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dan shaughnessy

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a social conscience since the ’60s, remains an important voice today

Lew Alcindor (front right) at a press conference in Cleveland in 1967 in support of Muhammad Ali (second from left). Also present are Bill Russell (far left), Jim Brown (second from right), and several other pro athletes (standing).
Lew Alcindor (front right) at a press conference in Cleveland in 1967 in support of Muhammad Ali (second from left). Also present are Bill Russell (far left), Jim Brown (second from right), and several other pro athletes (standing).Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

I've been thinking about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lately.

Abdul-Jabbar is 73 years old and has been part of American sports fans’ consciousness for more than a half-century. Here in Boston, we remember him as Dave Cowens’s nemesis in the 1970s and a big part of the Celtics-Lakers, Larry-Magic wonder years in the 1980s.

There’s a lot more regarding Abdul-Jabbar and New England. Did you know he played a high school game against Catholic Memorial in Providence in 1964? Did you know he came to Holy Cross for a sham of a recruiting visit in 1965 when he was a senior at Power Memorial High School in New York City? Did you know he dominated kids from Boston College and Holy Cross when he was a national champ at UCLA?

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Abdul-Jabbar has been in the news a lot these last few days. A lifelong activist, and a gifted speaker/writer, he has been a smart voice in the tumultuous days since George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. Abdul-Jabbar penned a thoughtful essay for the Los Angeles Times (“Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge”) and has appeared on major TV networks discussing American issues of race, rage, and protest.

"Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage,'' Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "Just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African-Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.''

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Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has also carved out a name as an activist.
Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has also carved out a name as an activist.ROBYN BECK

Abdul-Jabbar is not new to activism. Never one to "shut up and dribble,'' he parlayed his athletic gifts into a platform for speaking out when he was a 7-foot high schooler in New York in the 1960s. Born as Lew Alcindor in 1947, he was a national basketball sensation as a center for Power Memorial in the early 1960s. In December of his senior season, 17-year-old Alcindor met Martin Luther King Jr. when the Nobel Peace Prize recipient came to speak at a Harlem mentoring program. It was a big moment in his young life.

"During the press conference that was covered by all the major news media, I had the opportunity to ask him a question,'' Abdul-Jabbar later wrote. "I admired him for his courage to advocate change through non-violence.''

One day after meeting Dr. King, Alcindor and his Power teammates bused to Providence for the sixth annual La Salle Academy Invitational Basketball Festival. In addition to Power, the tourney included Catholic Memorial (West Roxbury), Chaminade High (Mineola, N.Y.), De La Salle Academy (Newport, R.I.), and Mackin High (Washington, D.C.).

Future NBA star Austin Carr played for Mackin. Catholic Memorial was coached by Ronnie Perry and anchored by a 6-8 center, Ron Teixeira. CM would win the Massachusetts state championship in the 1964-65 season, but the Knights were no match for Alcindor and Power in December of 1964. Alcindor scored 24 in a 61-38 victory.

"We were No. 3 in the US behind Power,'' recalled Dick Osso, a member of the 1964-65 Knights who roomed with Teixeira in Providence the night before the game. "Tex was going through all his moves before bed. When the game started, he faked Jabbar left and drove right and missed a bunny layup. Next time down, Big Lew blocked his shot coming down. Game over.

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"It had never happened before. Jabbar dunked the ball the first time he had the ball. They beat us by 23. At halftime [Power, 32-11], Coach Perry told us to try to make it look decent.''

CM went 29-1 that season, smashing Durfee, 62-45, in the state championship game. Teixeira, who scored 14 against Alcindor, accepted a scholarship to Holy Cross, where he played for Alcindor’s high school coach, Jack Donohue.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands with President Barack Obama during a 2015 event at the White House.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands with President Barack Obama during a 2015 event at the White House.Mark Wilson

Donohue was a controlling coach who handled Alcindor's recruiting process. When Donohue accepted an offer to coach at Holy Cross for the start of the 1965-66 season, he asked Alcindor to visit HC to make it look like the Crusaders had a chance to land the superstar.

“He insisted I visit the campus in Massachusetts,'' Abdul-Jabbar recounted in his 1983 bestseller, “Giant Steps.” "I had no intention of attending the school … but he had some people to impress, so I put in an appearance.

"It was a pretty place, but there wasn’t a lot of … color … around. It developed that there was actually only a handful of black students in the whole school and Mr. Donohue had arranged for one of them to give me a Holy Cross sales pitch.

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"I was introduced to my guide and as soon as we got out of Mr. Donohue’s earshot he made the good impression. ‘If you come here you’re crazy,’ he told me. ‘This is the worst place for you to go to school. You won’t have any fun at all. You’ll be isolated. Man, pick someplace else!' ’'

The rest, of course, is history.

It was big news in 1965 when high schooler Lew Alcindor announced he would attend UCLA.
It was big news in 1965 when high schooler Lew Alcindor announced he would attend UCLA.Anthony Camerano/Associated Press

Alcindor went to UCLA and won three NCAA championships. In 1967, when he was only 20 years old, he was invited to the Cleveland Summit, where he joined sports legends Bill Russell and Jim Brown in support of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. He converted to Islam and started using his new name in 1971.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played 20 NBA seasons, winning six championships, five with the Lakers, two against the Celtics. He retired from basketball at the age of 42 in 1989. He wrote several more books and became a columnist for Time magazine. He was appointed a cultural ambassador for the United States in 2012.

Reacting to President Trump’s travel ban in 2017, Abdul-Jabbar wrote, "The absence of reason and compassion is the very definition of pure evil because it is a rejection of our sacred values, distilled from millennia of struggles.''

The greatest scorer in NBA history never abandoned his social conscience, and 31 years after making his last sky hook, Abdul-Jabbar’s opinions are valued more than ever.


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.