Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proud of new NBA Social Justice Champion award, but fears US still faces ‘same issues’

Other than that, Abdul-Jabbar had his eyes set on a very different prize: using his platform to highlight the importance of social issues and the need for reform.

In recognition of his activism – for example in 2009, he founded the Skyhook Foundation to connect disadvantaged youth to opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math – the NBA founded the award. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion.

This new annual honor will recognize a current NBA player for “pursuing social justice and upholding the league’s values ​​of equality, respect and inclusion for decades”.

Born in 1947, Abdul-Jabbar was 17 when he met civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

“There are always the same issues,” Abdul-Jabbar, 74, told CNN Sport’s Don Riddell.

“We are dealing with voter suppression, violence, lack of educational opportunities, lack of adequate health care, so none of the issues have changed. It’s just that the clock keeps ticking.”

READ: Michael Jordan shares last text he exchanged with Kobe Bryant
Abdul-Jabbar attends the NBA Paris game between Charlotte Hornets and Milwaukee Bucks on January 24, 2020.

Hero at a young age

Growing up in New York City, Abdul-Jabbar was open to the teachings of people who spoke about activism and change from a young age.

After converting to Islam in 1971, he changed his name from Lew Alcindor Jr. to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In Arabic, his name means a noble and powerful servant of Allah.

In addition to Dr. King, Abdul-Jabbar remembers politician and civil rights reformer Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as an influence and Malcolm X.

And although he preferred the peaceful approach taken by Dr King, Abdul-Jabbar says that by choosing to speak out on social and political issues as an athlete, he was forced to “pay the price for that “and was considered” a bit militant. “

A young Abdul-Jabbar - born Lew Alcindor - sits in his Russian history class at Power Memorial Academy.

However, if Abdul-Jabbar were to have his time again, he would do nothing differently. “I know I would have the same approach. We have to change these things and that takes commitment.”

In 1990, a Senate race in North Carolina presented a dilemma for fellow NBA star Michael Jordan. Charlotte’s first African-American mayor, Harvey Gantt, a Democrat, was trying to topple Republican Jesse Helms to become the state’s first black senator.

Helms had waged a fierce campaign to try to prevent the Senate from approving a federal holiday in honor of civil rights icon Dr. King.

“My mom asked me to do a PSA on Harvey Gantt,” Jordan recalls in “The Last Dance”. “I said, ‘Look mom, I’m not talking out of my pocket about something I don’t know, but I’ll send a contribution to support it.'”

Gantt lost the election, but it was Jordan’s improvised remark on the team bus – “Republicans buy sneakers, too” – that defined his position in the eyes of his critics. Jordan admits he said it, “like a joke,” but he’s been haunted by those four words for decades.

While the Chicago native, former President Barack Obama, would have preferred Jordan to enter the political fray, he has some sympathy for his position, saying in the film: “America is very quick to kiss a Michael Jordan, an Oprah Winfrey or a Justice Barack Obama, provided it is understood that you are not becoming too controversial on broader social issues. “

Fast forward to 2021 and the debate continues over whether athletes should just ‘shut up and dribble’.

Abdul-Jabbar in action against the Golden State Warriors in 1982.
Abdul-Jabbar traces a change in the attitude of athletes to their willingness to speak out after Rodney King was beaten in 1991.

Next, LAPD officers beat motorist King after leading police in a high-speed chase in Los Angeles County. Video of the incident showed that police beat King more than 50 times with their batons. King suffered 11 broken bones and other injuries.

The initial acquittal of the four officers involved led to massive riots in Los Angeles that left more than 50 dead and caused nearly $ 1 billion in property damage.

Yet the ostracism of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality in 2016, and was not signed in a team since 2017, shows that the United States seems uncomfortable with the notion of activism.

And the way Kaepernick was treated is a lesson for the United States, says Abdul-Jabbar, who is the two-time NBA Finals MVP.

“Kaepernick was kicked out of the league, but the league ended up having to come to an agreement with him, and they had to admit that they were wrong to deny him his peaceful protests,” said Abdul Jabbar, who played for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers during his rich career.

“He was doing a peaceful protest against police violence. There was nothing contrary to the American about it. People just chose to interpret it that way because they were unhappy that he take his opportunity to use his platform. So we have to tell the truth here and understand what happened. “

With the increase in the number of athletes eager to take a stand for what they believe in, Abdul-Jabbar hopes that a change in attitude will occur.

“We are heading to a better place. It will take continued effort, but we can get there,” said the 74-year-old.

Eric Reid and Kaepernick kneel on the sideline during the national anthem.

To be recognized

The winner of the new NBA award will select an organization to receive a contribution of $ 100,000 on their behalf. The other four finalists will each select an organization that will receive a contribution of $ 25,000.

And after a year of NBA players and teams playing an active role in tackling racial injustice and voter suppression, there are plenty of options to be the first winner, according to Abdul-Jabbar.

Jonathan Irons (right) alongside WNBA star Maya Moore, after being released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
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“It’s hard to say because there are so many people now who are motivated this way,” he said. “We have people who are very important like LeBron James, which he did. He sends a whole school district to college. There are other people you might not know who are not so prominent. in terms of sport but always doing good things.

“Now I think of someone like Maya Moore who is a WNBA player, she helped a person who had been wrongly convicted achieve her freedom. She knows what to do in her community and she has done a good thing. And I think it’s going to be fine. To be a lot more of these. “

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