Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, spoke at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium on Wednesday on the intersection of sports, race, religion and politics. The event, part of the “Islam in America” series which spotlights the experiences of Muslims in the United States, was sponsored by the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies of Stanford’s Global Studies Division.
In addition to his illustrious professional basketball career, holding six NBA titles by the time he retired in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar is an activist, philanthropist, journalist and author of 14 books.
Throughout the conversation, Abdul-Jabbar underscored the importance of respecting one another’s needs, pointing out that family lies at the heart of what is most important for each individual.
“We’ve got to get to that point where we can accept everybody’s valid contributions and accept their humanity,” he said.
When asked about the role of religious faith and practice in a modern society where a growing number of individuals do not identify with any religion, Abdul-Jabbar said that he believes religion “still serves a great purpose in defining morality.”
While still a student at UCLA in 1968, Abdul-Jabbar took the Muslim profession of faith, the Shahadah, and went public about his conversion to Islam in 1971. Raised as Roman Catholic, he had read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as a freshman and was interested in how Malcolm X approached Islam.
“Malcolm was … articulate, he was fearless, he would confront people about the truth, about the racist part of American society, and that really encouraged me at that time, as a teenager,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
Abdul-Jabbar described that Malcolm X had influenced him because they hold many aspects of their lives in common. For example, both of their families were from the West Indies. Abdul-Jabbar also mentioned that he identified with Malcolm X’s struggles in the United States because of his race.
In his view, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were more similar in their views than people were aware of, although they differed in their approaches to addressing the injustices they saw.
“They both wanted freedom, justice and equality for black Americans,” he said. “I don’t think there was really, in fact, very much difference in their philosophy. It’s just in public perception that people seem to think they’re so different. But I feel that they had a lot more in common than people wanted to acknowledge.”
Discussing the inequity and injustices towards minority groups and women in the United States, Abdul-Jabbar cited the central problem as the denial of opportunity. Even for those with different faiths or spiritual backgrounds, cooperation is the most important thing for today’s society, Abdul-Jabbar emphasized.
“We can work together peacefully, to make the world … not just a better place. We can make the world a great place, if we all cooperate and use all of this knowledge that we’re accumulating.”
Abdul-Jabbar also shared his thoughts on the college athletic experience, supporting the idea of college athletes being paid.
“[College athletes] make hundreds of millions of dollars that the university gets to spend, and all the universities have to give up is room, board, and tuition,” he said. “I think they have every right to feel exploited in that circumstance.”
In particular, he supported the idea of basketball and football players receiving a salary, because he described that they make all of the money that support the NCAA programs, such as gymnastics, baseball, and softball.
Abdul-Jabbar expressed optimism as he shared his views on the direction of the United States.
“I think in the past 10 or 20 years, we’ve actually done a very good job in understanding what other people’s issues are, or just … that there are other issues out there,” he said. “And the interaction of all these different factions can make it seem like we’re all at odds … when actually we all have to figure out how to work together to help everybody’s problems.”
One aspect he believes the electorate should focus on in the coming 2020 U.S. election is government accessibility.
“I think we really need to focus on … making it possible for people to use government to help their families to do the things that they are still waiting for,” he said. “We all serve to help United States, and each other. That’s what makes this the greatest place in the world, and we’ve got to make that more and more efficient, and more and more accessible for all of us.”
Contact Michelle Leung at mleung2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.