For his greatness on the court and societal contributions once his playing days ended, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was recognized with the nation’s highest civilian honor on Tuesday, as President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“The reason we honor Kareem is more than just a pair of goggles and the skyhook,” Obama said at the White House ceremony. “He stood up for his Muslim faith when it wasn’t easy and wasn’t popular. He’s as comfortable sparring with Bruce Lee as he is advocating on Capitol Hill or writing with extraordinary eloquence on patriotism.”
Prior to his NBA career, Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three consecutive national championships from 1967-69. He also was named national college player of the year each time, and the NCAA banned dunking to give other players a chance against the 7-foot-2 titan.
“They didn’t say (the ban) was about Kareem,” Obama said. “But it was about Kareem.”
Abdul-Jabbar went on to forge an unforgettable NBA career, finishing with 19 All-Star selections, six MVP awards, six championships and 38,387 points — the most in league history.
Obama called him “the sport’s most unstoppable force” for two decades and quoted his character from the 1980 movie “Airplane!”, saying, “He did it all while dragging Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.”
After retiring from basketball in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar, 69, continued to use his stature to try to change the public’s way of thinking on various issues. In particular, the White House commended him on his advocation for civil rights, cancer research, science education and social justice.
“Physically, intellectually, spiritually — Kareem is one-of-a-kind,” Obama said. “An American who both illuminates our most basic freedoms and our highest aspirations.”