In 1964, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was already a superstar. All of New York knew his name, at the time Lew Alcindor, for his accomplishments at Power Memorial Academy which had transcended the walls of Lincoln Square. A 17-year-old player taller than 7-feet, he would win 71 consecutive games in high school with a record of 79-2 in three years and tally more than 2,000 points and 2,000 rebounds. While everyone saw a dominating presence who possessed skills that were never before seen before by someone of his size, Abdul-Jabbar wanted to go beyond making an impact in-between the lines of the basketball court.
Born and raised in Harlem, Abdul-Jabbar understood the harshness of the streets and the glass ceiling that was typically placed on people growing up in his home area. From the window of his home in the Dyckman Projects, he was becoming aware of the world around him and the injustices that took place there. For that reason, Abdul-Jabbar tried to learn everything he could about Black history and how he could make an impact.
After his final high school season, Abdul-Jabbar joined the summer program of the HARYOU (Harlem Youth Action Project), a public anti-poverty action program designed by New York City to keep children off the streets, but also, educated those same children on their cultural heritage. This platform argued that the key to crime prevention was to empower Black youth, providing them with job opportunities as well as making their communities more aware of their origins and history. Kareem spent the summer program as a journalist in charge of covering the events and current affairs of the program that regularly brought in special guests from the hand of its director, John Henrik Clarke.
In June, Abdul-Jabbar would cover an event for the Martin Luther King Jr. program. A figure that originally raised questions in young Kareem, mainly because he had grown up in Harlem where Malcolm X was preached, Abdul-Jabbar was closest to the ideas and practices of the Nebraska-born politician. However, the future NBA Hall of Famer taking part in Dr. King's press conference would forever change the way he saw the world, beginning to understand MLK's point of view. "He encouraged us to imagine a better Harlem and, beyond Harlem, a better America," Kareem wrote years later.
At the age of 17, Abdul-Jabbar not only had the opportunity to attend Dr. King's press conference, but also the chance to ask the historical figure a question. There, surrounded by the entire national media, the person who would shape the NBA for the next 20 years would ask the leading civil rights activist the following question: "What do you think about the importance of Dr. Clarke's program to the people of Harlem?"
The future Nobel Peace Prize winner responded by assuring that the HARYOU program was already a success for the community. "From that day on, I understood what I had to do with my life. I knew it had to be something that would affect the African American community in a positive way," Kareem recounted in his book On the Shoulder of Giants.
That one small interaction had a major impact on the character of Abdul-Jabbar, who became well-aware of the importance of fighting for change against social and racial injustices. "I admired (MLK) for his courage in advocating for change through non-violence, a stance that is rarely popular with people who have been denied equal opportunities for long periods of time," the centre said. "Yet he remained true to his convictions, in the face of jail, in the face of doubts within his own organization, in the face of ridicule from other African Americans. And the wisdom of his leadership has been demonstrated by the success of the Civil Rights Movement.
"Just have that contact with him and realizing what he is all about helped motivate me," Abdul-Jabbar continued. "I put it all together in that moment. I understood what my community was about."
From that one press conference, Abdul-Jabbar's activism grew little by little as he continued to learn and became more involved with the movement. On July 18, 1964, he had escaped a police charge in Harlem that could have ended poorly. After high school, Abdul-Jabbar attended UCLA to play basketball, where he also elevated his place as an activist, becoming one of the most recognizable figures in American sports that was part of the Civil Rights Movement. In college, Abdul-Jabbar played a role in the wave of university activism that protested to demand fair treatment of African American athletes and other Black students.
His relevance within the always complicated world of sports activism led him to take part in one of the most iconic moments in the history of American pro sports. In 1967, the country was extremely divided as segregation was still very present in many areas and the recruitment for the Vietnam War was underway. One of the hundreds of people that would be called upon to serve their country would be Muhammad Ali, who refused his recruitment, which cost him his title as World Champion and his competitive boxing license.
To support Ali, in May of 1967, NFL superstar and Cleveland Browns' running back Jim Brown organized an event at the Negro Industrial Economic Union - a corporation for Black empowerment founded by Brown himself - where important faces of professional sport met: Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, Walter Beach, Sid Williams, Jim Shorter of the NFL's Browns, Bobby Mitchell of the Washington Football Team, Curtis McClinton of the Chiefs and Will Davis of the Packers.
And, of course, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"In my 20s, I was the youngest and least experienced member of what came to be called 'The Cleveland Summit'," Kareem told SLAM Magazine. "Ali was only 25 years old and had to make the most important decision of his life. We vigorously debated Ali's sincerity and commitment (some of our group were ex-military), but in the end, we all decided to support Ali. Witnessing Ali's unwavering integrity was a turning point for me."
Ali's influence on Abdul-Jabbar would eventually lead him to decline an opportunity to play in the 1968 Olympics, as well as his decision to convert to Islam years later, just after his rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks. "Because of my talent on the basketball court, people tended to avoid getting me involved in any conflict if they could help it," he told Sports Illustrated.
From that moment on, the public perception of Abdul-Jabbar would change considerably, since then offering himself a more serious stance, being blunt in his public statements and taking advantage of any opportunity to fight against racism and inequality.
"I know it came at a price. But being able to have an identity that is in harmony with who I am, what my ancestry is about and what my moral and political feelings are, that was the most important thing," Kareem said in 2017. "That's one of the wonderful things about life in America. We can all define ourselves and have the freedom to speak our minds and pursue the things that make us feel whole and make us feel useful."
Abdul-Jabbar has always maintained his social commitment to multiple causes, especially after retirement from the NBA. His books, words and articles laid the groundwork for other athletes to feel supported and confident enough to speak freely about any injustice. The example set by Abdul-Jabbar from the beginning of his career as an athlete to the present is one of the most important parts of his legacy, even more than the legacy he left on the court. More than the skyhook. More than his league-record 38,387 points.
Abdul-Jabbar is a figure to respect for his determination to defend his cause - a cause that was elevated by the inspiration of the moment he attended Martin Luther King's press conference. "I got a lot of criticism for being an activist because, as LeBron was told, I had to focus on being quiet and playing (in reference to "shut up and dribble")," Kareem said in 2018. "That stupid mentality was also directed at me when I had things to say. But LeBron spoke and so did I, and people like us will continue to speak up."
"The legacy of Luther King is about leadership and vision," he told CBS. "He was one of the first people I was able to interview, it is something that marks your life, it has a profound effect. That allowed me to know better what he was doing and how he was doing it. Dr. King was a leader. And what he represents for America is very deep because we are still trying to get to the point of getting all the things that he envisioned."
Kareem Abdul Jabbar paved the way so others with the same passion could follow. Without him, we may not have gotten to a point where NBA players are able to stop games and say 'enough is enough' in the face of injustice, to incentivize voting in communities and get more people in society involved in trying to make a change. A career dedicated to raising awareness, using basketball as a platform to project his message.
Abdul-Jabbar was a pioneer in the NBA and an inspiration - one of the most important figures of our time.
The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.