Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Latest Win Is for Teens

The living legend pens a contemplative look at basketball, family, and systemic racism.

Photo by John Russo

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likely needs no introduction. In his latest book, Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court (Little, Brown, Nov. 2017; Gr 7 Up), he richly chronicles his youth and rise to basketball stardom. SLJ recently caught up with Abdul-Jabbar to discuss Becoming Kareem and current events in the world of sports. Why write your life story now? My coming-of-age story is especially appropriate at this time in our cultural development because we have so many diverse groups that don’t fit neatly into the traditional ethnic or gender identity slots. They feel like outsiders because they are LGBTQ or Muslim or some other nonmainstream group. That’s exactly how I felt growing up as one of the few blacks in my school during the rise of the civil rights movement. Plus, I was freakishly tall, gangly, and a bookworm. My story isn’t about overcoming differences that can isolate you; it’s about embracing those differences and becoming the best version of yourself. Much of the narrative is dedicated to idea of the family. One of the most important discoveries kids make while growing up is that they don’t just have the families they are born into—they also can pick friends and mentors that are an extended family. Those people we choose to share our lives with, whether as fellow travelers or as guides, help create the people we become. Those relationships aren’t always smooth, and our guides aren’t always right. My book details some amazing mentors, such as Coach Wooden, who was my teacher and then friend for 50 years. But it also acknowledges disagreements when a person has to choose a path against the advice of mentors. A teacher is most proud when the student doesn’t need him anymore. How does the criticism you encountered after announcing your conversion to Islam compare with recent backlash against athletes such as Colin Kaepernick? In both cases, mainstream America reacted to what they felt was disrespect to their beliefs and their way of life, which is completely wrong. My conversion to Islam wasn’t a criticism of their religion; it was me wanting to be closer to the culture of my African ancestors rather than to those who had kidnapped and enslaved them. Colin isn’t disrespecting the United States; he’s communicating his frustration that our ideals don’t match our actions. Our Constitution expresses the most humane and enlightened ideals about equality and social justice, yet our institutions—from the police to the government to the schools—don’t always advance those ideals. When they don’t, our country suffers in general, but millions of oppressed children are denied the same opportunities as others. Most students identify athletes as role models. Polls show that professional athletes are among the top figures whom kids admire and emulate, so there is a tremendous responsibility that comes with being in that position. That’s a tough burden for many athletes, who are barely past being kids themselves. It requires a learning curve during which they have to temper their behavior while adjusting to the fact that everything they do is probably being monitored by someone with a cell phone camera and instant Internet access. But what hasn’t changed is that people love to watch athletes do amazing things with their bodies. It inspires us all to push ourselves, not just in physical ways. And when these same athletes demonstrate kindness, compassion, dedication to the community, and political commitment, they have earned the right to be role models. You discuss being a teenager and the curse of being told to wait for justice, for racism to end. What advice do you have for readers who may be hearing the very same thing today? Every oppressed group in history has been told by the oppressors to wait. Be patient. Your turn will come. Today the problem is that too many people don’t realize there is inequality because it doesn’t affect them directly. We had a black president, so they think racism has disappeared from America. The Trump Administration has made racism fashionable again. Racism is embedded in our social institutions: voter IDs to prevent minorities from voting, gerrymandering to minimize minority impact in elections, education that favors wealthy over poor, job opportunities, treatment by the judicial system, and so on. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Malcolm X: “You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress.” But I am encouraged by the many people of good will who are determined to make the United States the country the Constitution wants it to be.

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