Through 20 NBA seasons, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar collected trophies that either symbolized his NBA championships (six), his Finals MVPs (two) or his regular-season MVP’s (six).
Amid the NBA legend’s ongoing quest to address social justice issues with his written and spoken words as well as community initiatives, Abdul-Jabbar has another award associated with him. The NBA created the “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion Award,” which will go to a current NBA player that will result in a $100,000 donation to an organization of his choosing. The other four finalists will each select an organization to receive a $25,000 donation.
All 30 NBA teams will nominate a player from their roster for consideration of the award. A seven-member committed composed of NBA legends, league executives and social justice leaders will select the winner and four finalists.
Abdul-Jabbar spoke to USA TODAY Sports about the award, receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and NBA players’ involvement on the social justice front. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What are your expectations on what this award will accomplish?
Abdul-Jabbar: “I hope it gives all players in the league an incentive to see what they can do in their communities to make their communities a better place. We’re giving them money to disperse and giving them an idea with how to affect change. So we can’t lose. It’s just going to keep spreading. We have a few prominent people like LeBron [James], for example, who have done incredible things. But it’s getting to the point where everybody in the league might want to do something. We’ll get a whole lot more done that way.”
What are your takeaways on how NBA players have used their platform in the past year to speak out on social justice issues?
Abdul-Jabbar: “Take LeBron for example. He’s sending a whole school district to school all the way to college. That’s incredible. It’s a wonderful thing. [Former WNBA player] Maya Moore has helped a young man get out of prison after being wrongfully convicted. She has a great idea on how to make the community a better place and used her position to help the young man achieve justice. That is a direct result of this type of activism. We’re going to see a whole lot more of that.”
What was your rite of passage with protesting during the Civil Rights Movement?
Abdul-Jabbar: “I spoke out against the Olympics in 1968. I think that really helped me understand what was at stake. There have been other economic issues. Look at the leadership that Oscar Robertson provided so that we were able to obtain free agency. They were very important to our financial future. We were able to obtain that through the leadership of guys in the NBA. Their leadership goes all over the place.”
Why was it important for you to be a part of the NBA’s PSA’s that encourages people to take the COVID-19 vaccine?
Abdul-Jabbar: “In the Black community, the denial of effective treatment was a common thing. Black people suffered for that. In this instance, Black people would suffer if they are not given the treatment. We have an opportunity to get the treatment to keep our community healthy. We have to take advantage of it. That’s what motivates me.”
What made you comfortable with taking it?
Abdul-Jabbar: “I was just waiting for them to have one that they felt was effective and safe. Once the information came out that these vaccines would work, I went right ahead. I didn’t have any problem with it.”
Have you gotten any feedback from players or from the community?
Abdul-Jabbar: “I haven’t gotten much feedback. I’m just really glad President Biden’s program has been effective as it has been. I think he’s done a good job.”
What’s your message to any NBA players and the community that aren’t comfortable with taking the vaccine?
Abdul-Jabbar: “I would just tell them to go talk to somebody that you respect and trust on if the vaccine is safe and effective. If you’re not satisfied, don’t take it. But I think you’ll find that the vaccine is going to be saving lives and getting us back to normal a lot earlier than we would hope.”
What have you done with the Sky Hook Foundation?
Abdul-Jabbar: “We’ve done a good job with getting people to understand that science, technology and math are where the good jobs are going to be in the 21st century. We’re trying to get that message over to the kids. My foundation has been active since 2009 and we just got some support. We’ll be able to shorten the waiting list now from six years to 2 ½ years. We’re making progress.”
What are the next steps with making more progress for racial equality?
Abdul-Jabbar: “We’ll have to continue to communicate effectively. If we can respect what we hear from our fellow citizens and from the other people that have some input into it, that’s how progress is made. It doesn’t all happen at once. It takes a lot of back and forth. But we can get there.”
What are other projects are you working on?
Abdul-Jabbar: “I’m going to be on the History Channel talking about the history of protest (a one-hour documentary scheduled to premiere in June). We’ll talk about the suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement and some of the labor movements. They all really are precedent for what’s happening now. What’s past is prologue. We did a real good job with that.”
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