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Q&A with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: ‘I’m glad we’ve gotten to this point where people can admit to the truth’

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(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Q: You wrote this essay in the Los Angeles Times recently, which was quite wonderful and really talked about a lot of things. I want to read a line: “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands.” It’s actually a quite a hopeful paragraph. Am I right?

A: I’m seeing a situation now where people understand what black people were talking about when they saw how a helpless person like George Floyd was murdered for no good reason. They get it. And I think that really opened a lot of people’s eyes just because the technology now is revealing what black people have been talking about for decades and that there has to be a change. I have to say personally, I’m glad we’ve gotten to this point where people can admit to the truth.

Q: I don’t know who’s out there doing the looting, which you mentioned is a distraction, but I do know there are tens of thousands of people out there protesting, it seems, peacefully.

A: Yes. And I think that is really the key here. So many marginalized groups, you know, they understand now that whether you’re LGBTQ, you’re Muslim, you’re Jewish, you’re a woman, you’re a person of color, we’re all treated the same way. And if one of us isn’t free, none of us are free. So I think all of those various groups now are demonstrating together because they have more power and people can see how the abuse goes across all lines. So I’m seeing a breakthrough in the consciousness of America where they get it now, you know, how people are treated and how bad it can be and how it shouldn’t be like that.

Q: I want to ask you about your life. Tell me a little about what you faced back in the ’60s. Is there a moment when you realized it didn’t matter if I’m playing for UCLA and I’m a star, but I’m still going to be mistreated by some people?

A: Well, I remember one incident. Coach [John Wooden] took me out to dinner between my freshman and sophomore year. He wanted to get to know me, because he was going to be coaching me the next year. And this woman asked how tall I was. Then she used the n-word, saying she’d never seen one that tall and just walked out. And Coach Wooden was shocked. Only he saw how it affected me, and he didn’t know what to do. He’d never seen anything like that, someone being that rude and saying a word that hostile. And, you know, it was a literally gray-haired old lady. And he just didn’t get it. Then he saw more incidents like that over the time I was at UCLA. It really opened his eyes to a lot of things.

Q: So it sounds like he knew there was a lot of racism in the world, but he had never seen it that directly. How did that change him? Would you have conversations about it and explain like, “Coach, this is what I deal with all the time”?

A: I don’t know how it changed him because we never talked about it in that much depth. But he told me that he never got it until he saw what I had to deal with.

Q: It’s interesting because there are obviously different levels of racism. There is what you experienced with Coach Wooden, with someone calling you a terrible name. But there are also ways that are not quite as overt. I’m wondering if you if you can speak to that.

A: You know, in the past that’s happened at different times in my career. A lot of people felt that I should have won the MVP in [1973]. But, I didn’t.

Q: Dave Cowens was a great player, but no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. How do you view sports right now and where does it fit in with everything that’s going on?

A: Well, I think sports is a great thing, you know, as a pastime. I’ve been a baseball fan my whole life. But our lives are at stake here. So there’s no way to compare having an active sporting season going on and being alive. There’s no way to compare those two things.

Q: If you were still playing, would you want to be going back for some kind of fanless season or abbreviated season or even just be there in a sport that’s a contact sport?

A: No, I think that my health would be a lot more important to me than my job.

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