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FOCUS | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Donald Trump: 'The President Is More of a Problem Than a Solution'
Sunday, 18 November 2018 12:56

Duffy writes: "Abdul-Jabbar contended that Trump is taking credit for the economic recovery initiated by Obama while driving wedges between Americans with appeals to xenophobia and racism."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Getty)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Getty)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Donald Trump: 'The President Is More of a Problem Than a Solution'

By Andrew Duffy, Ottawa Citizen

18 November 18

Maybe it’s because of his stature — he has to bend into most rooms — but history has always had a way of finding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

he NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Abdul-Jabbar was among the first professional athletes to use his public platform to advance the cause of civil rights. He stood beside Muhammad Ali in 1967 when the then world heavyweight champion was stripped of his title and banned from fighting for refusing the Vietnam draft. (Like Ali, he would convert to Islam and change his name.) He refused to participate in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico as a show of racial solidarity following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and riots in Newark and Detroit.

Now an author, columnist and political commentator, the greying, 71-year-old Abdul-Jabbar remains a fearless crusader — and a cultural lighting rod.

He has mounted a spirited defence of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick — ousted from the league after kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality — denounced the body-shaming of tennis star Serena Williams, and called for the jailing of politicians who create false election ads.

He has also attracted the ire — and insults — of U.S. President Donald Trump.

In one Washington Post article, Abdul-Jabbar called out his bullying tactics with the media, and Trump responded with a handwritten note, scrawled across the offending column: “Kareem: Now I know why the press always treated you so badly — they couldn’t stand you. You don’t have a clue about life and what has to be done to make America great again! Best wishes, Donald Trump.”

In an interview this week after his WE Day appearance in Ottawa, Abdul-Jabbar told this newspaper that only someone with a “ridiculously huge ego” could write such a note.

“The man can’t deal with criticism when it’s valid. I know that I have to deal with criticism when I screw up. Most people do. But he doesn’t see it that way.”

Trump has argued that he’s done more for the wellbeing of U.S. minorities than any other president, including Barack Obama, by reducing the unemployment rate to 3.7 per cent — a 49-year low.

But Abdul-Jabbar called that claim “absurd.” He contended that Trump is taking credit for the economic recovery initiated by Obama while driving wedges between Americans with appeals to xenophobia and racism.

“I think the president is more of a problem than a solution because he keeps pointing to why we should fear each other,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “and we need people who are going to point to how we can co-operate and solve the problems that need to be solved.”

Abdul-Jabbar said he was encouraged by the midterm elections that gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives: “It seems that people understand what’s at stake — and they’re doing what they can to preserve our democracy.”

Now a grandfather, it would be easy for Abdul-Jabbar to withdraw from the public stage at this point in his life, but he continues to advocate for the next generation. “I want to see them grow up in a nation that will continue to be a standard for what’s right in the world,” he said. “We’re stepping away from that in many ways now. That worries me, so I speak out, and, hopefully, people are listening.”

As part of that effort, Abdul-Jabbar this year appeared at WE Day youth empowerment events in New York, Toronto, Winnipeg and Ottawa. He likes the feel-good events, he said, because they allow young people to reach out in friendship to those who live with them in the same country.

“I think that’s crucial for building a sense of community and nationhood.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s message to students? He asks them to look beyond their immediate social circles and to engage with people from other cultures and communities. “Because you can dispel the fear with just a conversation,” he said, “and you find out that most people are just the same: They want good jobs and educational opportunities; they want a clean and peaceful neighbourhood.”

Abdul-Jabbar grew up as Lew Alcindor in the Harlem neighbourhood of New York City. His father, Ferdinand, was a transit cop and a Julliard-trained jazz musician; his mother, Cora, was a seamstress.

Kareem was a bookish, self-conscious kid who began to play basketball as a way to fit in at school. His favourite sport was baseball.

Although he wasn’t a naturally gifted basketball player, Abdul-Jabbar grew quickly (he was 6-8 in Grade 8), worked hard at practice and developed an unstoppable hook shot: a graceful, leaping, high-arcing shot that came to be known as the skyhook.

What’s more, he channeled his anger at the many injustices faced by African-Americans into rebounding. “Each point I scored was a point for the team, but each ball I grabbed away from others, pushing and elbowing for it, felt like another point scored for my people,” he writes in his 2017 autobiography, Becoming Kareem. “On the court, I wanted to make them feel the way they made me feel off the court: helpless.”

His high school, Power Memorial, (coached by Jack Donahue, later the Canadian national men’s team coach) won 71 straight games, while his college team, UCLA, won three consecutive national championships. In a 20-year NBA career, Abdul-Jabbar added six more championships and six league MVP awards.

Off the court, he trained in martial arts with Bruce Lee, and converted to Islam after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He was inspired by Malcolm X’s exhortation, “If you want something, you had better make some noise.”

“The book was my own journey of political and spiritual awakening,” Abdul-Jabbar writes in his autobiography.

That autobiography is one of 14 books he’s published as part of a prolific post-basketball writing career. He has written for Time, The Guardian, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. His books have included three memoirs, several works of black history and a series of novels about Mycroft Holmes, older brother of Sherlock, whose best friend is Cyrus Douglas, a Trinidadian.

“It’s a different look at Victorian England,” said Abdul Jabbar, who credits his grandmother for his storytelling. She grew up in the West Indies with no TV or radio, and delighted in telling her grandchildren bedtime stories about vampires.

In recent years, Abdul Jabbar has had to overcome a number of health problems, including quadruple bypass surgery, and a rare form of leukemia, but he has no plans to slow down. Among other things, he operates a charity, the Skyhook Foundation, that helps disadvantaged youth pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“I want more of the same,” he said of his future.

In November 2016, Abdul-Jabbar was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the country’s highest civilian honour — by then U.S. president Barack Obama, who praised him for his dedication to civil rights, social justice and to defending his Muslim faith.

“Physically, intellectually, spiritually,” Obama said, “Kareem is one-of-a-kind: an American who both illuminates our most basic freedoms and our highest aspirations.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by the Numbers

7’2”: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s official height, although he lists himself an inch shorter now

38,387: Career points that Abdul-Jabbar scored in the NBA

24.6: Average points he scored per game

88-2: Kareem’s college record at UCLA, where he won three national championships

19: Number of NBA all-star games to which he was named in 20 seasons

1978: The year he appears in a fight scene with Bruce Lee in the martial artist’s last film, Game of Death

1980: The year he appears as moonlighting co-pilot Roger Murdock in the film Airplane!

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Last Updated on Sunday, 18 November 2018 12:58