorism, fixing our public education system, fixing our crumbling infrastructure, simplifying the tax code, and addressing global climate change. Which of those would you prioritize and why?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, let’s see, you just mentioned six issues that have stumped the US Congress and President Obama. I don’t see how I could figure out a way through all of that. All those issues are crucial to what the future of the human race is going to be about.
Earlier today somebody complained about the snowfall, and I said, “That’s what we get for letting all these people in India burn coal.” That’s a fact. How do we influence the state of India? It’s very difficult, probably impossible.
We just have to try to figure out some ways to deal with those issues and hope that we get a chance to get some leverage on them because they will absolutely affect the quality of life on Earth for all human beings going into the future.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you for being here today. In your book On the Shoulders of Giants, you say that if you were not a professional basketball player you wanted to be a history teacher.
I am a high school history teacher, and if I were to walk in my classroom and say, “Hey, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told me personally to tell you that history is important because — ,” what kind of advice would you have? What would you say to them?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I would say to them that, unless they understand history — and I’m stealing again — they will be condemned to repeating it, which hasn’t gone that well for most human beings. They should understand that and try not to repeat the mistakes of people that have gone before us. That’s what that’s all about.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Twenty years ago ESPN anchors did a spoof of people singing for charity in a song called “Don’t Walk” — this is on YouTube today in case anybody hasn’t seen it — in which they claimed that players in the NBA were traveling and officials weren’t calling it.
It was a plea for NBA players to voluntarily not travel. There was a line in this 60-second song that said, “It started with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I just wondered how you would plead to that charge.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I plead not guilty to that. Very few times I got called for walking because I didn’t get to handle the ball much. They gave me the ball, and it was time to score.
[laughter and applause]
ABDUL-JABBAR: As far as my assignment, my assignment was to score. I am the all-time leading scorer of the NBA.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think I got my job done anyway.
COWEN: They didn’t count blocked shots until 1987, but I wonder how many you would have.
ABDUL-JABBAR: No, it was 1973. Yeah, ’73. My first four years in the NBA they didn’t count blocked shots as a statistic, but they missed all of Bill Russell’s.
They missed four years of mine. They missed all of Bill Russell’s, and he dominated the league. They won 11 NBA championships in 13 years with Bill Russell as center. We don’t know how many shots he blocked, but he dominated the game.
There’s a thing on YouTube. It’s called Block Art, Bill Russell. If you go to YouTube, Block Art, Bill Russell, you’ll see.
He just terrorized the league. No one could shoot near the basket. He would block their shots near the basket and get all the defensive rebounds — he was a very superior rebounder — and pass it out for the Celtic fast break, which was the way they primarily attacked the rest of the league.
Of his 13 years in the NBA, they only didn’t win the World Championship only twice — 11 World Championships and two losses. I think Bill Russell certainly is not acknowledged for what he did because of the way they kept statistics.
So I don’t complain about those four years. Still, when I retired, I was the all-time leader in blocked shots. I think Dikembe and Olajuwon have passed me in statistics. If they added my first four years, probably they wouldn’t have done that. I don’t care about that. I had a wonderful career, and I don’t sit up at night and say, “God damn it, they didn’t — .”
ABDUL-JABBAR: I’m not worried about it.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have two quick questions. One is, who has had a better career, Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan? The other question is, do you think Dirk Nowitzki’s one-foot fadeaway is the most unblockable shot since the skyhook?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think Kobe — what was that you asked me about Kobe?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Who’s had a better career, Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Jeez, I would say that Tim Duncan has had a better career just because they’ve been able to win more consistently, and they didn’t have to rely on Tim all the time.
Kobe has worn his body out. He’s only like 36 years old, and he’s worn his body out. It’s falling apart because of the stress that he had to do just taking on the load that he did, but he wanted to do it that way. That was that. The second part?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Has there been an unstoppable move in the NBA since the skyhook? And I bring up Dirk’s fadeaway.
ABDUL-JABBAR: You asked about Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk Nowitzki’s shot is very hard to block, but I don’t think that he was able to have a dominant career because he couldn’t do other things. If he could have shot like that and rebounded and played defense and blocked shots, then he would have been all-around, and he would have gotten more credit. He was like a one-trick pony.
You want guys that can shoot like that on your team. I’m not saying that he lacked value, but he would have been considered at a higher level if he had done more on the court other than just shoot the ball.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Two quick questions. My favorite coach right now is Gregg Popovich. Would you say he’s the best coach in the NBA?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Got to go with Gregg. He gets his team to play well most consistently of all the coaches that I’ve seen out there. I would give him credit, just the consistency.
Plus, you’ve got to give their front office credit for looking for players that fit into the system — players that can play defense and don’t mind passing the ball. That’s very important. If you can’t get players that have that attitude, it takes a while before they can buy into the team concept.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Second, I was just wondering, what are your thoughts on affirmative action, how it started, how it’s progressed since then, and would you keep it going today?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think affirmative action has done a lot of good. It’s been abused sometimes, but, for the most part, it has done good, especially for minorities and women. It’s given them the opportunity to get a foot in the door.
I think people who don’t like to compete against minorities and women do the complaining, because prior to that point they had priority. Now that the gates are wide open for anybody who can be successful, people want to try to eliminate women and minorities just because they feel they’re missing out on something. I don’t agree with that. Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Wooden produced a lot of great basketball players at UCLA, obviously, but it would seem to me that not very many of those great players went on to be great coaches. Do you agree with that, and can you offer an explanation?
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think that the reason that a whole lot of great coaches haven’t come out of UCLA is the guys aren’t interested in coaching. The only one I know of that went on to coach is Brad Holland who played with us in 1980. He ended up coaching at University of San Diego. None of the guys have had an interest in coaching. There’s not much there.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Wooden produced too well-rounded of a person?
ABDUL-JABBAR: You’re probably right. I’m thinking that you’re right, yes.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Salaam-alaikum.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I wanted to know whether you ever had the opportunity to meet with Warith Deen Mohammed and if you had any recollections or impressions that you would share.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Meet with who?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Warith Deen Mohammed, the heir to the Nation of Islam after the death of Elijah Muhammad who brought him into orthodox Islam.
ABDUL-JABBAR: No, I haven’t. I haven’t had a chance to meet him. I don’t know those people.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: We already addressed paying athletes in the NCAA, but I’m curious what you think about the one-and-done rule.
As the D-League develops and gets deeper and a more thorough system like baseball’s minor league system, is there room to maybe change to giving kids the option if they want to come straight out of high school again or wait three years like the MLB draft does?
What would you do with the one-and-done rule right now? Do you think maybe in the future there’s a better option?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Which question do you want me to answer?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What do you think of the one-and-done rule? Do you think there’s a better solution?
ABDUL-JABBAR: The one-and-done rule stinks. It’s bad for the game of basketball in college, because all the talent doesn’t stay there. It’s bad for the pro game, because the guys coming out of college that have done one-and-done are arrogant and think that they are prima donnas.
They don’t think that they’re prima donnas. They don’t realize they’re prima donnas. They expect that they’re just going to be handed a job. They come in and try to dominate, and they’re not able to do that. I don’t think it’s good for the game or for the individuals.
The D-League is a good idea. I think it could all be solved if the Players Association and the NBA raised the age of entry into the NBA to 21. Then that means that some kid in high school isn’t thinking, “I’m going into the NBA in two or three years, and I’m going to get all this money,” because it really corrupts their work ethic and their humility. It’s not good. I just haven’t seen anything good come from it.
COWEN: Two more minutes, one more question. Last question please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you, once again, for coming, Kareem. We’ve covered a myriad number of questions and categories. What I’d like to know is when is the last time you had roti and listened to Mighty Sparrow.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Mighty Sparrow, he’s a hero in my house. I had some roti last month.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I eat roti all the time. But the Jamaican restaurant in LA closed. I’ve got to find another one, but I still sneak around and try and make sure I keep my roots foremost in my sights. Thank you for your question.
COWEN: I’m very happy we closed on Trinidad and the Caribbean. Kareem, thank you again.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Thank you.