Kareem Abdul Jabbar – Still Standing Tall
By C. Naseer Ahmad
On November 22nd, 2016, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who remains the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and who authored more than a dozen books. The famous basketball champion was among the 21 people honored by President Obama for their meritorious services and contribution to society.
Speaking about Abdul-Jabbar, President Obama said: “When a sport changes its rule, you are really good.” Commending the basketball player’s contributions and character, President Obama continued: “He stood up for his Muslim faith when it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t popular.”
In announcing these awards, President Obama said, "The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation's highest civilian honor - it's a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better. From scientists, philanthropists, and public servants to activists, athletes, and artists, these 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way."
The National Press Club notes on its website that “Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA’s MVP six times over during the 20 seasons he played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a member of six championship teams and was named an All-Star a record 19 times”. It also informs the readers that after he retired, Abdul-Jabbar became a successful author, publishing graphic novels and books on African-American history.
The sports legend’s stature was already established on the basketball courts, long time ago. The visual image of Abdul-Jabbar standing next to President Obama, a tall figure himself, gives an idea about his height. But, the real measure could only be felt in the Bloomberg Room at the National Press Club on Oct. 17, 2016 because his head almost touched the 7 foot 9 inches ceiling where folks six foot or so might qualify as a “shorty.”
To start with, Abdul-Jabbar responded to “Assalamo ‘alaikum” with a warm “Walaikumassalam” – in the traditional Muslim greeting. Both his voice and demeanor had the message of an ambassador of goodwill who is willing to listen to an argument from someone who might have a different opinion.
The traditional National Press Club luncheon is an opportunity for the speaker, an author, a politician, a sportsman or an artist – to pitch his or her own ideas and/or most recent publication or project. This setting makes it possible for the speaker to reach out to the audience in the ballroom – and across the world through radio and C-SPAN - and then responding to the questions from the audience.
It was quite refreshing to note that Abdul-Jabbar spoke for perhaps less than 10 minutes but then spent most of the time listening to the questions. In his answers, Abdul-Jabbar had plenty to say. For example, on the question about a community’s relationship with the police, his advice was to say “our police” and “not the police.” Likewise, for the police he recommended that it not be “those people” but the “people we serve.”
In response to a question: “are we Americans yet?” Abdul-Jabbar said that “we are Americans when we pledge allegiance.” In this context, he spoke warmly about MrKhizr Khan, father of late Captain Humayun Khan and felt honored to introduce him at the Democratic National Convention earlier this year.
Abdul-Jabbar’s latest work which was published in August 2016 addresses social concerns in an honest way. The book “Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White,” presents arguments for dialogue which involves both listening and hearing things that on each side of any argument take sincerely to heart.
In person, Abdul-Jabbar speaks soft and with respect for the listener. In his writings, Abdul-Jabbar communicates clarity in a time when clamoring for attention with loud voices and shrill behavior. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is well deserved for this ambassador of goodwill both on and off the basketball courts around the world.