The NBA’s all-time leading scorer and former Milwaukee Bucks number 1 draft pick, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, visited Milwaukee on March 2 for a discussion about his life as a Muslim, professional athlete and philanthropist. The event was hosted at the Milwaukee Theatre and sponsored by the Muslim Student Association as a part of UW-Milwaukee’s Distinguished Lecture Series.
“NBA’s all-time leading scorer” was just the beginning of the names that the basketball legend heard on Thursday night, as he made his entrance into the dim theater full of students, basketball fans, and fellow Muslims from the Milwaukee community. The words “activist” and “author” appeared in a short video featuring many highlights of Abdul-Jabbar’s career.
The pants leg of the seven footer rose as he took his seat and the crowd could not help noticing the yellow and purple socks on his feet. The Moderator for the evening, Ubaydullah Evans, heard the crowd chuckle and asked, “Are you wearing LA Lakers socks?” Kareem joked, “Well – I wore a Bucks hat outside.”
This interaction between Evans and Abdul-Jabbar involving two of the teams which Abdul-Jabbar played for during his 20-year career served as a great opening, although it did not foreshadow the conversation on the night. Abdul-Jabbar spoke mostly about his life outside of basketball as a Muslim and what it meant to speak in Milwaukee.
Abdul-Jabbar began the nearly hour-long discussion by telling how he became a Muslim. While enrolled at UCLA, Kareem “read a lot in the dormitory” and said that two things happened.
“The first thing,” Kareem explained, “I read the autobiography of Malcolm X and second, I had roommates who turned me onto the Quran.”
The mention of Malcolm X prompted a discussion about Abdul-Jabbar’s inspirations. Abdul-Jabbar cited his inspirations are his grandmother and Bruce Lee, whom he said is “very nice” and “I admire him.”
Abdul-Jabbar expressed how being a Muslim has helped him in being an American, more specifically an African-American.
“1/3 of the slaves that were brought to America were Muslim,” said Kareem. “American values and Islamic values are totally compatible. People find that out in America when you get to know us. I hope that people will [ get to know Muslims ] and engage.”
Abdul-Jabbar encouraged the Muslim and African-American communities to engage in politics.
“When people say bad things about Islam, Muslims need to engage,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Islam is under attack by people who do not understand what it is. When Muslims feel discriminated against, file an anti-discrimination suit and make it hard on people to segregate you and put you down. Black-Americans have to register to vote, run for office and know what the agenda is.”
In a special segment called, “Ask Kareem,” a mass of audience members, including reporters, jumped into a line to ask questions of their own to Abdul-Jabbar. The segment lasted for only 15 minutes but could have gone on, as the last question came from a young child who wanted to know what seemingly everyone in the audience had wanted to know.
“Who is your favorite basketball player?” asked the child. Abdul-Jabbar’s response kept the audience silent and in suspense.
“Now or all-time,” asked Abdul-Jabbar. The child responded, “Uh – both.”
“I looked up to Bill Russell growing up,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “And now,” he continued, “I like Steph Curry. Who doesn’t like a guy who shoots like that?”
The audience took their seats and the moderator stood along with Abdul-Jabbar, shaking hands and waving. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar exited the stage.
Audience members followed Abdul-Jabbar out of the theatre, carrying his latest book, “The Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White,” hoping to get a signature.