Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The politics of doing more than simply getting old and moving on
David L. Horne, PH.D. | 5/19/2021, 1:40 p.m.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could very easily have been the GOAT for professional basketball (greatest of all time). Instead, that imprimatur is now usually reserved for Michael Jordan. Kareem’s career stats, however, more than match MJ’s.
Kareem has six NBA championship rings, just as MJ has. He also has six league MVP awards (MJ has five), and two Finals MVPs (MJ has six of those). Kareem still leads the league in most points scored in a career (38,387), although many expect Lebron to eventually match and surpass that. Kareem’s third place in rebounding, first place in field goals made, and first in the total number of minutes played.
He’s also won the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016), and just recently, the NBA finally paid a very serious honor to him—the creation of a new Kareem Abdul-Jabbar League Activist Award, to be given to the player each year who most exemplifies community leadership outside of basketball. It is equivalent to the Walter Payton Community Leadership Award in the NFL, although it also emphasizes real community action for social justice by an athlete while the Payton award is for outstanding community participation and integrity.
From the 1960’s just coming out of Power Memorial High School in New York (and the high school championship for the second time—they lost in the championship game the third time), to UCLA (and three straight collegiate championships and 37 straight wins) and the Harry Edwards-led Olympic Project for Human Rights, Kareem has been a social activist.
He helped to protest the lack of racial equality in the U.S. that became part of the John Carlos—Tommie Smith famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games. In spite of sometimes violent publicity and fan reaction, he changed his name publicly from Ferdinand Lew Alcindor, Jr. to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971 because he was sure that was the right thing to do. He was also a long-time friend of Muhammad Ali and uttered huge praise for Ali’s refusal to be drafted. In fact, Kareem also refused. His social activism credentials are impeccable.
The NBA already gives out the Bill Russell trophy for the Finals MVP each year, in honor of Russell’s stature in the game. It is only fitting now that the league will also award this Kareem Abdul-Jabbar social justice distinction, too.
The second issue is that in the midst of regular protests of all kinds and various vaccine hesitancy fears, we are reminded of J. Marion Sims, who is usually called the father of the medical field of gynecology. Dr. Sims was a White 19th-century physician known for performing surgical experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. Until recently, there had been a Sims statue in New York City under a continuing parade of protests.
No question, the good doctor has been lionized elsewhere. He had established the first U.S. hospital for women in 1855. He invented the speculum and he pioneered surgery for fistula, a condition that had regularly left women incontinent after giving birth. He had done other pioneering work in the field of medicine for women and was regularly seen as a hero to medicine.
But history has not been kind to Dr. Sims in many other ways. Activist women, like novelist Toni Morrison, and medical researcher Harriet A. Washington (Medical Apartheid) were quite expectedly unkind to him in their works. Additionally, New York recently removed his prominent statue from Central Park in response to the continuing public protest, and it has now been permanently barred from any public setting.
While that is not all that many African-American women want regarding this man’s legacy, that is a significant victory after all.
And we move on.
Professor David L. Horne is the founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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