In my focus on the Republican primary race, I’ve neglected a number of other important stories involving presidential politics, including this one. On January 18, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she was appointing basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the State Department’s global Cultural Ambassador. In his new role Abdul-Jabbar will travel the world, leading “conversations with young people on the importance of education, social and racial tolerance, cultural understanding, and using sports as a means of empowerment. In addition, he will participate in basketball clinics with young people… .”
Abdul-Jabbar as global Cultural Ambassador? Is this really a wise move?
Look, this man is undoubtedly one of the greatest players of all time. He is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, averaged almost 25 points per game, and his sky hook is probably the most devastating basketball shot ever devised.
But cultural ambassador? It’s not coincidence that Abdul-Jabbar has been unable to land an NBA coaching job since retiring. He’s simply not well liked. Much of it is his own doing. His celebrated teammate Earvin “Magic” Johnson recalls that while a teenager, he once sought Abdul-Jabbar’s autograph after a basketball game. Johnson remembered that although Abdul-Jabbar signed, he “was so dismissive that Johnson felt horribly slighted and brooded all the way back to his home in Lansing.” In his joint memoir with Larry Bird (as told to former Boston Globe columnist Jackie MacMullan in the classic When the Game Was Ours), Johnson remembers, “Thank God Kareem was my teammate, because I used to cringe at the way he treated people….Sometimes he’d have people in tears. It’s hurt him now that he’s done playing.” Indeed it has. In recent years, Abdul-Jabbar has complained about a number of perceived slights, including the Laker’s failure to honor him with a statue outside the Staples Center where the Lakers play their home games.
It’s not like this is a state secret – Abdul-Jabbar’s prickliness has long been known. Consider this clip, from early in his career, in a role very similar to that of cultural ambassador. Does he strike you as a man qualified to deal with young people?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: He won’t play defense. And he doesn’t sign autographs.