In his blog on the Times website, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that one of the most common perceptions of him when he played basketball — that he was angry a lot of the time — was a factor of whether the beholder was white or black.
What’s weird about it is that every morning when I get out of bed, bluebirds, squirrels, and deer help me get dressed while we sing “We Are the World.” By the way, squirrels really suck at tying shoes. And deer often mumble the lyrics.
Even that doesn’t make me angry.
What’s interesting about the question is that the person who asked the question is white. In fact, no black person has ever asked that question. That’s because they already know the answer. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights movement was at its most intense and volatile level, I often used my celebrity to speak out against certain injustices. This seemed to irritate some people who expected black athletes to simply be silently grateful for their opportunities and not rock the boat.
However, being given this tremendous opportunity to play college basketball at UCLA, how could I not speak out to help the many other black athletes who were not being given the same opportunity? To not stand up for integration of college athletics would be to dishonor the brave heroes who spoke out and made my opportunities possible. People like Bill Garrett (who is sometimes called the Jackie Robinson of college basketball), Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, and dozens of others. How could I not be angry to realize that many great players were being denied a college education and/or the chance to play before larger crowds (and therefore be more valuable if they chose to turn professional)? They were being denied a future.
The integration of college sports would have happened without me. But I like to think that I made some small contribution by adding my voice to those who fought to make this a better world. For some, my voice may have seemed shrill or angry; but for those on the right side of the issue, it seemed loyal and compassionate.
Abdul-Jabbar's former UCLA coach, John Wooden, has gone home to continue recovery from fractures he suffered last month, the university announced today.