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Q&A: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the NBA's new Social Justice Champion award

The NBA legend hopes the award 'serves as an inspiration' to players to see what they can accomplish.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (right) talks with Joel Embiid in this 2018 photo, one of the many NBA players he hopes to inspire.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wants today’s generation of NBA players to compete.

Sure, that’s accomplished nightly on the floor at arenas all over the country. But what the six-time NBA champion, six-time MVP and Hall of Famer hopes to see among today’s players is a constant battle to one-up the next man when it comes to trying to make the world a better place.

The NBA announced creation of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award on Thursday, a new annual league honor that recognizes a current player pursuing social justice while upholding its values of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Over the course of a 20-year NBA career and for decades after, Abdul-Jabbar embodied such qualities in dedicating his life to the fight for equality. The recipient of the award will have advanced Abdul-Jabbar’s mission to drive change, while inspiring others to reflect on injustice on injustice and take collective action in their communities over the previous year.

The winner of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award also receives an opportunity to select an organization to receive a contribution of $100,0000 on his behalf. The other four finalists for the award will also each select an organization to receive a contribution of $25,000.

Abdul-Jabbar took a few minutes recently to speak with about the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award, what’s next for him in the social justice arena, and shared some of thoughts about the work being done by the current generation of NBA players. What are your thoughts on this award being named after you given all that you’ve done over the years and in your career to advance social justice causes?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I’m thrilled, I’m very honored that the NBA would name the Social Justice Award after me. I hope it serves as an inspiration to the guys in the league now to see what they can do. I think when they start competing with each other to do good things in their communities, we’ll get a lot of positive results from that.

There was a time in which athletes were, for lack of a better word, afraid to take stands and speak up about issues regarding equality and social justice. What are your thoughts about what the current generation of players is doing as far as taking charge in leading these efforts?

I’m glad that this present generation is taking their time because, see, you can’t rush into something like that. You have to understand what the issues are, and you have to take your time and approach it in a way where you can really affect change. You can’t affect change if you don’t have the time and patience to explain yourself. We were unable for most Americans to understand how we were singled out by the police until all of the sudden cameras on phones have changed that. Now, we have irrefutable proof of what was going on. People saw what happened to George Floyd, and they didn’t want to see that happen again. I think that was a great moment in our country where we achieved an understanding that had been impossible to achieve up to that point. So, you know, we have to have more breakthrough moments like that. That’s gonna take patience, time and a willingness to let people try to understand. If we can do that, we’ll get something done.

Current and former NBA players used their platforms to protest George Floyd’s death last summer.

Can you take me back to when you were doing this difficult work during your career? It seems like something, given what was going on at the time with the fight for civil rights, that would take an unbelievable amount of courage given what was at stake.

It takes courage. But look at the people that went before me: Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson. They had to deal with stuff that was a lot worse than what we had to deal with. So, we can’t be afraid. We have to speak truth to power and hope that people will listen.

When you were actually involved in those moments, was there a thought in the back of your mind where you thought you were actually helping to change the world, or was what you were doing just sort of reactionary to what the world was dealing with at the time?

You know, when you want things to change, the change never comes on time (laughing). It’s always late. It’s always much later than you wanted it to come. But those moments do come, and you have to appreciate them when they do.

What’s next for you in the advancing these causes that have been near and dear to you for so long?

I’ve got a show that’s gonna be on the History channel, and we’re gonna talk about the history of protest, and how marginalized groups have had to have their protests in order to be heard, recognized and treated equally. So, that’s gonna be on the History channel this year, and I’m pretty proud of it. I think it’s going to be received well.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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