On May 3, Carmelo Anthony climbed to 10th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list – joining an elite group with some of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose 38,387 career points remains the benchmark three decades removed from his retirement.
But the connection between Kareem and Carmelo goes well beyond the buckets they can put up on the court. Both men have been leaders off the court in the fight for social justice and racial equality and both have used their platforms to bring change to their local communities and on a national platform.
On Tuesday, Anthony was named the recipient of the inaugural Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award, which recognizes a current NBA player for pursuing social justice and advancing Abdul-Jabbar’s life mission to engage, empower and drive equality for individuals and groups who have been historically marginalized or systemically disadvantaged.
“First of all, I just want to say I’m honored, I’m blessed, I feel humbled to be the first recipient of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award,” Anthony said. “Just that name alone, we all know what that stands for, we all know what Kareem stood for and what he stands for now. So, for me to be receiving this award means so much more than a lot of other awards that I’ve ever received.
“Kareem laid the foundation for us to be able to go out there and continue to fight the fight and continue to use our voice,” Anthony continued. “We know he was a legend on the court. And what he dedicated his life to, but at the end of the day, what he fought for when it comes to equality and he made it his mission and his duty to drive positive change in our community and in our society.”
Carmelo and the other four finalists for the award – Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes, Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris, Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Golden State’s Juan Toscano-Anderson – have taken the torch from players like Kareem and Bill Russell and led a new era of activism across the NBA.
While Anthony receives this recognition in 2021, his efforts began over 15 years ago when he founded the Carmelo Anthony Foundation as a vehicle for actionable change and social reform through a variety of outreach programs and disaster relief initiatives. His work continued over the course of his NBA career, highlighted by a call to action he made alongside fellow NBA stars Chris Paul, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at the 2016 ESPY Awards.
It began with an Instagram post from Anthony – an image from the Cleveland Summit on June 4, 1967 that included Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) as well as other prominent Black athletes such as Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali coming together to discuss Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam – along with a lengthy caption from Carmelo about the need for today’s athletes to step up and utilize their voices and platforms to lead the charge for social change.
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Shortly after that post, Anthony heard from Paul, James and Wade and the wheels set in motion to speak at the ESPYs, which Anthony called a “breaking point.”
“It was time to really step up to the challenge, step up to the plate, put our money where our mouth and make a call to action,” he said. “For the longest time, nobody wanted to touch these issues, or touch certain issues for whatever reason, but that moment really broke something. And at that moment, when we came together, we stood up in front of the crowd of fellow athletes and we demanded change, we demanded them to get up, stop being quiet, use your voice, use your platform, and that’s what we demanded.”
Anthony, Paul and Wade took what Anthony calls the “2.0 step” to that ESPY moment a few years later when the trio established the Social Change Fund. The three future Hall of Famers invested their own money to help support organizations doing the work on the ground to enact social change.
“We established the Social Change Fund to just support and invest in organizations that’s fighting and working towards tackling criminal justice reform, enact policy solutions, and advocate for the human rights of all Black lives – not just for my generation and generation before us, but the generation that’s to come,” Anthony said.
That idea of looking toward the next generation could clearly be seen when Anthony took on the role of Editor-in-Chief of Slam Magazine’s Special Social Justice issue in 2020 when Carmelo posed on the cover of the magazine with his son, Kiyan, with the headline below them reading: “It Stops Now.”
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That cover brings things full circle for Anthony, who says he traces his passion and commitment for social justice back to his own father.
“It’s part of my DNA, I get it from my father,” Anthony said. “My father was very active and in the Puerto Rican community and fighting for what was right and fighting for Puerto Rican rights. He was a Young Lord and was part of the Young Lords Party. So, I get that from him.
“I didn’t know that at an early age. But as I got older and started putting things together, asking questions and doing my own research of the family ties, it started to all make sense of why I love tackling these issues. I love bringing these issues up and bringing light to these issues because it was already embedded in me without me even knowing that.”
Anthony’s commitment to social change is not limited to reform in criminal justice, voting or race spaces, he has also developed an incubator program focused on creativity and the arts as a way to showcase Black stories and storytellers.
In 2020, Anthony established the STAYME7O Propel Program as a way to tap into the creativity of Black culture through fashion, art and design to develop intricate pieces that honor a vision of Black excellence and inspire a culture to create and move further, together.
This spring, Anthony announced Creative 7, a global, multi-platform content company through which he has been developing a robust slate of projects that speak to the evolution of the human spirit through adversity, social activism and compelling, entertainment-forward storytelling.
“It’s not enough to only fight for social justice in the moments of brutality or injustice,” he said when he was announced as a finalist for the Social Justice Champion award. “For equality to truly exist, we need to push for equity and justice in all areas of Black lives. That can only happen when opportunity exists. My mission is to continue fighting for reform in our justice system, amplifying the voices of the fallen, and generating opportunities to uplift Black creatives and storytellers who will propel the narratives that for too long have gone unheard.
“I’m going to keep fighting for progress and using my resources in hopes that we will be able to create a future for the next generation where everyone is accepted and celebrated for being their truest self, regardless of who they are, what they look like or where they come from.”
As the winner of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award, Anthony receives a $100,000 donation to the social justice organization of his choosing. He chose the Portland Art Museum’s Black Arts and Experiences Initiative as the recipient of his donation.
While this award recognized the work that Anthony has been doing for years, it does not signify a level of completion, but rather a reminder that progress is slow and requires a collective effort.
“We have a long way to go,” he said. “But I do see progress, I see the trajectory going in a nice direction. And I just want to help keep it there. I just want to continue the conversations, continue talking to the people. And the most important thing is continuing to listen to people. Because when you listen closely, you’re going to hear something and you’re going to hear a lot of important gems and things that you can actually take into consideration and move forward.”
One of those conversations for Anthony was with civil rights leader Opal Lee back on March 24 as part of the “Juneteenth: The Road To Unity” livestream event as the two discussed the Juneteenth movement and Lee’s mission to have it recognized as a national holiday. Less than three months after that conversation, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed by President Joe Biden to fulfill that mission.
“I started doing research. I got to talk to Ms. Opal Lee and at that moment that you understood the fight,” he said. “You understood how hard she was fighting and how long she was fighting, the uphill battles that she had to go through. I mean, this is years and years and years of fighting for what she believed in and what was right, that Juneteenth should be a national holiday. And I wanted to be a part of that, I wanted to be a part of getting it over the top and pushing it through and now people can celebrate the way that we should be celebrating on Juneteenth.”
Whether its lending his voice to a cause he supports, funding on-the-ground efforts to combat racial injustice, or providing a platform for young Black creatives to grow and showcase their talents, Carmelo Anthony is committed to uplifting his community.
“What inspired me was the fact that I was a part of that environment,” he said “I saw and experienced what it was like to be there, what it was like to live there, what it was like to grow up there. Seeing the things that I’ve that I’ve seen, knowing that I was always wanting somebody to come back to my community and give back.
“When you saw people go to other communities and do those appearances, it was like I wish somebody would just come back to us, I just wish somebody would come back to me and just say, everything’s will be alright, or there’s hope, or you’ve got to believe and dream. I’ve never received that message before, so I know what that feels like being on the opposite side of that.
“So now, and even when I first got into the NBA, it was like, I have to give back to that community, I don’t want to do anything else until I give back to my community. That’s how it started – just being a product of our environment, and understanding the needs and the wants of that community.”
From inspiration came action and now those actions have been recognized as Carmelo Anthony is the inaugural winner of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award.