Long before he was the leading scorer of the NBA, Showtime Lakers phenom Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a teenager who was granted an opportunity to speak with Dr. Martin Luther King. During Abdul-Jabbar’s formative years, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and it created a tense social climate, especially in his native state New York.
Abdul-Jabbar, known as Lew Alcindor at the time, was born in Harlem but was raised in a more affluent neighborhood. Feeling out of touch with African American culture, Abdul-Jabbar decided to join the Harlem Youth Action Project (HARYOU-ACT) in 1964, according to his book “On the Shoulders of Giants.” The Captain was only 17 years old at the time.
The leader of the project, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, invited Dr. King to speak to the youth involved in the program. Abdul-Jabbar attended the event as a journalist for the HARYOU project’s publication and was allowed access to the press conference after the event. As he sat among the established reporters at the event, Abdul-Jabbar asked how the project ran by Dr. Clarke would be significant to people in Harlem. Dr. King believed the program would be a success.
“I was honored to have the opportunity to attend Dr. King’s speech,” Abdul-Jabbar stated in “On the Shoulders of Giants.”
Abdul-Jabbar initially had qualms about how effective Dr. King’s push for nonviolent protesting was, but admired “Dr. King’s courage, dedication, and boundless optimism.”
The exchange proved to be a pivotal moment in Abdul-Jabbar’s life. The basketball season prior, his beloved high school basketball coach called him a nigger. The act devasted Abdul-Jabbar, irreversibly damaging their relationship.
Abdul-Jabbar also became more socially conscious and afro-centric, especially during his years studying at UCLA, according to the book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Lakers Dynasty of the 1980’s.” The Captain attended the Western Black Youth Conference, which was held at Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles and boycotted the 1968 Olympics.
The six-time NBA champ considers Dr. King as one of his heroes.
“He stuck to his convictions, in the face of jail, in the face of doubt from within his own organization, in the face of ridicule from other African Americans,” Abdul-Jabbar stated on his website. “The wisdom of his leadership has been proven by the success of the Civil Rights Movement.”