Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played the majority of his Hall of Fame NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers, but on Friday night, he spoke to a Ryan Auditorium audience deep in Bulls territory.
“I came here a year or two after I retired, and the Bulls were doing great and had just beaten the Lakers in the Finals,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I’m walking on Michigan Avenue, and a guy sees me and he stops his car and he gets out and says ‘loser!’”
But at the Muslim-Cultural Students Association Fall Keynote event, Abdul-Jabbar, an author, columnist, filmmaker and education ambassador, as well as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, was given a considerably greater level of respect by an attentive crowd that more than likely contained at least a few Bulls fans.
Abdul-Jabbar spoke first about his conversion to Islam and involvement with the Nation of Islam in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, saying that even though he converted over 40 years ago, he still has to “defend” that decision. Malcolm X’s autobiography, which he said he first read as a freshman at UCLA, “blew [his] mind” and first got him interested in the religion, which he referred to as a “great moral anchor.”
“When I first encountered this movement, it was kind of strange for me, because I didn’t get the difference between Islam and Christianity,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “[The Nation of Islam] had it together, people were afraid of them. People respected them. For people who are downtrodden, for people who had to escape the Jim Crow South, that’s a big deal, just to have people respect you, and give you the deference they don’t give to other people who look just like you.”
Despite being a public figure, Abdul-Jabbar said he was able to be a Muslim in relative privacy up until September 11, 2001. He said everything changed after that day, and that he has been asked to answer several questions about the nature of Islam since then. Abdul-Jabbar added that he has faced certain obstacles as a Muslim as a result of the events of that day, like being stopped in an airport because he had the same name as a wanted Pakistani terrorist.
After he spoke to the audience for about half an hour, he sat down and answered a wide variety of questions from moderator Omer Mozaffar, the Muslim Chaplain at Loyola University at Chicago. When the conversation moved to ISIS, Abdul-Jabbar said the group’s horrific actions, which they claim to do in the name of Islam, deeply bother him.
“I find the most success in explaining myself by comparing the radical Muslims who want to murder everybody to the Ku Klux Klan,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Everybody knows that the KKK doesn’t represent Christianity. It’s the same intolerance and same willingness to commit murder and mayhem because you don’t like the people who don’t believe what you believe.”
He went on to say that certain American politicians and presidential candidates often promote internalized irrational fears of Muslims, or Islam in general to further their agendas, which he said is dangerous.
“People like Ben Carson and Donald Trump get people to feel fear,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I think they’re saying that you should be afraid, and if you vote for me, I’ll deal with these people and you won’t have to be afraid. They’re trying to say that anybody that has an Islamic identity is ISIS, and it’s clearly not true, but this is what they want to perpetrate because they get a political boost from that attitude.”
Abdul-Jabbar also spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that the deaths of twelve year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Eric Garner in New York by police officers impacted him personally. He said that the issue of police brutality is not a recent phenomenon, noting that it was a persistent problem faced by African Americans during the Civil Rights movement and for generations before that as well. Abdul-Jabbar's father was a police offer who helped integrate the New York City Police Department.
After surviving a bout with leukemia a few years ago and undergoing quadruple bypass surgery on his 68th birthday this April, Abdul-Jabbar said he has come to terms with his mortality, and that it has given him a sort of new outlook on life.
“I’m a lot more confident now with who I am and who I want to be and what I want to say,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “You can do that when you’re not afraid of dying, but you worry after an close encounter with death. If I got any closer to it I’d be in the ground right now, so I can accept that.”