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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Social Justice, Vaccine Mandates and the Evolution of NBA Style

The Hall of Famer has never hesitated to use his stature and influence to fight for others.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wearing the Neumel chukka Ugg

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and six-time league MVP. He holds the career scoring record—32 years after retiring—and is generally considered among the top three players to ever set foot on the hardwood. Yet, even with that résumé, you could argue that the Hall of Fame center has had just as big of an impact off the court as on it. During his 20-year playing career, the NBA great never hesitated to use his influence and stature to effect social change, paving the way for athletes like Bubba Wallace, Carmelo Anthony and Megan Rapinoe to do the same. His continued willingness to advocate for others is what elevates the former UCLA Bruin and Los Angeles Laker from legendary athlete to American icon.

Since retiring from the NBA in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar has fought tirelessly for racial and religious equality and diversity, both through his work as an activist and as a best-selling author. It’s because of his passion for these causes that he was named a US global cultural ambassador in 2012 and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2016. Despite all this, he’s still found time to have some fun, acting in movies and TV shows, competing on Dancing With the Stars and penning mysteries about Sherlock Holmes and his brother, Mycroft. Most recently, he’s linked up with Ugg for its FEEL____ series. The campaign is an attempt by the lifestyle company to work with public figures who actually make a difference. It’s hard to think of a celebrity that fits that description better than Abdul-Jabbar.

Robb Report recently traded emails with Abdul-Jabbar about everything from Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy to the current state of America to NBA style. Here’s what he had to say:

You recently told Rolling Stone that the NBA should require players to be vaccinated for Covid-19 (as it already has for team staff and referees). Why do you think there’s resistance to the vaccine among some players? And what do you think would be the most effective way to persuade those players to reconsider?

Vaccine hesitancy among Blacks is due to a long history of being used and abused by the medical industry and by the government, so there’s not the same trust as most white people have. Even today, systemic racism has been proven to result in Blacks, regardless of their income or education, to receive less medical care than whites. However, NBA players can’t really use that excuse. The information of the necessity of the vaccine to save lives and shore up our economy is everywhere. There is no more research to do when thousands are dying every day. The evidence is clear and the logic is clear. Those players who are not convinced at this point can’t be convinced by facts and rational thinking, which is why we need vaccine mandates—to protect ourselves from their ignorance.

Abdul-Jabbar is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.  AP Images

You’ve used your influence to impact social change for over 60 years. But these can feel like particularly tense times in America, both politically and culturally. From your long vantage point as an activist, what concerns you most about the current moment in America? Do you believe that we are in a uniquely fraught time—or is that just a kind of recency bias? 

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a celebration of ignorance and a pandering to the uninformed on this large of a scale before. America used to admire intelligence and education. We were proud of our technological and scientific achievements. We held up our experts for the world to appreciate. We were leaders, not because of entitlement, but because of actual accomplishments. The divide has occurred because Republicans, who have not given us any new ideas or programs, have realized they can’t win elections based on ideology. So, they’ve chosen to try to win through fear and intimidation. They have pitted people against the same experts and innovators who we used to admire. Basically, they’ve taken a page out of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The irony is that many of their leaders are actually the Ivy League elite they’ve been railing against. Ted Cruz went to Princeton and Harvard; Josh Hawley went to Stanford and Yale. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such an emphasis of politicians putting career over the good of the country. However, the last few months seems to indicate we’re turning back toward a country that embraces the Enlightenment over the Dark Ages.

In May, the NBA announced the creation of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Award. You’ve long been recognized as one of the sport’s all-time greats, but how does it feel to have your name on an award that recognizes players for what they do off the court?

The best thing is that the NBA has taken their players’ concerns for social justice seriously. This award supports athletes being involved in bettering society, which is a long way from when they insisted players keep their opinions to themselves. It’s an honor to have the award named after me, but it’s a greater reward to see so many deserving athletes fighting as hard to do what’s right as they fight to win a game.

Why do you think it’s so hard for the media and fans to accept athletes having interests away from the playing field or court?

It’s like a school kid seeing their teacher outside class, buying underwear at Target. People are used to seeing athletes doing what made them famous. Those memories are sealed in people’s consciousness like that mosquito in amber in Jurassic Park. But social media has helped dispel those old-fashioned notions that athletes live in the locker room between games. So many athletes are actively and publicly involved in improving their communities and in speaking out against injustices that the image of the athlete is changing—for good.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wearing the Tasman slipper

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wearing the Tasman slipper  Ugg

The actions and statements of NBA players have been thrust into the limelight since the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. How do you view the players’ response to this challenging moment and the NBA’s response as a league?

The NBA has been very forward-thinking in its response to players’ concerns over BLM. They embraced the movement and offered support to the players. I’m very impressed and gratified to see so many players standing up and speaking out about these issues. It shows a sincere evolution of the league and of athletes.

Beyond last summer’s protests (and protesting as a tactic), what work do you think needs to be done to affect genuine change around policing and social justice? And do you think NBA players can use their platforms to help out? 

Yes, NBA players can help bring about change by keeping the public’s attention on inequities within our communities. What many players don’t realize is that social justice is not just wearing a t-shirt or kneeling at a couple games; it’s a lifelong commitment. I’ve been pushing that rock up the hill for over 50 years and still haven’t made it to the top. But maybe the next generation will.

Over the last few seasons, several athletes, both inside the NBA and out, have spoken out about their negative interactions with police. It seems naïve to think this is a recent phenomenon. Was this also a common issue for NBA players while you were playing but just not as publicized?

Black people have always been harassed by the police, regardless of social status. NBA players faced their share back then just as they do now. Players today are probably more recognizable because of social media, so there is probably less now than back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The Neumel chukka

The Neumel chukka  Ugg

You accomplished just about everything someone could hope to in basketball except being the head coach of an NBA or NCAA team. Does coaching still call to you at all, or is it something you’ve made peace with?

Not really. I still love basketball and I enjoy coaching from my couch. But I’m much too busy with writing, my charity, the Skyhook Foundation and my causes.

You’ve worked on so many different kinds of projects since you retired from the NBA. Which is your favorite and why?

I’ve done projects just for fun, like Dancing With the Stars. And my Skyhook Foundation, which helps give disadvantaged students hands-on STEM education, is very important to me. But my work as a writer focusing on the overlooked heroes of Black history and on current issues of social justice has allowed me to reach a lot of people. I’m hoping the articles, books and documentaries will help bring awareness of what we need to do to make this country the best it can be.

You write about a wide variety of areas and topics. Which subjects have resonated most with your readers?

My articles about the intersection of pop culture and social justice receive a lot positive response from readers because I try to point out how various forms of popular entertainment—including sports—have a significant impact on society. My recent articles on the necessity of NBA players to not only get vaccinated but to promote the vaccine, especially to the Black community, have been widely discussed. I hope they are having a positive effect on society.

The Tasman slipper

The Tasman slipper  Ugg

In addition to nonfiction, you’ve also written a trio of mystery novels starring Sherlock Holmes’s brother, Mycroft. What made you want to dive into the Sherlock Holmes universe and write a mystery from that point of view? Were you an avid Sherlock Holmes reader as a kid?  

I’ve loved Sherlock since I was a kid. He made me appreciate knowledge as well as being observant. What I like about the mystery genre is that there is always someone trying to exact justice, but the road to finding the truth can be misleading and convoluted. As in life. But I especially like that regardless of the threats, the danger, the self-doubt, the detective will not stop until justice is delivered and order is restored.

Switching gears, what led to your partnership with Ugg and participation in its FEEL____ campaign?

I get asked to endorse a lot of products, but I only want to associate myself with products that I feel reflect who I am and what my values are. Ugg footwear and clothing expresses my own casual—but I like to think fashionable—style. I also like the FEEL____ campaign’s emphasis on a diverse group of people who have worked for change.

You can be seen wearing the Neumel chukka and Tasman slipper in photos for the campaign. What is your favorite item from the series?

The chukka when I go out and the slipper when I’m kicking around the house.

How long have you worn Ugg? 

I’ve been aware of Ugg boots since the early 1980s, but I only started wearing them myself in the last five years. That’s when I really started to take notice of their innovative designs. By innovative I just mean that I feel cool wearing them.

Abdul-Jabbar takes on Bill Walton of the Boston Celtics in 1987

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar takes on Bill Walton of the Boston Celtics in 1987.  AP Images

You’ve been making fashion statements since your playing days. When did your interest in fashion begin? And what do you think about the way NBA style has evolved

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we weren’t just making a fashion statement, we were also making a political statement. We wanted to look cool and sexy while doing it. The colorful, eclectic clothes often declared that you were anti-establishment, which meant anti-racist, anti-war, anti-misogyny and more. Today, there are so many more effective ways to fight the power that you can avoid some of the fashion crimes we committed. Today’s NBA players have so many more choices about their own personal style that it’s a lot of fun to see how they choose to express themselves. Plus, they have a broader spectrum that’s acceptable, from tattoo chic to debonair elegance.

How would you describe your own personal style?

If I had to label my style, it would be former athlete turned college professor on summer vacation. Casual with a hint of elegance.

Solomon Hughes is going to play you in an upcoming drama series about the 1980s Showtime Lakers. How do you feel about this time in your life and career being adapted for TV, and what do you hope they get right?

The first casualty of war is truth, which can also be said about shows “based on true events.” “Based on” leaves a lot of wiggle room for exaggeration and pure invention. We were a successful team because we had faith, trust and affection for each other. I hope they get my hair right.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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