Get political, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar advises

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

In 1971, the Milwaukee Bucks stunned the basketball world by winning the NBA championship in only its third season of professional play. At the center of this upstart team stood 24-year-old Lew Alcindor, a 7’2” draft pick from UCLA.

The basketball world was about to be further startled.

The day after the Bucks swept a four-game championship over the Baltimore Bullets and he earned the NBA’s first Most Valuable Player Award, Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The new name stood for “generous and noble (Kareem) servant of (Abdul) the mighty and stern one (Jabbar.)” The change was a final step in the basketball star’s conversion to Sunni Islam, which occurred in 1968, while he was a UCLA student athlete.

Abdul-Jabbar moved from the Bucks to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975, where he ended his playing career in 1989.

By the time he retired, he had earned more than three dozen awards, including being named one of the “50 Greatest Players” in NBA history.

Since then, Abdul-Jabbar has become an author and political activist and, last fall, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from then-President Barack Obama.

In his most recent book, Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, Abdul-Jabbar considers the country’s partisan divide, bringing to bear his experience as an athlete, African-American and Muslim.

On March 2, Abdul-Jabbar will speak to an audience at the Milwaukee Theatre as the guest of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Distinguished Lecture Series and the UWM Muslim Student Association.

The author/activist recently spoke with the Wisconsin Gazette.

Wisconsin Gazette: You converted to Islam after being raised a Roman Catholic. How and why did that come about?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I was born and raised in the Roman Catholic religion because my dad had been Catholic. I felt very much a part of the Catholic Church until I learned about the slave trade.

Some of my friends were reading the Black Muslim newspaper and the information we were exposed to was startling and challenging. The pope had at various times justified the subjugation of various groups of people around the globe and this religious offensive was accompanied by total military domination and economic exploitation of the natural resources of the areas acquired by the colonial powers.

Slavery was a mainstay of this system and it made the various Christian colonial powers wealthy and influential worldwide. Islam’s consistent message is against slavery and economic exploitation and the prophet Muhammad consistently challenged his followers to free slaves.

You had an almost unparalleled career in basketball. What life lessons did you learn that contributed to who you are today?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Professional sports made it possible to see the way that successful efforts can propel people of humble origins to personal success and economic security. Professional athletes provide examples of how the story can end in both positive and negative ways.

But once athletes have achieved national prominence, they have an opportunity to speak out about political and social issues. This can help their communities even more in fighting for voter rights, educational equality and job opportunities.

How and why did you move from professional sports to social activism?

My interest in these issues began when I was in grade school. I witnessed the civil rights movement as shown on the evening newscasts. … It was a very volatile and dangerous time and it made me understand the price that we had to pay to attain our full legal and civil rights.

These issues are still a major concern today and the recent installation of a conservative Republican government will be a major test for our divided nation.

The biggest political issue that I’m passionate about is voters’ rights. Conservatives have made a major push to curtail voting among minorities through various means — from gerrymandering to reducing polling locations in poor communities. …

What does the future look like under Donald Trump’s administration?

I don’t feel encouraged by the administration’s starkly conservative stance. The world has become a place where it is impossible to isolate and disengage with our allies. It is my fear that the tendency to go it alone will lead us up the wrong path.

The most dangerous element of the new administration is its unwillingness to tell the truth and its contempt in believing Americans don’t deserve or want the truth. When the president and his surrogates continually go on television and lie or deliberately misrepresent the facts, they are undermining the democratic process. When the president calls into question the motives of the judiciary or questions the legitimacy of the electoral process, he is undermining democracy more effectively than our foreign enemies.

As an American Muslim, what is the biggest threat you and your fellow Muslims face?

The biggest threat to Muslims is the tendency to see Muslims as stereotypes and not real people. The radical terrorists who have made such a horrific mark in the world cannot succeed when the real face of Islam shines in contrast to their bigotry, hatred and intolerance.

It will not benefit America to focus on the wrong people when combating the radical extremists that we all want to see eliminated. It’s heartening to see so many average Americans mobilizing against the unconstitutional attempts to marginalize Muslim-Americans and to ban Muslims seeking refuge.

What course of action would you advocate for private citizens wanting to resist the new administration’s changes?

There are three things that can be done.

First, protests such as the recent women’s marches show the country how dedicated both men and women are to protecting human rights.

Second, offer financial support to groups fighting in the courts, such as the ACLU and the NAACP.

Third, do everything possible in preparation for the 2018 midterm elections to remove Republican control of Congress so we have a powerful check on Trump’s more outrageous actions.

Can anything good come from the Trump administration?

The Trump administration can be a great motivator for those who didn’t do what they should have done before the election. I’m hoping they will know the issues, be ready to vote, and will be organized locally and nationally for the next fight.

It’s too bad the liberal cause slept at a time when the voting landscape was changing in subtle ways. Complacency is a very treacherous thing and those of us who assumed that Trump would lose and didn’t vote need to do better next time. If nothing else, Trump has shown us how dangerous and ineffective the romanticized ideal of the populist candidate can be. His supporters thought that the fact that he had no experience in government and very little knowledge of how it worked would make him a fresh broom. But it turned out that he has cozied up to all the usual Wall Street suspects. …

On stage

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will speak March 2 at the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave. The 7 p.m. event is free for UWM students. Advance tickets are $10 for UWM faculty, staff and alumni and $15 for the public. At the door, the cost is $5 more. For tickets, call 414-229-4825 or go online to dls.uwm.edu.