One-on-one with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Upon launching his own Substack, Kareem took my questions on LeBron chasing his scoring record, where he fits in the GOAT debate and why he seems to enjoy writing even more than basketball writers do

The skyhook and a book signing … they’re both signature strokes for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images; Brandon Williams)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 more points in the NBA than I did, but that's not the number that makes me envious.

He's written 17 books, frequently writes guest columns for The Hollywood Reporter after previously writing for Time and makes documentaries and writes for TV shows, too. He has a boundless passion for the craft and more range as a scribe than a lot of us who do this as our primary gig.

Not fair.

Why Kareem prefers the written word, when there are less laborious options readily available to share one's viewpoint, has long been one of my curiosities about the Hall of Famer. The 74-year-old stopped playing five years before this fiftysomething started covering the NBA full-time, so I've never interviewed him at length until now, but we had a chat over email over the weekend about his writing (and some pressing NBA topics) after he made another publishing splash last Friday by launching his own Substack.

You can sign up for Kareem's Substack here. To the convo …

Substack has attracted some prominent figures to its platform, but not too many six-time NBA MVPs. What made you decide that you wanted your own Substack?

Kareem: I think I’m in pretty good company. Salman Rushdie is a terrific writer and Scott Snyder is one of my favorite comic book writers. You’re one of the best sports writers. When I see a lot of people I like and admire form a creative and energetic community, I’m eager to join in.

I also saw this as an opportunity to create my own community of fans, friends and others who share my interests and point of view about sports, politics and popular culture. I wanted to provide a more personal, even intimate experience for us to examine the world, celebrate it and even try to make it better.

I also get to create unique content in one place that I couldn’t do before. Each publication I write for wants a different kind of article from me. But here I can do whatever I want. Plus I can interact with my audience with audio and video clips just for them.

You have been writing columns and books and various other forms of content for years, so you know as well as anyone how taxing this medium can be. What is it about writing that appeals to you so much?

Kareem: Since high school, my academic studies have always been just as important to me as my athletic pursuits. I have a deep interest in history, literature, science and the arts. I also have a passion for social justice — for voicing the needs and concerns of marginalized people. Writing is an opportunity to combine those interests by using my knowledge to help promote the causes that make America better.

The documentaries I’ve worked on at the History Channel about Black Americans’ contributions in the American Revolution and Civil War allow me to educate America on parts of history that have often been deliberately suppressed. The books I’ve written about the Harlem Renaissance and overlooked Black inventors create pride in the African American community.

I also like to entertain. Writing gives me a chance to be frivolous. I’ve written novels and a graphic novel about Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s smarter brother. I was a writer on the TV show Veronica Mars. I wrote young adult novels about basketball-playing kids who solve mysteries. That was pure fun for me and, I hope, for my readers.

I saw a picture of you recently near a mural in downtown Los Angeles that lists more of your off-the-court achievements than on-court achievements. Do those things mean more to you than basketball honors?

Kareem: They are both important to me. I don’t think about awards or records as a personal validation, but as a measurement of how hard I worked to provide good entertainment for the fans and to be a good teammate. I am grateful that my success in basketball gave me a platform to speak out against injustice, to create the Skyhook Foundation to help kids get a better STEM education and to bring awareness to issues affecting the country.

To go back to Milwaukee as a spectator and sit next to Oscar Robertson and other Bucks teammates from the 1970s … what was it like to reconnect with that fan base and watch from up close as the Bucks finally won it all again after 50 years?

Kareem: The Milwaukee fans were always very supportive of me, even when I converted to Islam and changed my name. That had to be a hard transition for them, especially 50 years ago. So being back in Milwaukee was like returning to my place of birth, because that’s where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born. Being there with Oscar was especially rewarding because he’s always been like a big brother to me. I often relied on his wisdom and experience to help me navigate my early career.

LeBron James is right around 3,000 points behind you for the NBA's all-time scoring lead. If he can put a couple more injury-free seasons together, he has a real opportunity to pass you. How would you feel about that?

Kareem: I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.

Younger fans likely don't realize the influence that you and Wilt Chamberlain held as players you're an ideal person to ask about what has been described for the past decade as the NBA's Player Empowerment Era. How do you see the level of control players can exert over their own careers today compared to the 1970s and 1980s?

Kareem: Every generation of athlete feels they were born too early to reap the benefits that they see the current generation enjoying. Sure, this generation of NBA players is the most empowered in terms of guiding their own careers, getting paid and having the freedom to speak out. But it can always be better and years from now a journalist will be asking a similar question to old-timers LeBron and Steph and they’ll say the new generation has it better than they did. And they’ll be right.

One of the things we can certainly say about the Player Empowerment Era is that it's very noisy things don't stay secret for very long. How were you and the Bucks able to keep your desire to be traded quiet for most of the 1974-75 season?

Kareem: There were a lot fewer reporters then because there were a lot fewer outlets clamoring for content. The siren song of Twitter and the need to feed hungry followers didn’t exist. Mostly the reason we were able to keep it secret was because everyone acted with honor and good faith.

(Editor’s note: Remember my recent This Week In Basketball item on Thomas Bonk and his cool watch from the 1975 All-Star Game in Phoenix? This 1987 story from T-Bonk in The Los Angeles Times recounts how it was actually legendary Knicks broadcaster Marv Albert who broke the news of Abdul-Jabbar’s trade availability in March 1975 — five months after Kareem lodged his trade demand and promised the Bucks he wouldn’t make it public.)

The skyhook certainly looks to an outsider like a difficult shot to learn, which explains why we really haven’t seen anyone make consistent use of it since you played. How old were you when you developed the shot and what made it so comfortable for you?

Kareem: In fifth and sixth grade, I spent more time on the bench than on the court. But Coach Hopkins saw something in me and brought in a college kid from the neighborhood to teach me the Mikan Drill, named after George Mikan, whose hook shot devastated teams when he was at DePaul University. I just kept practicing it until I could hook with the left or right hand as well as with a higher arc and from farther away. I was also pretty good at the slam dunk, but what I like about the skyhook is the grace and athleticism of it as opposed to the sheer power of the stuff.

Too often the NBA's greatest-of-all-time debate gets boiled down to Jordan vs. LeBron. I know this bothers many observers who were old enough to watch you play; how bothersome is it to you to be excluded from the GOAT discussion?

Kareem: GOAT discussions are fun, like debating who’s faster: Superman or the Flash. It’s a metaphysical mystery. The question can never be answered because players from the past were trained under different restrictions and played under different rules. Then you have to ask what to give more weight to: Scoring, defense, assists? All of them? But the stats don’t always reveal the particular conditions and challenges of each season. Way too many variables. How about we just discuss the O’GOAT (One of the Greatest of All-Time)?

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As with the 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies that were pushed all the way into this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Saturday's festivities in Springfield, Mass., were tinged with sadness amid the celebration.

The mood certainly wasn't as heavy as it proved for the Class of 2020 in May, when Kobe Bryant's posthumous induction ensured that the evening would be as heart-wrenching as any ceremony in Hall history. Yet there was no escaping the reality that the 2021 inductions fell on Sept. 11 — 20 years from the date of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Hall thus arranged for enshrinement proceedings to begin with a solemn reflection on the anniversary from 2018 inductee Ray Allen and a rendition of "America the Beautiful" from Grammy winner Anthony Hamilton. These were important (and mandatory) gestures given the weight of the occasion.

Twenty years on from one of the darkest days in this country's history, many of us naturally felt the urge last week to talk about where we were when we first heard that the towers were hit, since anyone old enough remembers it all too vividly. But I’ve personally been unsure about how deeply I should go here in reconstructing my New York-to-Dallas travel that morning … how surreal it felt to have rebooked from my originally scheduled evening trip home onto one of the first flights out of LaGuardia and then trying to figure out what was happening while in the air.

I moved my departure time way up (without telling my future wife or my office) because I was planning to surprise the eventual Mrs. Line with an earlier-than-anticipated arrival on my return from a long road trip covering the 2001 US Open for The Dallas Morning News. All I managed to do in the end was terrify her and some of my co-workers when no one could reach me amid the disaster in Manhattan because, without anyone's knowledge in Dallas, I was already in transit.

After the freeze-you-in-your-seat announcement from the cockpit that all flight travel in the country was being grounded — something that had never previously happened in American aviation history — our plane was forced to land in Memphis. I was one of the very fortunate passengers whisked from baggage claim onto buses to Dallas and other drivable destinations, but what I remember most is how the (roughly) 10-hour ride to North Texas actually felt like it passed in an hour or two. It was impossible to do anything other than laser in on the radio coverage of the attacks that echoed throughout the bus.

I wrote a story about that flight for the Sept. 12, 2001, edition of The Morning News that is not available online. I thought about expanding upon it here beyond the past few paragraphs, but there’s really no need. Much more pertinent stories from the aftermath of the attacks tell us so much more and, sadly, are plentiful when it comes to a day that changed the world forever.

The magnitude of 9/11 was such that families within the NBA’s sphere were inevitably devastated. Dan Trant, selected by the Boston Celtics as the 228th and last player in the famed 1984 NBA Draft headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, was a bond trader among the nearly 3,000 victims killed at Ground Zero by the two hijacked airplanes that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. John Beaven, an executive vice president of ticket sales and services with the Golden State Warriors, lost his father that day when Alan Beaven was among the passengers on the ill-fated United Flight No. 93 who fought back against their hijackers in an attempt to seize control of the plane before it crashed in Pennsylvania.

I’m on roughly my 10th read of the tremendous piece below from Shaun Powell, my longtime press-row colleague and fellow resident of last summer's Disney World bubble, on his younger brother Scott (and Michael Jordan’s role in comforting his family). Scott Powell was a computer contractor who lost his life when a third hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon. Shaun Powell felt the pain of 9/11 as acutely as anyone I know and lets us in 20 years later with a sentence that confirms the worst (“Nothing prepares you for the horror and the shock and definitely not the immediate aftermath of that.”) and even more powerful second paragraph.

Numbers Game

🏀 16

There were 16 honorees in the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2021 class inducted Saturday night in Springfield — just one shy of the Hall's record 17 in its inaugural year of 1959 and again in 1961. The full 2021 list: Val Ackerman (contributor), Rick Adelman (coach), Chris Bosh (player), Bob Dandridge (veterans committee), Cotton Fitzsimmons (contributor), Howard Garfinkel (contributor), Yolanda Griffith (player), Lauren Jackson (player), Clarence Jenkins (Early African American Pioneers committee), Toni Kukoč (international), Pearl Moore (women’s veterans committee), Paul Pierce (player), Bill Russell (coach), Ben Wallace (player), Chris Webber (player) and Jay Wright (coach).

🏀 2

The smallest Hall of Fame classes in Springfield history featured only two inductees in 1966 and 1970. There was a class of just three inductees — college coaching titans John Chaney and Mike Krzyzewski and legendary center Moses Malone — as recently as 2001.

🏀 4,970

Nearly 5,000 days after the Los Angeles Lakers traded Marc Gasol to Memphis the first time on Feb. 1, 2008 — 4,970 days to be exact — Gasol was dealt from the Lakers to the Grizzlies again last Friday. In the first deal, Memphis received the draft rights to Gasol, who would not make his NBA debut until the following season (2008-09). After this trade, Gasol is expected to negotiate a buyout with the Grizzlies that likely brings an end to his NBA career but allows him to leave the league with the franchise for which he established himself as a three-time NBA All-Star.

🏀 20

The Raptors on Friday formally received permission from the Canadian government to resume playing their home games in Canada in October — nearly 20 months since they last hosted a game at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 28, 2020.

🏀 6

FIBA recently announced that qualifying for its 32-country World Cup in 2023 will take place in six qualifying "windows" between November 2021 and February 2023. Four of the six windows, though, will fall during the next two NBA and EuroLeague seasons — and the top two leagues in the world do not allow players to be released from their teams in-season to participate in international competition. I wrote about the many flaws in this format for The New York Times in November 2017 and little has changed since. Because the best basketball leagues in the world do not take international breaks, as the top soccer leagues in the world are compelled to do by their sport's governing body (FIFA), qualifying for basketball's World Cup takes places without the overwhelming majority of the sport's foremost players.