IOWA CITY — It wasn’t the first time he publicly said it and it happened a half-century ago, so it didn’t feel like a bombshell here Sunday afternoon.
Yet, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still got quite an audience reaction here Sunday afternoon when he responded to a question about how he handled life as a UCLA student who didn’t get paid to play basketball there.
“I got through college without being paid because I had season tickets for my college games and I gave them to one of the boosters who ...”
The audience, which filled nearly every seat in Hancher Auditorium, laughed as Abdul-Jabbar paused for effect before finishing his confession.
“He sold my tickets on the black market for a nice sum and I made a nice piece of cash. This is truth 50 years later. I scalped my tickets on the black market and was able to, like, buy gasoline for my car and take my girlfriend on a couple of dates. Nothing crazy.”
It was a light moment in what sounded like it could have been a potentially heavy hour given the title of the basketball legend’s appearance here, “From Kareem to Kaepernick: A History of Political Activism in Sports,” presented by the University of Iowa’s Lecture Committee.
Abdul-Jabbar, 70, did make a variety of serious points and observations about his life in and after basketball, and his thoughts about attitudes he feels everyone should try to adapt. But while he has been widely regarded as a serious-to-somber man even as a collegian, he walked onto the stage with a big smile.
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The first word he said was “Wow!” in response to the reaction the crowd gave his entrance. When he was presented the UI’s 2018 Distinguished Lecturer Award at the end of the hourlong event, he said “I’ve had some wonderful experiences, but this has got to rank right up there with them.”
In between, he fielded questions from moderator Dr. Melissa Shivers, Vice President of Student Life at the UI, then did likewise from questions written on cards by audience members.
His main points centered on urging people to be active in their communities, suggesting they focus on facts and the pursuit of them rather than getting locked into ideologies, and trying to understand others whom they may not know very well.
“In order to justify the wonderful times that we have here,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “we have to do some good things. Activism, it doesn’t pay very well in terms of what goes in your pocket. But it makes you feel good and it improves the community.
“It’s an absolutely essential part of being a citizen.”
Asked by a UI student what action he would recommend for students to begin taking, he said “The most profound thing they can do is make new friends.
“Make friends that don’t look like you. Make friends that did not come from your town and your neighborhood. Make friends that look a lot different and think a lot differently than you.
“The more that Americans devote some time talking to their fellow citizens and understand what’s going on, I think that is a great benefit to our country.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s social activism dates back to when he declined to be part of the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team in 1968 as a protest to unequal treatment of African Americans in the U.S. He noted the late Muhammad Ali “paid a great price” for his resistance to the Vietnam War draft, “but we appreciate him and love him to this day for that reason.”
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A half-century after Abdul-Jabbar protested what he saw as civil rights injustice against African Americans, he said “You can’t enjoy the rights of full citizenship and question somebody who is being denied those rights. That doesn’t add up. It really made me understand that I was doing the right thing. We want an open society where everyone has a chance to succeed.
“We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re getting there. It’s going to take some courage and more effort to get those final couple miles, but we have to keep working on it.”
The audience was diverse in age, race and gender.
“I always liked Kareem’s social activism and what he stood for,” said Doug Goettsch of North Liberty. “I thought he was a deeply misunderstood man from the beginning.”
“I thought he was fascinating,” said Goettsch’s wife, Sarah Goetssch. “I’m not a sports fan but I was very intrigued with what he had to say.”
“When I heard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was going to be here in Iowa City, I was simply amazed,” said Robert Gallardo of Iowa City. “What he’s done after his basketball career — he’s written 11 books, he’s a philanthropist — he wants to give back to society and make a good impact. That’s what has impressed me the most.”
Before he left, Abdul-Jabbar basically said his athletic scholarship was more than a bridge to his Hall of Fame professional career.
“The fact I got an education is really what has helped solidify me for life,” he said. “So I have to absolutely swear by the adage that knowledge is power.”