Q&A with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: John Wooden, President Trump, the internet and other topics
NEW HAVEN >> With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar poised to speak at Southern Connecticut State’s John Lyman Center for Performing Arts tonight as part of the university’s Mary and Louis Fusco Distinguished Lecture Series, we posed some questions to the six-time NBA champion and accomplished author.
The Hall of Famer and UCLA grad had some searing observations about President Trump, the internet and the NBA.
Here is that email exchange:
Q.: Kareem you’ve always had an interest in social justice, it seems. What’s been the feedback to your book “Writings on the Wall” and what do you think is most important for society to work on during the Trump era?
KAJ: The reaction to “Writings on the Wall” has exceeded my expectations. It’s one thing to write opinion columns spaced out over months, but another for people to get the full monty of opinions in one massive gulp. That can seem presumptuous, especially since the book covers so many important social topics.
Our focus during these next four years — I hope it’s only four — will be to continue to get the facts and truth out to American voters. Trump and his cohorts have proven themselves to be the worst kind of politicians, the kind who directly lie to the public, which subverts the democratic process. Without facts, the people can’t make informed decisions. But that’s their plan, to keep digressing, obscuring and misdirecting public focus so the public doesn’t know what’s true. This lack of trust in democracy and the Constitution is their most damaging assault. Hopefully, during the midterm elections, America will elect a Democratic majority in Congress that will be able to halt some of the damage.
Q: Your book on Coach John Wooden is coming out soon. Was it tough to think back on individual quotes, events and memories or did you seek out public video, audio or your own journals?
KAJ: All memoirs rely on memory, which we know is flawed in so many ways. We tend to rationalize and romanticize, which twists memories to suit our needs. While I did do research to refresh my memory and to double-check my facts, the essence of the book is based on our nearly 50 years of friendship and my recollection of our many wonderful conversations and experiences together. Coach Wooden was such a dynamic man that he left an indelible impression on everyone who met him. Even more so on me because he became a surrogate father to me, so those memories had even greater impact on me. What’s most important to me is that I captured the heart and soul of the man and of our relationship.
Q.: What are one or two takeaways from the Coach Wooden book?
KAJ: First, the book is a record of my maturation as an adult guided —sometimes without my being aware — by the compassion and moral certitude of Coach Wooden. I hope everyone who reads this comes to appreciate how important being a decent person was to him and how he made his players value that more than anything else — even more than winning. Second, this is a story about the power of friendship in helping people endure the glorious triumphs and heartbreaking disasters of life. We helped each other through emotional highs and lows that made both our lives that much more fulfilling.
Q.: And on the Harlem Renaissance book, the inventors book and “Black Profiles in Courage,” you have many great examples of positive, creative, accomplished Americans who happened to be black. What is the your view on the pockets of hate and distrust that continue to emerge and find public voice in 2017. Is it that the Internet gives them a megaphone and a place to congregate and have an echo chamber?
KAJ: The greatest triumph of civilization is logical thinking. By elevating logic above emotional knee-jerk reactions, we’re able to overcome the ignorance of superstition and detrimental traditions that continue merely because “that’s how I was raised.” Newspapers and periodicals in general had editorial standards that required people to voice opinions in an informed manner. The internet has given everyone the opportunity and anonymity to say whatever they want, without thought or shame. Racists, misogynists, homophobes and all the other haters who promote their ideas either for profit or through lack of reason have become emboldened by Donald Trump. He is the symbol of the irrational fear-driven witch-burning mentality. Unfortunately, they’re dragging a lot of us behind them as they steer straight for the cliff.
Q: Your playing days were a long time ago but the records remain and the memories for those over 40 are strong. What do you think of the modern NBA and does the game need any tweaking or refocus on style of play?
KAJ: The one thing that I would do is raise the minimum age of incoming players to 21. In general, kids under that age aren’t mature enough to handle the emotional or business challenges of the life of a professional player. Nor are they yet knowledgeable enough about the intricacies of the game. Allowing younger players has hurt both the college game by draining the pool of some of its best players, but it also hurts the professional game by throwing young players in before they are ready. In some cases, that could cut short a promising career by burning them out before they develop the maturity and skills to deal with all that pressure.
Q: Who are your favorite players of today? Oh, and would you be completing college if you were a student athlete these days or do you think you would make the early move to the NBA as so many do today?
KAJ: There are so many excellent and exciting players that I know when I read this interview later I’ll be kicking myself for not mentioning a few worthy names. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry make the game a lot of fun to watch. Steph has certainly changed the nature of the game with his long-distance three-point missiles. LeBron James is the consummate player who can play both ends of the court with equal grace and mastery.
My college education was always just as important to me as my basketball career. When I was at UCLA, I got just as much pleasure and satisfaction from producing a well-written essay as I did from winning a game. Basketball is a temporary vocation, but learning is a life-long avocation. What good does it do to make a lot of money but never progress intellectually?
Q: Have you spoken or played in Connecticut in the past and can you give us a rough preview of lecture topic.
KAJ: I seem to remember the Lakers playing an exhibition game against Celtics in the 1980s but that would be the only time I played there. My talk will be about my 50-year relationship with Coach John Wooden, from my awkward freshman year until his death in 2010. I’ll discuss how he nurtured me as a basketball player and as a man. I’ll talk about the many lessons he taught us that resulted in generation after generation of not just great basketball players, but strong, compassionate men who went out into the world to be the kind of responsible and moral men he would have been proud of.