There are so many nuggets in the amazing life of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that it should come as no surprise when he drops another that adds to his legend, and to the image as a man as brilliant off the basketball floor as he was dominant on it.
In 1972, after his third NBA season, Abdul-Jabbar took a course in Arabic at Harvard University. He was coming off his second MVP season, averaging 34.8 points and 16.6 rebounds for the Bucks. Yet he sought to learn the language of the Koran, so he spent the summer in Cambridge.
Forty-four years later, Abdul-Jabbar was back at Harvard recently speaking at a coaches clinic given by the Crimson’s Tommy Amaker and offering his opinions on not only the NBA but national issues and athlete activism.
Abdul-Jabbar has transformed himself from one of the greatest players of all time to a scholar and author. He has written several books, the latest of which, “Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White,” addresses some of his thoughts on today’s racial climate.
“It seems like there is an emphasis on anger and division, things that are seen as problematic by large segments of our population. Those are definitely issues of concern,” he said. “It bothers me that people think that Mexican immigrants are responsible for the loss of our manufacturing jobs. Mexican immigrants have nothing to do with it. The distortion of everything, this battle of ideas is not being waged with fact. That bothers me.
“We should be able to agree on what the facts are. Our opinions are our own but the facts should be something we could come to an agreement on. It seems like that’s impossible at this point.”
On June 4, 1967, shortly after finishing his sophomore season at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar participated in perhaps the most famous athlete summit of all time, along with the likes of Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Willie Davis, to support Muhammad Ali in his refusal to enter the Army.
Nearly 50 years later, some current athletes have decided to use various methods to protest issues such as police brutality and racism.
“There’s certain feelings of alarm among segments of our populace because the skin color of the country has gotten a little bit darker over the past 20 or 30 years,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “This is a cause of alarm for some people. I don’t see that as being a problem, but some people do. I think that has a lot to do with this. It certainly shouldn’t be a problem. People of color are patriotic Americans in the same way that white people are. So, I don’t get that.”
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has made headlines by taking a knee during the national anthem before games. It caused a firestorm of criticism, but several other NFL players followed his lead. In the NBA, some teams, such as the Celtics, have taken to locking arms during the anthem to show solidarity, and to acknowledge current issues.
“I’m glad to see the younger athletes are concerned about what they’re seeing and saying something about it,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They have a ways to go to learn about the whole process of political interaction, but it was good to see them getting their baptism in. It’s kind of interesting for me because some of the same naive questions that I had, I see them asking. That’s where we start. But until we can have a conversation about these issues it’s going to be difficult, and I’m glad that some of the athletes have taken it upon themselves to initiate some type of discourse and to start the conversation. That’s how we solve things.”
Abdul-Jabbar said he never considered toning down his activism for the sake of marketing or popularity.
“Muhammad Ali was a great example for me,” he said. “He sacrificed the primary years of his career to make a point about the Vietnam War, and he paid for it. But our country benefited from it. People respect him and will always respect him for that. Sometimes you have to make a choice.”
Abdul-Jabbar feels a connection with today’s athletes.
“I don’t think the climate is that different,” he said. “This is still America. The issues that we’re dealing with have their roots in the earliest days of our country. These are problems and issues that have been with us for a while. I don’t think the fact they’ve reared up a little bit makes much difference. This is still an American issue and something we have to solve as American citizens.”
At Harvard, fourth-grader Shayna Rose asked Abdul-Jabbar for his advice to children. “Knowledge is power,” he said. “So I would encourage all young people to pursue an education and go to college and find out what they need to know to change the world in a positive way.”
Abdul-Jabbar also had advice for athletes, saying even those who may have NBA talent after just one year of college should complete their education. Abdul-Jabbar attended UCLA for four years and received his degree in history.
“I think any high school athlete that wants to come to an Ivy League school probably wants to graduate and wants to stay there for four years,” he said of top prospects showing interest in top academic schools. “That is a good development. I hope it continues. I think too many of the guys that try to do the one-and-done thing end up attempting to enter the league without the requisite skills in terms of knowledge of the game. A lot of them have incredible physical gifts and they don’t understand the game and it’s really detrimental to them. So I thought that college was a good thing for basketball athletes, and I hope more of them stay in college.”
BULLISH ON CHICAGO
Rondo is off to a fine start
It’s been nearly two years since the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo, and the Bulls are his third team since leaving Boston. He spent a short, chaotic time with the Mavericks, where he clashed with coach Rick Carlisle, and then had a solid season with the Kings, before signing a two-year deal with Chicago.
The Bulls are off to a fast start and Rondo has been on board with the team’s system, as coach Fred Hoiberg is allowing him, unlike Carlisle, to run the offense.
“Rondo’s been great, he’s been awesome to work with,” Hoiberg said. “The first thing we did is sit down and watch film together on how we want to play. He was around all summer, all the way through until the start of training camp. I thought he did a great job of really establishing himself as a leader with our young guys. He’s been awesome. He set the tone for our team, defensively. He’s done a good job being the head of the snake, offensively. He’s really pushed the ball and has played with great pace.”
Rondo has matured since his days with the Celtics and early clashing with Doc Rivers. He is known as one of the most intelligent players in the NBA, but his occasional surliness may have irritated superiors. However, he has meshed well with Hoiberg.
“The thing that he’s done a great job of, you hear him talking in every huddle. ‘Get out and run,’ he tells our guys,” Hoiberg said. “It’s a good way for this group to play with the different players and talents we have on this roster. He does such a good job of throwing the ball ahead. He’s been a great leader with his voice. It starts with practice every day and he’s embraced that role.”
Past battles between Rondo and teammate Dwyane Wade have been forgotten. The former rivals now need each other to succeed in Chicago, Wade trying to win a title in his hometown and Rondo trying to resurrect his status as an elite point guard.
“I never envisioned it. We had battles, but I had battles with a lot of guys,” Wade said. “When the opportunity presents itself, you always want to play with people that you respect, people that you feel are competitors and you know what they’re going to bring on a nightly basis. Rondo signing here was another eye-opener for me.”
Rondo said all is well with his former adversary.
“I have gotten past it,” he said. “We had a talk before we even came together. Everything is past us. We’re both in the 30-plus club, so things are different.”
Rondo also touched on a number of Celtic-related topics, such as whether the Green should retire the number of the recently retired Ray Allen.
“Without a doubt,” Rondo said. “He’s done a lot for this organization. Not the way things ended were great, but he helped put a banner up there [at TD Garden]. He’s a future Hall of Famer as well, so you have to pay him his respects.”
Rondo on the Celtics’ most recent Big Three: “Those guys led the way. They helped me create who I am today. They had a lot of influence on my career, just watching them. It may not have been the things they said, watching how those future Hall of Famers work. What they brought to that team, the unselfishness, the sacrifice those guys made helped me to this day.”
On Kevin Garnett joining TNT as an analyst: “Kevin talks all the time. I mean, all the time. When I got to Boston, I felt like KG could relate to everything in the world. He has a lot of experience. He’s done many things. He’s been around the game for a long time. He has a lot to say. He has [the curse] button, so he’s good. But he can control himself.”
Allen’s game had plenty of range
With the retirement of Ray Allen official, Dwyane Wade, who played two seasons with the sharpshooter in Miami, reflected on his time with Allen and how he impacted the Heat’s title run.
“He was one of the best two guards in the league and I always wanted to stack up and put myself in that conversation,” Wade said. “I learned so much from Ray toward the end of his career, how he took care of his body and longevity and what it takes mentally and physically.
“A Hall of Fame career. I loved how he changed his game. When he came into the league, he was an athletic guy and he will be remembered for ‘He Got Game,’ but I loved how he changed his game in the end to be one of the best shooters the game has ever seen.”
Allen was known for his workout regimen, healthy eating, and countless pregame drills. When he arrived in Miami, he continued his routine, and Wade and LeBron James took notice.
“Groundhog Day, that’s what I called it, the same thing every day, and that’s hard to do,” Wade said. “He stuck to it. It worked for him. When he was in Miami, he’d be at the arena at like 3 o’clock, so me and LeBron started coming in at 4. He pushed us to do things different. He pushed us to take care of our bodies a different way. He talked to us about eating a different way. Ray was an unbelievable basketball player, but I think what all of us are going to remember is the person, what he meant to our team, and what it meant to compete against him.”
Perhaps the crowning moment of Allen’s career is the tying 3-pointer he swished in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the Spurs, when he took a pass from Shane Battier in a scramble, stepped back, and connected with 5.2 seconds left in regulation. The Heat were seconds from being eliminated. Instead, they rallied to win Game 6 and Game 7 for their second consecutive title.
“It was just perfect. No one else could hit that shot on our team but Ray,” Wade said. “Just the way that it happened. It’s crazy because he practiced that all the time. Ray has a drill where he sits on his butt, he gets up and backpedals back to the 3-point line, and he makes it. When you look at that, and you look at how he had to backpedal back to the 3-point line and get it off with defenders all on him, he practiced that over and over. That was the moment where practice really made perfect, and we got a championship because of it. I was under the rim when he shot it and you could just see it. My arms were going up because you could tell it was going in.”
Allen mentored Wade when the former was with the Bucks and the latter was at Marquette.
“Just having that moment when he came in and I said, ‘Ray, did you ever think we were going to be teammates?’ ’’ Wade said. “It’s crazy. I was just a little kid that was a fan of the NBA and was at the small school that [the Bucks] would come and play [pickup games] at, and we became teammates. It was great.”
The deadline for long-term extensions for fourth-year players has passed, and seven of the 30 first-round picks from the 2013 draft agreed to extensions. There were no real shockers, but it was notable that the 76ers didn’t come close to striking a deal with center Nerlens Noel, who could have earned a deal in the $70 million range because of his potential, especially defensively. But it seems the 76ers have decided to move Noel, who will now be a restricted free agent this summer. The Celtics have long admired Noel, so don’t be surprised if they make an offer next summer, hoping to pair the Everett native with Al Horford in the frontcourt . . . As for the other unsigned fourth-year players, interesting restricted free agents will include Otto Porter, Alex Len, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mason Plumlee, and Andre Roberson. The Celtics passed on signing Kelly Olynyk to an extension because they want to see how he responds to a definitive role and see if he can stay healthy. The Celtics will have the right to match any offer Olynyk receives next summer or could renounce his rights, allowing him to become a free agent . . . After having a strong summer league, it seems second-year forward Bobby Portis will have to work his way into rotation minutes after playing sparingly in the Bulls’ first three games. Coach Fred Hoiberg inserted Portis into Wednesday’s game against the Celtics for some energy and he responded with seven rebounds in 11 minutes. Portis was the 22nd overall pick in 2015 and he played 62 games as a rookie. The Bulls were expecting Portis to be one of the first big men off the bench, but his minutes have been soaked up by Brazilian Cristiano Felicio . . . Hamilton native Michael Carter-Williams, recently acquired by the Bulls, will miss six weeks with knee and wrist injuries. Carter-Williams is trying to find a home in the NBA, the Bulls his third team in three-plus years. Hoiberg said he liked Carter-Williams in an energy role at backup point guard. The fact Carter-Williams seems expendable is strange considering he has averaged 14.3 points during his short career, including the Rookie of the Year award in 2013-14. The issue is Carter-Williams has no true position and doesn’t shoot well enough (41.1 percent from the field, 25.6 percent from the 3-point line) to claim a starting role.
The Nuggets retired Dikembe Mutombo’s jersey last week. The Hall of Famer is one of the best rim defenders ever. He is just one of five players in league history to record more than 3,000 blocks (blocks first recorded in 1973-74).
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.