Abdul-Jabbar is nowhere as rambunctious as Ali, a close friend, once was – not many were or are – but that should in no way minimise the crucial role he has played in the fight for injustice for society’s downtrodden.
The 71-year-old, while an outstanding athlete in his own right, didn’t have Ali’s global platform when at the peak of his athletic endeavours. The heavyweight champion of the world was a much more high profile sportsman than a basketball centre at a time when professional basketball in the US had nowhere near the kind of popularity that is currently the case with the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Abdul-Jabbar still had a large national footprint in the US, mainly as a result of his exploits in college basketball - which back in the 1960s was more popular than the professional game. He won three consecutive national titles with the University of California, Los Angeles team from 1967 to 1969.
When he turned professional he went on to win six NBA titles, five with the LA Lakers, three of which came when the team carried the moniker ‘Showtime’ on account of the thrilling style with which they played, which helped glamorise the sport. Abdul-Jabbar scored the highest number of points in NBA history and has played the most number of games by any player and if he had done nothing thereafter, he’d still rank as one of the greatest athletes ever. However he has always carried out his work off the court quietly.
Perhaps that’s why his presence in the country last week as a guest of the NBA, ahead of the Africa Game, caused barely a ripple, unlike had it been the late Ali. But Abdul-Jabbar is a giant of sport not just in terms of his physique, or the numbers he put in as a 20-year professional in the NBA but the stance he, like Ali, took in highlighting social injustice in the US. His most public step was withdrawing from the US men’s basketball team for the 1968 Olympics due to the unequal treatment of black Americans.
Like Ali he too undertook a journey to Africa in the 1970s – a trip to Senegal where the first attempts at creating what is now known as Basketball Without Border, a global development programme,were made.
More than 40 years later, Abdul-Jabbar was back on the continent, at a time when the NBA’s brand is as big as ever, while some of its most high profile stars – who thanks mainly to social media are now global entities in a way Abdul-Jabbar never was at the height of his playing career – are following in his footsteps as far as highlighting social issues is concerned.
“Basketball has given people who would not ordinarily have gotten the chance, the opportunity to gain some wealth and use it to affect change. It’s happened in my life, look at what LeBron James is doing now, he’s just built a school – awesome. This is how it happens, people get consciousness and then they get the resources and they effect change.”
It’s the kind of change that Abdul-Jabbar’s heroes struggled for, and while that change may seem miniscule, particularly at a time when the world seems very divided, the fact change is happening at all is what should be encouraging.
“Some people don’t want to struggle. Nelson Mandela wasn’t like that. I was in high school when they put him in prison, and it amazed me, that every time when they would show him over the years he still had the same positive attitude, he still wanted to fight them. That determination and that understanding of what lay on the other side of the struggle enabled Madiba to endure and lead his people to where they wanted to go.
“There is a struggle ahead, it will be hard but we know that out kids, our progeny will benefit, and so it was worth the struggle.”
Besides lending his face to the NBA Africa Game last week, much of Abdul-Jabbar’s stay was taken up highlighting how Africa needed to increase its presence on the global stage through innovation. “It’s important not to get caught up in the thought that innovation is an end in itself; it’s not,” he said at a summit at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“In order that it’s useful you need to determine what is gonna help and what is not gonna help, not get caught up in the aspects of innovation that aren’t useful and pragmatic for what people want to change. A lot of people don’t accept innovation; they don’t want to see women in the workplace, to take orders from them or listen to them ... we have to overcome these stereotypical and very backward assumptions we have made and accepted just because humanity has accepted them over the years. That is part of the innovations we have to promote.
“Through my foundation in southern California, we promote STEM education (science, technology, engineering and maths) because that’s where progress is going to be made in the 21st century,” Abdul-Jabbar explained.
“If our children can see that and understand that they don’t have to be Beyonce, LeBron, they don’t have to be Denzel Washington. All they have to do is pay attention in chemistry class, in physics class and maybe you might want to be an engineer, you’ll be able to do wonderful things and through that we will see the bridges, roads, universities and hospitals ....when the youth of this continent see what their mission is. Maybe once we learn how to use that innovation we might see a city in Africa like we saw in Black Panther.”
Independent on Saturday