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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the GOAT debate, his upcoming speaking tour and LeBron joining the Lakers

‘The reason there is no such thing as the GOAT is because every player plays under unique circumstances’

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired from the NBA almost 30 years ago and has often been regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time.

Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a six-time NBA champion as a player. The inventor of the skyhook also is a six-time NBA MVP, a 19-time All-Star, an 11-time All-Defensive team selection and a 15-time All-NBA selection.

In the 1990s, six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan played his way into the GOAT (greatest of all time) conversation. And in recent years, three-time NBA champion LeBron James entered the discussion, with Abdul-Jabbar often forgotten.

Abdul-Jabbar has some thoughts on the GOAT debate.

“These GOAT discussions are fun distractions while sitting around waiting for the pizza to be served,” Abdul-Jabbar told The Undefeated. “But they’re on a par with ‘Which superpower would you want most: flight or invisibility?’ Whether I’m included or not in anyone’s list doesn’t matter. I played my hardest and I helped my teammates. That’s the most important thing I walked away with.

“The reason there is no such thing as the GOAT is because every player plays under unique circumstances. We played different positions, under different rules, with different teammates, with different coaches. Every player has to adapt to their circumstances and find a way to excel. This isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one.”

Abdul-Jabbar has never been shy to speak his mind, and his 71 years have included changing his name from Lew Alcindor after becoming a Muslim, playing on the “Showtime Lakers” with fellow Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, fighting in Bruce Lee movies and writing books. Those topics could be part of his one-on-one discussion tour, “Becoming Kareem,” hosted by Roy Firestone, which begins on Sept. 7 in Milwaukee, where Abdul-Jabbar started his NBA career with the Bucks. Firestone is an Emmy Award-winning host formerly of ESPN.

According to BecomingKareem.com, the Harlem, New York, native will talk about his seven greatest mentors, including Lee, former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Tour stops in Cabazon, California; Houston; and Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, also have been announced.

The tour will offer insight into the usually private Abdul-Jabbar’s life.

“I haven’t talked about my life and how I became who I am,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “So it’s based on my book, and my book focuses on my life between my last year in grade school and my first year in the NBA. So I talk about all the decisions that I made and the mentors and people who guided me. I’ll talk about all of that and how I made my choices and why. Hopefully people will get into it and get an understanding of me in some depth.”

Abdul-Jabbar discussed the tour and more with The Undefeated.


What was the inspiration to do the “Becoming Kareem” tour?

Just the questions I’ve been getting from people and the responses have been really positive. People say you should share this with people, so fortunately I finally found some people that could help me set up a tour. It seems to be a good idea; we’re going forward with it.

Your mentors included a wide variety of people, from Dr. King to Bruce Lee. What does that say about the kind of people you consider to be your mentors?

That knowledge is where you find it, so you can’t limit yourself to where you go for information. That’s a very key issue, and I hope how important that is is conveyed in my book.

Do you have a best piece of advice that you live by?

No, but I received so much advice it’s hard to single any one thing out. But the whole concept of education, knowledge is power. I think that is the key fact that I’m trying to convey.

How did you learn about the importance of education?

Education was something that was emphasized in my family. My grandmother absolutely and my mom was always on me, wanting to know if I made the honor roll. So it became something that I understood was crucial to my success.

What are your thoughts on LeBron James going to the Lakers?

LeBron is one of the most dynamic and charismatic players in the history of the NBA. He isn’t just a great player, he’s a great showman. It’s no secret that the Lakers have been struggling these past few years to find their rhythm and maturity in order to be serious contenders. LeBron could be the right man to bring the team together.

You are on the 2018 NBA Africa Game trip this week in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a camp leading up to an exhibition game on Saturday. How many trips have you made to Africa, and what does the continent mean to you?

I’ve been to Africa twice. The first time was in 1971 as part of a goodwill tour for the State Department. We visited Tanzania, Algeria, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Somalia and Mali. Afterward, I made a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and then traveled to Cairo, Egypt. In 1973, I returned for five weeks to study Arabic. This is my first trip to South Africa.

People who are part of a diaspora, who are forcibly removed from their native land, always long for a homeland where they can feel accepted. This is especially true of African-Americans in America who face a constant struggle for equal treatment and equal opportunity. It’s exhausting to have to keep fighting, and it’s disheartening to keep reminding white people why we have to keep fighting.

So while I love America for wanting to be better, for always striving to overcome injustice, for valiantly trying to uphold the principles of the Constitution, in Africa I feel like I can exhale. When a black person walks into a room that is mostly white, there’s a tension in the body because you never know who will say what. Sometimes it’s a deliberate insult, other times it’s just an ignorant comment. That’s not to say all black people are friends, but when I walk into a room of mostly black people, I know the racism card is off the table.

Africa is not a utopia for black people. It is filled with all the same corruption, violence and poverty as many white countries. But at least it’s black people trying to solve their own problems. That does not mean that the rest of the world should not help; after all, Africa had been exploited by Europeans and Americans for centuries. They owe a little restitution.

So what does Africa mean to me? It means a hope for the future that white and black people can work together to restore the economic and political integrity of the continent as a real home and cultural home for blacks worldwide.

Do you ever sit back and say, and not just when it comes to basketball, I’ve led a really intriguing, amazing life?

Well, yeah, I feel I’ve been very fortunate just to have the opportunities that I’ve had and been able to take advantage of.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.