Few people are as recognizable in public as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the 7-foot-2 basketball legend who set records with the UCLA Bruins, LA Lakers, and Milwaukee Bucks. But it’s not his hoop skills that he’ll be showing off when he comes to San Diego this month.
Abdul-Jabbar will talk about his reinvention as an author during Point Loma Nazarene University’s 23rd annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea. Since retiring from the NBA, the sports star has penned pieces for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Time, in addition to writing two memoirs last year, Coach Wooden and Me and Becoming Kareem.
Here, PLNU’s journalism program director and symposium founder Dean Nelson chats with the basketball legend about storytelling and switching career gears.
After retiring your jersey, you made a commitment to tell stories that needed to be told. Have you always had that motivation?
My nonfiction work is intended to inform the public about African American history, as well as discuss America’s social and political conflicts. My fiction is where I do my storytelling. That comes from my being an avid reader as a child. I would sit in my room and devour The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, and all the classic adventure novels. It wasn’t until after I retired from the NBA that I had the time to really devote myself to writing.
Coach Wooden and Me shows how different you and your UCLA coach were. Is there a broader lesson for readers in that, given how divided our nation is today?
One of the lessons Coach Wooden taught us was "Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you." Coach and I didn’t always agree on specific social and political issues, but we respected each other enough to listen with an open mind. Unfortunately, fear drives many people, and that fear is exploited by politicians who profit from divisiveness.
As an athlete, you saw how powerful it was to take a stand publicly for a social issue. Do you see some similarities from those days to today’s athletes standing up for cures for breast cancer, and against bullying or police brutality?
Colin Kaepernick has led the protest with grace. The mark of his courage is that he has so much to lose career-wise, yet has consistently stood his ground. The important thing about people protesting is that they don’t give up until the goal is achieved. It was so heartening to see the other players, coaches, and even some owners in solidarity.
Sci-fi, mystery, history, political commentary, children’s books—you write it all. Do you have a favorite?
Not really. Each expresses a different facet of my personality and interests. I’m excited about my latest book, Becoming Kareem, which is my autobiography from grade school through my first year in the NBA, when I officially changed my name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The book is about my struggles with height, race, sports, and how my various mentors helped me face and overcome those challenges. I’m hoping the book will help other kids face their own personal challenges.
Bill Walton has done some writing lately. Do you have any advice for him?
He’s a funny, articulate, passionate person and that comes through in his writing. I don’t think Bill needs any advice from me.
February 19–23 at Point Loma Nazarene University