But He Doesn’t Play Defense, and He Won’t Sign Autographs

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.


  1. Jabar is very well respected in the world outside of the American media bubble. He is viewed as a religious and upright Muslim with integrity. He was far too politically conscious, radical and serious to project an image that was acceptable to the greater white American public, especially within the sports world. He was not your grateful skinning and grinning black athlete. Moreover, he was not prepared to keep his mouth shut, a la Bill Russell who shared many of Jabar’s sentiments about the relationship of black athletes to the greater society. His stature as an athlete was not damaged by his persona outside the United States, but was enhanced. Jabar wss of the Tommie Smith/John Carlos politically active and vocal school of athletics, which ran counter to the American cultural narrative regarding black athletic identity.

  2. Matt, I was going to send in a comment this morning on your last post that I thought that it was the best that I have read since I started following your blog several years ago. But I got distracted by the force of family responsibilities and did not get back on the computer until recently. I re-read that post and haven’t changed my mind.

    Now comes the negative. By the time I returned to your blog, you had put on the anti-Jabbar post. Your criticism of Jabbar apparently is based on social factors decades ago. I have followed his career from the days that he played at Powers Memorial High School in New York. He and Bill Russell were the best centers to play the game. Russell was probably more prickly than Kareem. He became an NBA coach because one man, Red Auerbach, had faith in his ability. Not getting into the NBA coaches “club,” where too many coaches get recycled from one team to another, is irrelevant. No mention is made of what Alcindor has done –or not done– in recent years. So from one of your best posts you went completely the other way. Good grief!

  3. Marty – and to everyone else primed to write in to defend Abdul-Jabbar against my scurrilous personal attacks: it was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek! Evidently too firmly! As a longtime reader and frequent contributor, Marty, I would expect you to be on to me now when I move from dispassionate analysis into the realm of humor (or at least what passes for humor with me!) The youtube video from Airplane! – a great spoof of airline disaster films, by the way – should have been the clue.

    For what it is worth, I can’t stand Abdul-Jabbar – but only because he’s a Laker, and I’m genetically unable to root for any of them, with the grudging exception of Magic Johnson, and that’s only because Larry Bird likes him. In contrast, my favorite basketball player of all time (and in my view the greatest of all time) is Bill Russell. I began following the Celtics during his last year as player-coach, in 1969, when he led an aging Celtics team to an improbable seven-game series win over the Lakers, who had Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on their team.

    If you want wonderful insight into what made Russell excel, and why he and Red Auberbach created the greatest sports dynasty of all time, read Russell’s memoir Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifetime Friend. After reading it, I think you’ll agree that, with all due respect to Kareem, he’s no Bill Russell.

  4. Matt, this is not really a Presidential Power commentary, but a sports commentary. So it’s fine with me if you don’t post it. Now a comparison of a baseball season with the Republican primary would make for a fun essay. Just look at the Red Sox collapse last year and put it in political terms. I have no problem needling Red Sox fans as I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan who can tell you where I was when Ralph Branca gave up the home run in 1951 and when Sandy Amoros made the catch in the 1955 World Series. By the way, my definition of a successful baseball season would be the Yankees going 0-162.

    Did I say I was a Lakers fan? No. Did I say I was a Celtics fan? No. I did say those two guys were the best centers ever. But they played different styles on different teams. I was a Knicks fan and vividly remember the seventh game of the 1970 ply-off when Willis walked out on the court on 1 1/2 legs, made his shot from the top of the key, and the game was basically over. I dislike, but respect the Celtics. My uncle played with Red Auerbach in college during the depression, had a sporting goods store in Washington after the war (Red lived in D.C. during every off-season) and was a close friend of Red’s until his death several years before Red passed away.

  5. Marty – There’s really no accounting for rooting interests in politics or sports, is there? My father was a die-hard Yankees fan. Although I loved him dearly, I can’t say I ever totally forgave him for this indiscretion. As you probably can understand, it was a source of some dispute when early on in life it became clear I was actually a Sox fan.

    I think any dispassionate analyst could make a case for either Abdul-Jabbar or Russell as the greatest. As you say, they played different styles, and in different eras. Fortunately, I can afford to be passionate in my sports allegiances, if not in my presidential politics. I’m sticking with Bill.

    Did your uncle ever get to go to Auberbach’s famous lunches he held weekly in Washington at some Chinese restaurant?

  6. 10-09-2014 Thursday San Diego, California

    Dear fellow friends. fans and collectors. I am 65 years old. I have collected sports autographs since 1959. Living in California I had access to Kareem since his UCLA days and Laker days.

    In college he wasn’t an easy autograph – so I would always go get Coach Wooden and ask him to stand next to me when I asked for just one autograph – “Lew” would sign one item. OK no problem. In 1978 (early into the 1978-79 NBA season), a member of the San Diego Clippers stats crew got sick – I filled in for him – FOR THE NEXT 3 SEASONS! I was able to obtain about 6,000+ signed items during 3 years “working only on game days for the Clippers.” The Lakers came to town 3 times per season here in San Diego. I always got Jamaal Wilkes (formerly Keith Wilkes) – and we’d approach Kareem. He never said no because Wilkes was standing next to me and he would say “Kareem, please sign these two photos for my buddy, Roger.” – so Kareem did – but he would just sign them Abdul-Jabbar. Then Wilkes would say, “Kareem, sign your first name also ” – and he’d hand them back to Kareem – That was all during the 1978-1979 season. Even back then it was near impossible to get a FULL signature – you needed a teammate like Wilkes, Norm Nixon or
    rookie Michael Cooper to assist in getting the items signed.

    I know that Kareem wasn’t fond of me because of all my roots are from Norway. However, in later years when he retired – I ran into Kareem and I had a really good talk with him. I realized some personal things about Kareem that made sense and he explained why he acted and did what he did. I remember when his house burned down. I had a collection of around 1,500 record albums. I took some of my best jazz albums, except for a couple of artists up to Los Angeles. I heard he was doing the commentary for some basketball game in in Los Angeles. With the help of my son – I went up to Kareem and said, “Kareem, I am sorry about what happened to you and losing your house – that had to devastating to you and your family.” I then showed him a nice selection of mint Jazz albums that I just gave to him – just because. I also included some that I outright bought, because I didn’t have them in my personal collection and since Kareem is true Jazz fan you gotta to have the early artists – the true pioneers.

    He was so very touched by my gift to him. After I gave him the two big boxes – my son and I went to our seats. During the second half of the game I saw him looking thru the boxes during timeouts and saw some BIG smiles come over his face when he got to Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis. I knew my jazz before going into the USAF (1968-1972).
    However, in my first two years my roommate, Howard (from Brooklyn) , also worked part time at a radio station whereby we he access to alot of free albums. George Benson, a
    session musician had gone solo and was just great – so I made sure Kareem got certain
    Benson albums that were “must have albums.”

    Kindness is a wonderful thing and yes it is better to give than receive.

    I hope you enjoyed this “write up about Kareem.”

    Roger C. San Diego

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *