Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired from the NBA in 1989, but he remains one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Many argue he is simply the greatest.
He is still—even with Michael Jordan and Steph Curry and Lebron and Shaq and Kobe—the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (38,387 points) and the league’s only six-time MVP. In March, the basketball news site HoopsHype included Abdul-Jabbar in its list of the top ten most influential players of all time. ESPN called him the greatest center in NBA history.
As Jews say every Passover: It would have been enough.
But there’s so much more that makes the 7-foot-2-inch Abdul-Jabbar a true giant. His religious conviction, his integrity, his wide-ranging intellectual proclivities, his outstanding performance in the 1981 movie Airplane!—and the unusual fact that this black, Muslim basketball star has been a consistent and outspoken voice against antisemitism.
For all those reasons, I wanted to speak with Abdul-Jabbar about the various firestorms of late: Kanye and his antisemitic rants; Kyrie Irving’s promotion of an antisemitic movie that denies the Holocaust; and the alarming rash of anti-Jewish hate crimes seemingly inspired by their worldview. A few weeks ago, a banner declaring “Kanye was right” hung over the 405 in Los Angeles as people gave Nazi salutes. On Halloween, the side of a townhouse in an Atlanta neighborhood was sprayed with graffiti: “Jews kill Blacks.” On the stop sign around the corner: “Jews enslave Black lives.” Last week, headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Chicago were vandalized with swastikas and the phrase “Kanye was rite.” And in Brooklyn, physical attacks against Orthodox Jews have become routine.
I asked Abdul-Jabbar about all of that and more in the Q and A below. And if you’re looking for more from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, check out his Substack, where he writes and talks about everything from basketball to pop culture to politics. — BW
BW: We all know you as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but you were born in Harlem as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. You took the name Kareem in 1968, when you converted from Catholicism to Sunni Islam. In your writing, you’ve credited Malcolm X, who then led the Nation of Islam, for your decision to convert, at least in part. (“In the spring of 1966, while a freshman at UCLA, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and when I finished the last page, I knew my life was changed forever” you’ve written.) Can you tell me a little bit about why you were drawn to Islam and Malcolm X’s influence over your conversion?
KAJ: The Autobiography of Malcolm X didn’t convince me to convert to Islam because he had. It’s much more nuanced than that. The book was thought-provoking in that it had me thinking about black and white relationships in a way that I hadn’t fully been able to articulate. It made me realize that racism in America went much deeper than I had realized. Most of it was invisible to the naked eye, like an iceberg.
At the time, people thought if you let a few blacks into schools and movies and jobs, we should be satisfied with that. As if these things were merely to get the ball rolling down the hill. If we just waited patiently, the ball would pick up speed and soon racism would disappear. But the ball wasn’t at the top of the hill. It was at the bottom. And his book made me realize we needed to push and keep pushing if we hoped to gain equality.
My decision to convert to Islam was based on several factors. Mostly, I didn’t want to keep the name of Alcindor, who was the slave owner who owned my family. I didn’t want any of my achievements to bring honor to his name. Second, although I was raised Christian, I wanted to feel connected to my past and my heritage in Africa, which Islam let me do.
BW: Malcolm X was killed in 1965, three years before you converted, and many blame the Nation of Islam for his assassination. Just two months before he was shot, Louis Farrakhan called him a traitor “worthy of death.” What has happened to the Nation of Islam since then? Is the movement today, which Farrakhan has led for more than half a century, recognizable?
KAJ: It is a sad truth that almost all organizations, including religions, can lose sight of their spiritual mission and focus more on gathering power. It’s then up to the members to bring that organization back to its roots.
BW: I want to focus on Farrakhan’s influence. He believes that Jews are parasitic, that Jews are behind a plot to exploit black Americans, and that blacks are the real Jews from the Bible. We’re hearing these ideas come out of the mouths of musicians like Kanye West (“Jewish people have owned the black voice”) and athletes like Kyrie Irving (“I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from”). For many Jews, hearing this kind of rhetoric is shocking, but many black Americans have noted that these views are more commonplace than we’d like to admit. So what I think a lot of people are afraid to ask is: How mainstream are these beliefs among black Americans? Are Kanye and Kyrie unique? Or has the influence of people like Farrakhan made this strain of antisemitism somehow more normal than many want to believe?
KAJ: Certain black leaders do exactly what certain white leaders do who want to gather followers, money, and power: They find a scapegoat they can blame. They can’t blame others who are marginalized because of the color of their skin, like Latinx or Asian-Americans, so they go for the default villain of fascists and racists: Jews.
What astounds me is not just the irrationality of it, but how self-destructive it is. Black people have to know that when they mouth antisemitism, they are using the exact same kind of reasoning that white supremacists use against blacks. They are enabling racism. Now they’ve aligned themselves with the very people who would choke out black people, drag them behind a truck, keep them from voting, and maintain systemic racism for another hundred years. They are literally making not only their lives worse, but their children’s lives. The fact that they can’t see that means the racists have won.