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Q&A: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar discusses social justice award, current stars and much more

The NBA's all-time leading scorer addresses inspiring and complicated topics alike after the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Trophy is revealed.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the newly designed KAJ Social Justice Champion Award Trophy.

LOS ANGELES – The glass ball rested on a pair of gigantic hands, representing the large reach that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has had both with basketball and the world at large.

Fitting on what that meant as Abdul-Jabbar stood by his trophy, which represented the NBA’s Social Justice Champion award named after the former Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers’ legend. Abdul-Jabbar has remained comfortable talking about both the game he mastered and social justice issues.

No surprise then that Abdul-Jabbar entertained various questions from and a group gathering both about basketball and social justice issues. This all took place before Abdul-Jabbar presented the award prior to the Lakers-Nuggets game on Sunday.

Editor’s Note: The following Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity. How did the process of the image of the trophy come to be?

Abdul-Jabbar: The artists had a vision. (James Adam Jr, Jason Garrett and Lacy Tally, aspiring artists from NBA Foundation grantee, Marcus Graham Project as well as Literally Balling artist Victor Solomon were behind the efforts). They came to my house and shot photos of my hands. They took a couple rolls of film of my hands in that position. The result is magnificent. I told them they’ve got to make me a miniature.

What made Carmelo Anthony a good candidate for the award?

Carmelo has the consciousness of wanting to see good things happen. They just read a listing of the things that Carmelo has done, and I was surprised to hear the depth that it got into with advocating for good things with police reform, better educational opportunities and things of that nature that go a long way toward making a peaceful and thriving community.

Where does your criticism of LeBron James this season come from? (question via group setting)

It comes from the things he’s said and done that are really beneath him, as far as I can see, with some of the great things he has done. He’s standing on both sides of the fence, almost. It makes it hard for me to accept that when he’s committed himself to a different take on everything. It’s hard to figure out where he’s standing. You got to check him out every time. Absolutely a higher expectation for him. He understands the issues and has spoken to them quite forcefully and eloquently. I was hoping he would continue in that vein. You remember the Big Ball thing. He has so much going for him in terms of respect and accomplishment. It shouldn’t stoop to those movements.

You were critical in one of your Substack articles about LeBron comparing COVID-19 to the flu and the cold, and also declining to encourage others to get the vaccine. What troubled you about that?

LeBron got his vaccine and he got his family vaccinated. But he didn’t want to talk about it. That’s up to him. But I thought it was important for actions speaking louder than words. There’s been enough said about that.

Have you spoken to LeBron directly about those issues? (question via group setting)

We haven’t spoken about them. I met LeBron, but it was really brief. So we haven’t had a chance to get into some depth.

Are you interested in that? (question via group setting)

I wouldn’t mind doing it, if he wanted to take the time. I’ve definitely got the time. I admire the things that he has done that has gotten all of our attention. Sending a whole school to college? Wow. That’s amazing. His thoughtfulness and willingness to back it up with his wallet, again you have to give him credit for that. I’m not throwing stones. But some of the things he has done, he should be embarrassed about.

Abdul-Jabbar later added the following statement regarding his answer to the question above:

Today a reporter asked me a question about LeBron James and I regret my off-handed response which has been blown out of proportion. For years I’ve expressed my deep admiration and respect for LeBron as a community leader and athlete. That hasn’t changed and never will.

You’ve been one of the NBA legends that filmed PSAs about the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. What has been your message to those still skeptical and resistant toward getting it?  

I’ve been surprised on how many people have read my articles and books and have gotten some guidance from it. I’m very proud of that, and I hope that continues.

The NBA players union says that about 97% of players have been vaccinated. But there are a handful of players that still haven’t gotten it, including Nets star Kyrie Irving. What do you make of those developments?

You always have to understand the fact that there are outliers. Kyrie and other people, they have their reasons. They don’t want to share them. I’m not going to waste a whole lot of time talking about it. I’ve already had my say.

NBA legend was at the forefront of former players getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

What’s been your message to players when you talk about your story with both your life experiences and being a part of the previous generation of athletes that wanted to address social and racial inequalities?

People often ask me how I got started. The murder of Emmitt Till really bothered me. I was eight years old when that happened. I remember seeing the photo of him and thinking, ‘What did he do?’ From that point on, I took the activities from people I admire. Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell, the things they wrote and said really affected me, especially with all the respect I had for them as athletes.

What impact do you think you have made on the next generation of athletes?

We are hopefully setting an example on how to be thoughtful and positive about the changes that we want. If we can do that, we can get a lot done. We’ve been trying. The American experience has still been going on. Maybe we can improve it in this way.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel said you spoke to the team once during his time here. When was that and what was your message?

It’s been a while (laughs). Basically, what I tried to tell them was the things that concern them are the things that concern all other people in their community. The fact that they have the financial backing and strength to get things done, they can make a big difference in their community. LeBron was kind enough to send a whole school system to college. He can afford it. I’m glad to see those guys using their money not just for buying jewelry.

The NBA's 1st Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award is presented to Carmelo Anthony.

How has activism changed in the age of social media? (question via group setting)

The state of activism really hasn’t changed since I was in high school and college. It’s the same issues. Different angles on them, maybe. But it’s the same issues. I’m really glad to see the guys using their tools. They had a lot more tools than we had when I was coming through the league. They’re using their tools to make effective change. That’s a very great thing. What you said about social communications, they have really enabled them to reach more people and be understood. A lot of times, people didn’t understand the civil rights movement because they thought they were complaining about problems that didn’t exist. That’s not going to ever be like that again. I’m very glad about that.

With LeBron on pace to break your all-time scoring record next season, where do you put that milestone in context of all of your other accomplishments in your career?

I think it’s only a small part of the picture with the records that I set. It also has to do with what people appreciate about the game and the individuals that played the game. There’s so many people out here that didn’t even see [Nat] “Sweetwater” Clifton play. He was awesome. He played at a time when the game didn’t have a 24-second clock. It was a different game. We have to take all of those things in consideration before we pass judgement.

Do you have any mixed feelings about LeBron chasing your records? (question via group setting)

I’m all for him doing it. There’s no envy there. With the issues I was talking about and the issues that affect the Black community, he should be careful. That’s all I’m asking.

Do you have plans to be at the game when LeBron breaks the record?

They’ll probably drag me out. I’ll make them supply a plane, though (laughs).

Is it a fool’s errand to try to determine who’s the best NBA player of all time? (question via group setting)

Yeah, I think so. I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to say who is the best player. How can you judge players that played in different eras? The guys who played before the 24-second clock. There were great players and athletes. They don’t always get their just due. I’ve asked people a number of times about the NBA’s 75 best players. Is “Sweetwater” Clifton in there? I don’t think I saw it. There are obvious mistakes. I was glad to see Paul Arizin was in there. It takes a while before you are able to make sure you get all of the people that deserve the credit for making this game what it is.

What do you make of the Lakers’ struggles? (question via group setting)

They’re having a tough time this year. They’ve been hurt. They’ve gotten a lot of good players, but they haven’t all played on the same court at one time. It’s been amazing with groups of guys going out. They haven’t really had time to get the team they could be. It isn’t there now because they haven’t had time really to work on it. Everybody’s been hurt at various times. I don’t think they’ve had their best starting team able to go out on the court.

Is the Lakers organization in good hands with the Buss family and Rob Pelinka? (question via group setting)

I can’t blame them for the season where so many guys have gotten injured at so many different times. It’s not their fault. It’s not the players’ fault. I remember in 1989 and 1983, we could’ve won the world championship. But we had injuries. That’s part of the game.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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