This past Thursday evening, my wife and I had the privilege of hearing the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speak at the State Theatre as part of Cleveland State University’s 2018 AHA! Festival. Abdul-Jabbar was there in part to promote his new book, Becoming Kareem, and was an engaging speaker who commanded the room on a highly enjoyable night.
During his hour on stage, Abdul-Jabbar spoke on a variety of topics. He emphasized the influence reading and writing has had on him throughout his life, particularly during his time at UCLA, where he earned his degree in history, and after his basketball career was over, as he has currently written fourteen books. He talked about the influence men such as John Wooden, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and his own father have had on his life, and the importance of having mentors in important areas of one’s life. Most importantly, Abdul-Jabbar discussed the importance of treating people from all backgrounds as equals, not judging individuals based on group stereotypes, and the need for the acceptance and understanding of different races and cultures that is often lacking in our society.
Abdul-Jabbar talked a little basketball as well. He talked about how the game has changed so much from his playing days, with the emphasis on three point shooting, but was quick to add that he felt the best way to get those shooters open was to have a dominant presence in the paint. He talked about his perfecting the sky hook using the Mikan Drill as a young boy, and lamented how the shot was no longer used in the league. Finally, he was very complimentary of how the city of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio in general have supported the Cavaliers over the last several years, saying it was a far cry from the days of the decrepit Cleveland Arena, or the Richfield Coliseum, which he explained as being halfway between Cleveland and Akron, and too far for anyone to drive to.
As he spoke to us, I found myself thinking about the amazing life Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has led. From his experiences during the Civil Rights Movment, to taking a Muslim name at a time when that was considered highly controversial, to a long and storied basketball career that only a select few can compare to, to his work as an activist and cultural ambassador for our country. Only a handful of people in history have lived such a fascinating life. When we left for home that night, I found myself comparing Abdul-Jabbar to LeBron James, a man who is 37 years younger, but has already lived an amazing life himself.
In many ways, James has more in common with Abdul-Jabbar than any other athlete in NBA history. Besides being arguably two of the top five players in NBA history (I have them there along with Jordan, Russell, and Wilt. Magic and Bird are six and seven), they are also arguably the two players with the longest primes of anyone in basketball history. Kareem also mentioned that he often read before games to help him relax, something James is known for doing, and placed an emphasis on Yoga for strength and flexibility before it was common to do so. Like James, Abdul-Jabbar left his original team (The Milwaukee Bucks) for a more glamorous setting (The Los Angles Lakers), although Abdul-Jabbar has stated that his reasons were stated to be due more to cultural needs than anything else. Unlike LeBron, Abdul-Jabbar never went back to the Bucks, and played his final 14 seasons with the Lakers. But, while they are/were among the best players basketball has ever seen, both men are so much more than that. Both men are known as advocates for those in need, and have regularly spoken out on the injustices in our society.
And if there’s one thing I struck me from listening to Kareem speak, it was the many facets of who he is. Basketball continues to be a big part of his life, but it doesn’t define him as a person, and it never has. He’s also a father, activist, actor, author, and humanitarian. LeBron James is the greatest athlete in the history of Cleveland sports, but he’s also a father, husband, entrepreneur, actor, activist, and many other things. All of these things are a part of who he is, but none of them can solely define him.
Cleveland: A lot of dumb people are going to say a lot of dumb things about your favorite team. Let them yell blindly into the ether. It’ll be OK.
— Scott @ WFNY (@WFNYScott) June 9, 2018
The same thing is true for the people of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. Yes, we are Cavalier fans who have watched James since he was a sophomore in high school. We are passionate sports fans who have been disappointed more times than we care to remember. But we are also husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, teachers, doctors, lawyers, coworkers, neighbors and so many other things. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Browns, and the Indians are a part of who we are, but they don’t define us. Whatever James decides to do in his future, I wish him the best. If he leaves, I’ll miss seeing him on the Cavaliers, but I’ll also look back on this era with a smile, (particularly June 19, 2016, a terrific Father’s Day present). No matter what happens with LeBron and the Cavaliers, we’ll be okay. After all, sports are great, but we’re so much more than that.