MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we are going to hear from - OK, I'm going to say it - a towering figure in American sports and society. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is still best known as the all-time leading scorer in the NBA and the center of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball dynasty of the 1980s. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also an actor, a best-selling author and an activist since retiring from the game in 1989. He's written several books and become a columnist for Time magazine. Since he was a standout college athlete at UCLA though, Jabbar has been outspoken on issues of race, politics and justice. I interviewed him before an audience this weekend in Washington, and I asked him whether he had ever paid a price for speaking out.
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: I did. But sometimes you can't pick and choose. When something happens, it doesn't matter if it's convenient or not. When it's time to speak up, you have to speak up. You can't be afraid. That was the main thing that I got from Dr. King, Malcolm X, all the heroes of the civil rights movement is that you can't be afraid - Dick Gregory, all those people that influenced me - Muhammad Ali. When the time came for them to speak up, they could either acquiesce or speak up. And I think they're examples are really bright lights for people who care about the things that I care about.
MARTIN: What about, you know, Michael - well, thank you. Go ahead those who want to...
MARTIN: I mean, you know, Michael Jordan was asked to endorse, you know, Harvey Gantt get in the very competitive, you know, Senate race, where there was - he was running against somebody who had very retrograde racial attitudes. And he's famously quoted as having said, you know, Republicans buy sneakers, too.
ABDUL-JABBAR: You can't be afraid of losing shoe sales if you're worried about your civil and human rights. You can't be worried about that.
ABDUL-JABBAR: It's just the way it is. He took commerce over conscious. That's unfortunate for him, but he's got to live with it.
MARTIN: Are there any athletes today whose stances you admire, or who are using their public platforms in ways that you would appreciate, that you feel...
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, there's several. LeBron James, when he came out with the words on his warm-up jersey about I can't breathe. And there were two players that played for the Cleveland Browns who were really - what's the best word? - they were outraged by what happened to Tamir Rice being shot like that. Cops drove up to him and shot him dead in two seconds. And these were guys that had male children. And they realized that their children could have been Tamir Rice, and they said something about it. And so I've got to take my hat off to them. It wasn't convenient. The Cleveland police force threatened them. But they said what they had to say, and I'm glad they did it. I'm glad they had the coverage. I'm glad they were not afraid.
MARTIN: You know, it's not just the police force, though. It's the fans. I mean, it's the fans. There were people in the stands getting into confrontations about it. I'm just wondering - that had to have happened to you at various points in your career.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, it did. When Dr. King was assassinated, within a couple of days I was involved at UCLA. We had a demonstration. We lined up along Bruin Walk, and people were telling me hey, you're going to get a chance to play in the NBA and make a lot of money. You shouldn't be out here protesting like this. And to me there was no correlation. Somebody needed to speak out about what had happened. I had to be interviewed by a guy named Joe Garagiola on TV. And he was incensed that I had taken the stance that I had taken and was thinking about boycotting the Olympics. And Dr. King had just been assassinated just a couple weeks earlier. I wasn't feeling in a very patriotic mood at that point. I was very concerned about what was happening in my country. And I felt I needed to say something or do something. So that's why I did it. I'm not sorry that I did.
MARTIN: One thing I did want to ask you is you are the first - one of the first people to embrace the Muslim faith that many people will have known. And that was not an easy thing to do at the time, particularly to be in such a public space. How has that - has it changed how you walk in the world, as a Muslim, over the course of time? Have you seen more acceptance? I mean, we've been in a difficult period, obviously, over the last couple of years in this country...
ABDUL-JABBAR: I think there are two sides to it. Prior to 9/11, it more or less went under the radar. I wasn't very political with my faith. I've never tried to be political with it. And then after 9/11, questions were asked. They were legitimate questions. But, you know, the whole idea for me was to have a moral anchor, and it has served as a very excellent one for me. So, you know, I don't have any misgivings about my faith. I am very concerned about the people who claim to be Muslims that are murdering people and creating all this mayhem in the world. That is not what Islam is about, and that should not be what people think of when they think of Muslims. But it's up to all of us to do something about it.
MARTIN: There is - please, go ahead. Please.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Thank you.
MARTIN: I'm working my way up to figuring out how I can ask you about "Airplane!"
ABDUL-JABBAR: Just ask me, it's alright.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I was flying...
MARTIN: But you're just so - go ahead, tell me, how did that happen? You just seem so very serious, and yet you're in airplane.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I was flying in Europe on Lufthansa. And we're taxiing out to the runway, and the pilot's door opens up. I'm in first class, and the pilot comes over to me and says come with me. I'm like, what do you mean? We're taxiing out. He said no, come with me. So he takes me and we go into the cockpit, they close the door. It was one of those wide-bodied planes with extra seats for the extra pilots. They strapped me in, and the pilot says look, we wanted to be able to tell everybody that we flew with Murdock.
ABDUL-JABBAR: So we take off, and then they took me back to my seat. But I think everybody in the airline industry has seen that movie, and they recognized me. So...
ABDUL-JABBAR: ...I have to put up with it, you know?
MARTIN: Yes, you do. Yes, you do. Do you all know what we're talking about here, the airplane? OK.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Everybody seems to have seen that movie. It's been 35 years, you know?
ABDUL-JABBAR: For me, it was just a kick. I'll always be able - until the day I die, I'll be able to tell my - tell anyone who asks that I was in a movie with Ethel Merman. I mean, that's...
MARTIN: Can I ask you one more question?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Of course.
MARTIN: Would you teach me how to do a skyhook?
ABDUL-JABBAR: It all depends on what kind of shape you're in.
MARTIN: Oh, nice, nice.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I'm not commenting on it.
ABDUL-JABBAR: I did - there's a TV host - she does economic news for FOX now, Maria Bartiromo, but I taught her.
ABDUL-JABBAR: We went to the gym, and I showed her how to do it. She was doing it after a while. So, you know, anybody can do it - male, female...
ABDUL-JABBAR: ...Tall or short. We - you can do it if you want to take the time.
MARTIN: OK, let's go practice. Thank you so much. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thank you so much. Thank you.
ABDUL-JABBAR: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, speaking with me on Friday at NPR's Weekend in Washington event in Washington, D.C.
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