Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Talkasia Transcript
Airdate July 2nd, 2005
SG: Stan Grant
SG: It's show time in Shanghai. Hello I'm Stan Grant, welcome to this very special edition of TalkAsia. Now the boys you can see on the court behind me are chasing their very own hoop dreams, hoping to make it from this superstar camp, the best of Asia's youth basketball talent all the way to a special camp in the United States. Only the best of these boys will be selected. Now they're doing so under the watchful eye of a man acknowledged as one of, if not the greatest basketball player of all time. And that's not an opinion that's a fact. When it comes to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the facts simply don't lie. By the time he retired he held 9 individual NBA records. No one blocked more shots, scored more points, or logged more seasons than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He won 6 championship rings, and 6 times was the NBA's most valuable player. Apart from a basketball he's also a writer, an historian, and a worldwide ambassador for the game worldwide. Before this match I caught up with Kareem and asked him how do you put a career like his into perspective?
KA: Well you know you only can judge a career by achievement: there's individual achievement and then there's the achievement of the group. I've been so blessed to be able to be successful in both areas: as an individual, and the teams that I've played on have done well. So you know I'm honored that things worked out so well for me.
SG: But how do you balance being an individual, and a talented individual, but also playing in a team? How do you get that balance?
KA: It's not a difficult balance. A team will always appreciate a great individual if he's willing to sacrifice for the group. I never put myself above the group. I always understood that we would achieve or not achieve together, and that was all it took for me to tailor my game, to do things in a way that always helped my team do well.
SG: At the same time, you're playing with a lot of other very talented individuals, and I'm speaking here particularly about Magic Johnson. What is it that forms those bonds and gets the best out of each other?
KA: Well I think it starts with a professional attitude. If I were not a consummate professional it wouldn't have worked. If Irvin were not a consummate professional it wouldn't have worked. But we were both willing to sacrifice for each other and the team - and that's the key. When you get a whole team full of guys that are willing to sacrifice for the team, that makes for a very tight cohesive unit. And five guys on the court that are working together can achieve more than five talented individuals who come and go as individuals.
SG: Tell me about show time, a lot of people say that was when the new era started, the new entertainment era in basketball. Was that the case?
KA: Well I think the show time era really was able to become charismatic because it was televised, and people were able to follow a cast of characters over a long period of time. The rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics endured for about eight years and the interest grew each year, and the Lakers were able to maintain a certain level of talent and success and so were the Celtics. So after awhile it became part of people's sports lore - hey these guys are fun to watch and this is a great game.
SG: But with all of that attention, and with all of that focus on television comes a lot more focus on you. Do you think you dealt with that properly?
KA: Many times I didn't deal with it well. I didn't really seek attention. I just wanted to play the game well and go home. (SG: That doesn't work). That doesn't work, I thought it could. There's a very accomplished sports writer in America named Jim Murray, he's since passed on, but of me he said that, "No man is an island, but Kareem gave it a shot." And of course that didn't work so (SG: You're a tall island you see, it's difficult to disappear in the crowd), yeah it's not going to work; I'm not going to disappear. But fortunately we had someone on our team, Irvin, who was a media darling and he could deal with that type of attention and it deflected some of the attention from me.
SG: I once read a quote of you where you said you were the "baddest of the bad guys." What did you mean by that?
KA: Geez I don't know if I was the baddest...I don't know if I said that but people kind of saw me in that light. You know just because I just didn't want to say much. My whole thing was I'll be ready to play the next game to the best of my ability, that's all you should expect of me. And that wasn't fair to the press, I have to admit that, they have a job to do and I should have been more cooperative. But you know I really didn't prepare myself to deal with that in the most gracious way and it tolled on my career.
SG: Did you learn to deal with that? Or is that something you now look back on and wish you'd handled better, regret?
KA: Probably it started in college because Coach Wooden didn't want me talking to the press because there were way too many requests for interviews. I could have done interviews six or seven days a week and he didn't think that I should be doing that. I needed to go to class; I needed to go to practice; I needed to have a life away from basketball and going to college. So he maybe was a little overprotective, and I just took that and ran with it into professional life - and that was not a good choice.
SG: Kareem is here actually spending some time with basketball players, the best of the basketball players that Asia has to offer, the youngest players here in Shanghai taking a coaching clinic. These are the players who hope to emulate Yao Ming and make it into the NBA. When we come back we'll talk to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about Yao Ming, his influence, and the talent he's seen here.
SG: Two words, one name: Yao Ming. Few players have cast a spell across the game like Yao Ming, before or since. Certainly when it comes to spreading the popularity of basketball throughout Asia there is no peer, and there are so many players who've been here at this camp in Shanghai, been taken by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who are hoping to emulate Yao Ming.
SG: What is it that separates a good player and a great player?
KA: I think that the good and the great are only separated by the willingness to sacrifice. Great players are willing to sacrifice and give up their own personal achievement for the achievement of the group, and in doing that it enhances everybody. It makes other people better and they in turn can make you better. If you're just looking to toot your own horn, it becomes a one note symphony and people pretty soon are turned off.
SG: You've been spending a lot of time with kids in Asia; at this camp. Is that the message you've been giving them? That to work in a team is more important than being the individual?
KA: It's certainly a team game, and Michael Jordan and Magic and myself, all learned how to play the game in college programs that emphasized the team. As brilliant an individual that Michael was, he was not successful until he got with a good team unit and he knew how to play in that context and do well. And I think that's the key for any aspiring athletes here in Asia or anywhere around the world where they want to play basketball: got to understand it's what five people achieve working together -- that's the most important essence of the game. And the extra pass and the extra effort on defense always get the job done.
SG: When you look at the talent here on display, what do you think of it? How much talent is there in Asia?
KA: I've been very impressed that the...for example, the different governments in this area have realized that they got to get their young players more seasoned earlier in their lives. You know they can't wait till they're university age before they start to train them. So now they're starting to train them in their tender years and that's the best athletes have a lifetime in their chosen sport. And I think by teaching fundamentals you will enable yourself to have a fundamentally sound talent pool to draw on, and then you will find outstanding individuals.
SG: You talk about talented individuals; well Yao Ming of course springs to mind. How important has he been, how big has his influence been on the game and spreading the popularity of basketball?
KA: Well I think Yao Ming has impacted the game here in Asia quite significantly because he's someone that the Chinese can identify with. He's someone from their background and came up through their system, and he is world class. So now they seem to understand in-depth now that anybody from China can be a world class basketball player if they learn the right techniques and learn how to compete the right way.
SG: When you look around here, do you see a lot more Yao Mings? Are there more people from China still to come and play in the NBA?
KA: I certainly expect more people from China and Asia to end up in the NBA. The game has become that popular and all it takes is application and some talent and that'll do it.
SG: There's a lot more money in the game today. Has that been a good thing? Is that a good influence?
KA: Well I think commercialization can be a boom and a bane for the game. By attracting the athletes that it has, certainly get more talented people applying themselves to basketball than to other sports. So your best athletes might give basketball a try just when they think, geez, this might be something that pays off for me in the end.
SG: But what about the impact on players? Is the money making a better individual? Or is there too much pressure; is there a short cut to success?
KA: I don't know if it's a short cut; it certainly will inspire ambition and that can be good or bad. It all depends on the individual, what type of ambition they have and how they deal with the circumstance.
SG: I'm not talking specifically about basketball here, but the money that we've seen, the pressure on athletes to perform, to continually lift that bar. We've seen problems in so many sports now with steroid taking, with drug taking.
KA: I think in the field of athletics there's always been a willingness to cheat if it looks like you're not cheating. And I think that's just a quirk of human nature. I don't think we can eliminate that to any legislation or inspections or anything like that. People cheat, you know I remember reading that great American, one of our founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, realized that warfare was part and parcel of human nature and it's something that we had to prepare for. (SG: And the same goes for cheating? Cheating and sport...) Same goes for cheating, people still cheat on their wives, that hasn't fallen out of fashion. I don't know... dishonesty, we all talk... speak of it badly but it has not fallen out of fashion.
SG: We're talking about the pressure on players, and we saw an incident just last year: a brawl between fans and players. Is that a result of the pressure? Is too much expected and it's simply bubbling over?
KA: No I think that the...when the line started to blur between the fans and the players, I spoke about it in context of right, let's say NFL football. For a long time the players played the game and the fans watched it. Now you've got when a player scores a touchdown, he has some victory dance, or he might go jump in the stands and interact with the fans -- the line has blurred. And when that happens it's usually a positive thing but sometimes things can get ugly.
SG: Who's to blame more, fans or the players?
KA: I think that it is not either one's fault, when you allow that circumstance to happen, when you allow those two elements to mix, it doesn't always end up being a positive situation. It can end up being negative and we saw the very ugly incident in Detroit.
SG: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not just a basketball player, he's a writer, he's an historian, he's a humanitarian, someone who's deeply committed to the cause of racial equality and a very spiritual man, when we come back we'll talk about the spiritual journey, the personal journey of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
SG: Before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar there was Lew Alcindor. Now Lew Alcindor was what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born as, he has since converted to Islam. Something that he says was a very deeply spiritual decision.
SG: Tell me a little bit about your own personal journey, from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Is there still some of Lew Alcindor in you today?
KA: Well you know that was who I started my life out as, I'm still my parent's child, I'm still...my cousins are still the same, I'm still me though. But I made a choice. (SG: Do you feel different? Is it a different feeling when you take on a different name, a different persona?) I really don't think...I think it has more to do with evolution -- I evolved into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I don't have any regrets about who I was but this is who I am now.
SG: And a spiritual journey, how important was that?
KA: Well as a spiritual journey, I don't think I would have been able to be as successful as I was as an athlete if it were not for Islam. It gave me a moral anchor, it enabled me to not be materialistic, it enabled me to see more what was important in the world. And all of that was reinforced by people, very important people to me: Coach John Wooden, my parents, all reinforced those values. And it enabled me to live my life a certain way and not get distracted.
SG: When you embraced Islam, was it difficult for other people to come to terms with that? Did that create a distance between you and others?
KA: For the most part it was. I didn't try to make it hard on people; I did not have a chip on my shoulder. I just wanted people understand I was Muslim, and that's what I felt was the best thing for me. If they could accept that I could accept them. I didn't...it wasn't like if you're going to become my friend you have to become Muslim also. No, that was not it. I respect people's choices just as I hope they respect my choices.
SG: What happens to a person when they take on another name, another persona if you like? How much did you change?
KA: For me it made me more tolerant because I had to learn to understand differences. You know I was different, people didn't oftentimes understand exactly where I was coming from; certainly after 9/11 I've had to like explain myself and...
SG: Was there a backlash against people like yourself? Did you feel that at all?
KA: I didn't feel like necessarily a backlash, but I certainly felt that a number of people might have questioned my loyalty, or questioned where I was at, but I continue to be a patriotic American...
SG: For a lot of black Americans, converting to Islam was an intensely political decision as well. Was it the same for you?
KA: That was not part of my journey. My choosing Islam was not a political statement; it was a spiritual statement. What I learned about the Bible and the Qur'an made me see that the Qur'an was the next revelation from the Supreme Being - and I chose to interpret that and follow that. I don't think it had anything to do with trying to pigeon hole anyone, and deny them the ability to practice as they saw fit. The Qur'an tells us that Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Muslims are supposed to treat all of them the same way because we all believe in the same prophets and heaven and hell would be the same for all of us. And that's what it's supposed to be about.
SG: And it's been very influential in your writing as well.
KA: Yes it has. Racial equality and just what I experienced growing up in America as a kid really affected me to experience the Civil Rights Movement, and see people risking their lives, being beaten, being attacked by dogs, being fire hosed down streets, and they still took a non-violent and very brave approach to confronting bigotry. It was remarkable and it certainly affected me in a very profound way.
SG: You're not just a basketball player, you're also an historian. How important is history to you?
KA: Well I was a history major when I went to UCLA, and I realize now that if it were not for basketball then that's what I would have done if I had to have a real job.
SG: You've also spent time on Native American reservation; you wrote about that. How important was that for you? And tell us about that cross-cultural relationship.
KA: Oh certainly, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that during the period between 1866 and 1922 Native Americans and black soldiers often intermingled in the American west, on the frontier. And most black Americans and many Native Americans aren't aware of that. So it was very uplifting for me to write a book about that and be able to explain that to all Americans, what that was about and have them understand that.
SG: If you had to impart one piece of knowledge to someone, something that helped you in your career that you could pass on, what would that be?
KA: Knowledge is power. Take the time to know what you're doing and have some commitment to it. And it will not ever be a disappointment and if you know what you're doing you'll be able to do it well and you'll find self satisfaction.
SG: Knowledge is power, I like it. Thanks very much.
KA: My pleasure, thank you.
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