Basketball Great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar On Diplomacy

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is perhaps one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He recently added another chapter to his storied career when he was named U.S. Cultural Ambassador by the State Department. Host Michel Martin speaks with the author and hall-of-famer.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

If you are even a casual sports fan, then you already know about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He is celebrated around the world as one of the greatest basketball players ever. The UCLA grad spent some 20 years in the pros playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, and later the Los Angeles Lakers. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame soon after his 1989 retirement. And to this day, remains the NBA's all-time leading scorer.

You might also know that, post-retirement, he has pursued his interest in education and history, penned several best sellers and produced two documentaries. But what you might not know is that he has added another title to his long resume. Ambassador. Last month, he was named a U.S. Cultural Ambassador by the U.S. State Department. In that role, he traveled to Brazil. He is now back and here to tell us more about it and whatever else is on his mind.

And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. And do I have to call you Excellency?

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: No, you don't. Just call me Kareem. That'll be fine.

MARTIN: Tell me why you're interested in this role. It's actually a rather demanding one. People might not know this, but it involves quite a lot of travel and some very, you know, intense scheduling.

ABDUL-JABBAR: I remember that Louis Armstrong did the same thing for President Kennedy during his administration. And, you know, Louis Armstrong was a hero of mine. Following in his footsteps really is very meaningful for me.

MARTIN: Why do kids - I know that you're spending a lot of emphasis on education in this role. How do the kids that you talk to - do they want to talk about this or do they want to talk about basketball?

ABDUL-JABBAR: They're interested in what I had to say because the Brazilian government is making a - it's an affirmative action kind of attempt for the whole country because Brazilians of African descent were neglected and not really given access to the mainstream Brazilian society. And they're making a concerted effort to change that now. And they want the people in these disadvantaged areas to embrace education so that they can take the jobs that Brazil needs to fill in order to make their attempt to move up several levels and become a first tier nation.

They just found a lot of oil off the shore of Rio de Janeiro and they expect that there's a lot more there. So, you know, they'll be able to bankroll this without much problem. So, they've made a concerted effort to reduce crime and make educational opportunities available to all of Brazilian society. And the United States is working hand-in-hand with them. And part of the program will be teaching English, because English is the international language of business.

People in Brazil have a great deal of regard for President Obama, because in seeing someone of African descent become president of our nation, that means a lot to them. You know, they share a lot of history with us in that they - you know, the history of slavery and denial of rights and access for people of African descent. And to see that change to the point where a person of African descent can become president really impressed them and gave them a very positive idea of what, potentially, democracy can mean for their nation.

MARTIN: It's interesting. I asked you about yourself and you've talked about the president, and I understand that. But do you find it difficult, after all these years in the limelight, to talk about yourself?

ABDUL-JABBAR: No. The reason that they sent me was because I kind of represent that whole dynamic. My parents didn't have any money or anything. You know, I came from very poor circumstances, and I was able to do very well by taking advantage of educational opportunities and the game of basketball.

MARTIN: But do kids think that the reason you are successful is your education? Because, as we mentioned, you are a college graduate and also have, as we've said, a very avid interest in history. But do kids see that? I mean, do they make the connection between your education and your success or do they mainly think it's about sports?

ABDUL-JABBAR: That's hard to say. But I would say from their reaction - there were a lot of parents there - and when I was talking to the various groups of kids. They saw that that message was very meaningful for their children and they wanted them to get a grasp on exactly what that meant. That, coupled with the efforts of the Brazilian government to get as many people involved in reaching and striving for higher educational positions, really has given the message a chance to get through to the kids.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He is a Hall of Famer and he has now been named a U.S. cultural ambassador. He's recently returned from his first trip as a U.S. cultural ambassador to Brazil.

Where else do you think you might go?

ABDUL-JABBAR: There's been mention that I'll be going to South Africa on my next assignment. But I really don't know. You know, I take my assignments as they come.

MARTIN: You - I mentioned that you have an avid interest in history. And to that end, I want to talk about one of your other new ventures, your new children's book. But before we do, I wanted to ask where your interest in history comes from. Have you always been interested?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I've always been interested in it. A lot of it had to do with where I was raised, in Manhattan. Washington Heights was a Revolutionary War battlefield. I was always aware of the fact that there were a lot of people that were around before us and the things that they had attempted to do affect our lives.

MARTIN: Your new children's book is titled, "What Color is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors." You wrote this. Your co-author is Raymond Obstfeld. Where did this idea come from?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, did a book, it was an overview of African-American history. It's called "Black Profiles in Courage." And I did a whole chapter on Lewis Latimer, who discovered the filament for the light bulb that made it a practical item that everyday people could use. And in reading about his life, I discovered a lot of things about African-American inventors of the 19th century.

MARTIN: Which one is your favorite?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Lewis Latimer. You know, he was involved in things that are so crucial nowadays. He did Alexander Graham Bell's patent application drawings for the telephone, and then he worked for Mr. Edison. He was a key for Mr. Edison's success, and people didn't know anything about him.

MARTIN: There's one person in there, I'm not sure, I think, George Crum.

ABDUL-JABBAR: George Crum invented the potato chip.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm not sure I'm happy about that. I guess if he didn't, somebody else would. But...

ABDUL-JABBAR: You have a problem?

MARTIN: ...it's been a continuing bane of my existence, yes. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ABDUL-JABBAR: But they're delicious. And, you know, you just have to do a little bit more exercise and...

MARTIN: Oh, OK.

ABDUL-JABBAR: ...and they won't hurt you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, thank you. There's only one woman in this book. What's up with that? Dr. Valerie Thomas.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Dr. Valerie Thomas, who her take on how to do 3-D is really the template for 3-D processing at this time. She's the only one I could find that really was - had done something significant.

MARTIN: So you're trying to find people whose accomplishments are not as well-known, but who still - whose contributions are things that we use and touch and can relate to. And that's the only woman you could find? That's a shame.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Yeah. It was. Certain things that were done by African-Americans have been crucial. And, for example, Dr. Charles Drew, just his ability to figure out blood typing and starting the blood bank, that has saved millions of lives and will continue to on into the future.

MARTIN: Sports, obviously, is one bridge to connecting with people to get them to listen to what you have to say. I'm wondering if religion is another, at a time when there's some tension between - I don't know how you feel about the term the Muslim world. I know everybody doesn't love that term. But as one of the first prominent African-Americans to convert to Islam, do you feel that you also have, perhaps, an ability to connect with people in that way that someone else might not?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I'm hoping that people will see that I'm a loyal, patriotic American citizen. But there was such a long time that American Muslims were really under the radar. I think they got used to that. And then after 9/11, that changed radically, and we've had to go several additional steps to show people that the crazy radical people who believe in violence pop up in every ideology in every culture and, unfortunately, it's part of the human condition.

MARTIN: Has 9/11 changed your life?

ABDUL-JABBAR: In little ways. You know, I came back from a vacation in Mexico and some radical person from Afghanistan or Pakistan has the same name as I do, and I had to go and - I got separated out of the line and I had to explain who I was. It was a...

MARTIN: Really?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, as prominent as you are?

ABDUL-JABBAR: They realized who I was, but, you know, they had to, like, deal with the issue because I share the same name with this other person. But they got it and they said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, born 1947, seven feet, two inches tall, 250 pounds. You know, they put my description there and the fact that I am definitely a loyal American citizen.

MARTIN: You know, before we let you go, I did want to focus on a chapter of your personal story that some people might not have heard. But this has been recounted in a new memoir by the former chief rabbi of Israel. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was the chief Rabbi of Israel at the time and survived the concentration camp Buchenwald, the death camp, as a child. And one of your father's close friends was an American soldier who helped free the camp in the mid-1940s. And at that time, your father couldn't travel because of health reasons. And when he heard you were going to Israel, he asked you to meet with the rabbi. He recounts this very movingly in his new memoir, and I just wanted to know if you remember that moment.

ABDUL-JABBAR: I think that story has gotten distorted, because I was interviewed by an Israeli journalist, and there was a language problem.

MARTIN: Hmm.

ABDUL-JABBAR: One of my father's good friends was in the 761st Tank Battalion, and they liberated Dachau.

MARTIN: OK.

ABDUL-JABBAR: OK. Rabbi Lau was in Buchenwald. Buchenwald was liberated by black troops in the 183rd Combat Engineers, but my father's friend had nothing to do with that.

MARTIN: Mm. You've had a very interesting life. What would you like people to learn from you who, perhaps, don't have the opportunity to see you in person on your journeys as a representative of the government and people of the United States?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I guess - statement on stealing from somebody, but it's been said that life is short, but it's really wide. You know, get into all of it that you can. It's a broad and wonderful experience.

MARTIN: Do you have any wisdom to pass on?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Just knowledge is power. Accumulate as much of it as you can and go where your instincts tell you to go.

MARTIN: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the legendary basketball player. He is the author of several best-selling books. His latest is a children's book. It's called "What Color is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors." And he is a U.S. cultural ambassador. He was named so by the State Department last month. And he was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Ambassador. Excellency.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thank you so much for speaking to us.

ABDUL-JABBAR: My pleasure. Nice visiting with you.

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