Six-time National Basketball Association champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke about his career and background to approximately 450 attendees in Bovard Auditorium during a Visions and Voices Speakers Committee event Monday night.
The conversation, which was moderated by student Trinity Elliott and professor David Belasco, was co-hosted by the Black Student Assembly, who started off the night with a speech in light of late student Victor McElhaney, who died during an attempted robbery off-campus March 10.
“A lot of us are suffering from [his death], and I commend people who were able to come here in spite of that,” BSA co-director Mae Gates said. “When you heard Victor speak, you would realize why he always talk as much as he did. It’s because his mind was constantly overflowing with intelligence and ideas for how to make the world a better place.”
Speakers Committee member Sonali Netke introduced Abdul-Jabbar with an introductory video highlighting many of his athletic and professional accomplishments, including becoming an NBA star, author, documentarian and philanthropist.
Abdul-Jabbar began the event by discussing the importance of pursuing one’s dreams and goals.
”You guys understand that you can do whatever you want to do,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “If you want to have a goal, now is the time to start reaching that goal …. The ambition that I had in grade school to where I am now involved a lot of steps but it’s really quite simple.”
Abdul-Jabbar spoke about his path to becoming an author. He said he often entered in writing competitions during grade school and took summer writing programs in high school.
“I went to a Catholic school in New York City, and the nuns were very intense in learning the arts,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I kind of excelled at writing, so the nuns sent me out to compete in essay contests — I never won one, but I went out there and gave it my best, and I enjoyed it.”
Abdul-Jabbar said his basketball career distracted him from his writing. During his athletic career, he became one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, according to the NBA website. Following his career in basketball, he returned to writing.
“I didn’t realize that going to college on a basketball scholarship …. might get in the way of writing,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “That was an extraordinary part of my life. But beneath it all, that was a part of my ambition — to write and to be able to convey things that were very important to me.”
Abdul-Jabar reflected on his upbringing and discussed how the 1955 murder of Emmett Till and the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing left a major impact on his childhood.
“Things like that can motivate you to want to change how these things are handled in our country,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “For me, it made me ask the question, “Why?” and made me want to find out why so maybe we could do something about it … because racism could end up killing you just for something as simple as a mistaken identity.”
Abdul-Jabbar said his path in life has been filled with positive mentors and influential figures who have supported him through his endeavors, including UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
“[Wooden] wasn’t even thinking of himself as a coach so much as a teacher. He wanted us all to leave UCLA with a degree and an understanding of how to be good parents, good husbands, good citizens.”
The event concluded with a Q&A session, during which students and event attendees were able to ask Abdul-Jabbar questions.
Gabriel Abrams, a sophomore majoring in human biology, asked Abdul-Jabbar how students can continue to be advocates at all stages in life.
“You don’t have to be a shining, shining star, you just have to be part of a cause,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “After that harmful couple of days in Charlottesville, the response from across the country … was that this country is not about Nazis, this is not about white supremacy … and I knew I was in the right country. It was the course of voices, it came from everywhere, that made me feel good about being an American citizen.”
Daanyal Mirza, a junior majoring in business administration, came away from the night feeling inspired to pursue activism.
“He was a great speaker, and he gave a lot of really great advice and feedback about his career,” Mirza said. “He talked a lot about him being an advocate for civil rights.”