Former NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s appointment as a Global Cultural Ambassador by the State Department on January 18 is more important than the usual photo-op – it tells a richer, more accurate story of who we are as a nation to foreigners who may know us more for sports than for social justice. He entered national consciousness as an athlete, but is now equally known for his work on racial equality, history, and education.
Abdul-Jabbar’s performance on the court was epic – he still holds the NBA’s record of All-Time Leading Scorer (38,387 points), he broke the record for nine different NBA categories before retiring, he led two teams to six national titles, became an NBA All-Star 19 times, and was named by Time Magazine as “History’s Greatest Player.” And, of course, there’s his signature skyhook – the industrial strength version of a hook shot.
But Abdul-Jabbar reminds us to also acknowledge his accomplishments off the court. After he discovered his West African Yoruba heritage, Abdul-Jabbar pursued social justice and a study of history. He majored in history in UCLA, and in 1968, he refused to join the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team in protest of the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the U.S. After leaving the NBA, he launched a second career as a historian, compelled by the fact that African-American contributions were absent from American history. He said, “I remember the history books I had to deal with coming up in the 50s and 60s, and black people were only mentioned in regard to the issues of slavery and civil rights. Nothing else was in there that really depicted what our experiences were really about. … Black kids need to know more about what their community has done, and how our nation relates to them and how they relate to our nation … none of that information is there for them — I wanted to make it a little bit easier for them.”
His endeavor of communicating lost history led to him to publish seven books, ranging from stories of the first all-black battalion in World War II to a children’s book on African-American inventors. He is a New York Times best-selling author and last year, he released the movie On the Shoulders of Giants about the Harlem Rens, the best basketball team in the country during a time when the NBA was only open to Caucasians. He is a long-time advocate of education and created the Skyhook Foundation to use sports as a way to celebrate social justice and promote higher education. His accomplishments garnered him the praise of President Barack Obama who threw a private reception for him before his acceptance of the annual Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal for his work in understanding, equality, and education.
In an age of suspicion towards the U.S., Abdul-Jabbar is a testament that while the U.S. is not perfect, it is an open and endeavoring work in progress where individual contributions matter. Abdul-Jabbar unearths and tells heart-wrenching stories of citizenship, lost history, and the never-ending pursuit of social equality that speak to all nations. This is especially relevant as the people behind the Arab Spring fight for their rights as Egyptians, Tunisians, and Syrians. As an athlete turned historian, humanitarian, and activist, he is a symbol of America at its best, and he offers to the world a deep perspective of the U.S. that is not understood widely enough.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons