When Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined ESPN.com as a columnist in February, his basketball credentials were obvious.
After all, the league’s all-time leading scorer spent 20 years in the NBA, amassing 38,387 points with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, winning six NBA Championships and a record six MVP awards. He was selected to 19 NBA All-Star teams and to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
In college, Abdul-Jabbar won three straight National Championships at UCLA and is the only student-athlete in history to be voted the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament three times. He received the very first Naismith College Player of the Year Award in 1969 and was named “The Best Collegiate Player of the 20th Century” by ESPN and “History’s Greatest Player” by TIME Magazine.
In other words, his basketball resume is unmatched. But during his NBA career and since his retirement, Abdul-Jabbar has also been an actor, coach and a New York Times best-selling author. He started the Skyhook Foundation, which raises the academic aspirations of underserved youth by connecting them with filmmakers, writers and athletes who develop books and films that teach children about important figures in U.S. history. Earlier this year, he became a U.S. Global Cultural Ambassador, a post he was appointed to by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Add it all up, and you can imagine the unique point of view and range of topics his bi-weekly columns will continue to cover.
With the NBA Playoffs in high gear, we asked Abdul-Jabbar to share his views on a few hot topics:
How did you become a columnist for ESPN.com?
I became a columnist for ESPN after writing a few articles for them last summer. I got my introduction to journalism in 1964. That summer, I participated in a jobs program that was designed to challenge the youth of Harlem to figure out how to make Harlem a better place. I was enrolled in the journalism workshop, where I was taught basic skills. That summer changed my life by giving me an idea of what it meant to be a writer, and I have pursued writing in my post-sports life.
Who are your favorite sports writers and why?
My favorite sports writer of all time was Jim Murray. He was able to write about the various issues that involve sports with a very perceptive eye, but he never lost touch with his sense of humor. More recently, I have enjoyed the writing of [regular Sports Reporters panelist] William C. Rhoden of the New York Times and Wil Haygood of the Washington Post. These two sports writers are African-American and their competence has inspired young African-Americans to pursue journalism. Mr. Haygood has also written a great biography on boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Mr. Rhoden has also written a book on the modern pro basketball scene that was very well done.
What are your greatest challenges as a columnist?
To find something to write about that is both interesting and timely. Because I do things other than write, it is also a challenge to manage my time effectively.
You’re not only a columnist but an author. Talk about your latest book.
It’s called What Color is My World and it is a children’s book that depicts African-American inventors who have discovered things that have had great impact on American life. I did research on a very important black inventor named Louis Latimer for a history book I published in 1996. While doing that research, I was able to become familiar with other black inventors and, although I didn’t have enough information for a regular book, I felt the research would make a great children’s book. I’ve written it to give kids an idea of what is possible in terms of planning a successful future. Too many minority kids feel that they can only be successful in the areas of sports and entertainment. My books give them role models that are engineers, doctors, chemists and mathematicians.
Part of what makes your writing interesting is your unique insight as a Hall of Fame NBA player, especially with the playoffs under way. How did your game change, if at all, when the playoffs began?
My game changed very little when the playoffs started. The playoffs called for a more focused look to prepare for a series with one team at a time. It was a time to refocus on being ready to play an intense series of games with one team.
What are your thoughts on the spate of injuries suffered by some of the NBA’s top stars here at the start of the playoffs?
The injuries that Derrick Rose and Josh Smith have suffered are part of the ups and downs of a season. Injuries like that are part of the game, and they can make a big difference in the outcome of a series. Amare Stoudemire’s case is a different story. By causing a self-inflicted injury, he has removed himself from the playoff picture [Editor’s note: Both Smith and Stoudemire have returned to playoff action since this interview was conducted.] This almost certainly will mean that his team, the Knicks, will not be able to do well and he is the only one to blame. It’s very unfortunate that he couldn’t control his passions and stay healthy for the playoffs.
What are your thoughts on Andrew Bynum’s play this season, and do you think he’s got the qualities to become the next great Laker center?
Andrew Bynum is having a breakout year. I think that everything he has learned about the game has finally been absorbed in a way that enables him to play at a consistently high level. When he first came to the Lakers, he had only played two incomplete seasons of high school basketball. The things that he has learned as a pro are now a part of his game, and he can put this knowledge to great use. He’s scoring, blocking shots and rebounding in a very effective way; those activities will make it very hard to beat the Lakers. He can become a great center and the Lakers were wise to keep him.
What do you think of the Clippers emerging in Los Angeles this year? Will L.A. ever be a town divided among basketball fans?
The Clippers seemed to have turned the corner by putting together a very talented team that has some depth. I expect that they will be a factor in the playoffs and by improving in that way, they will force L.A. hoop fans to make a choice as to their favorite team.
For more on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, visit his website.