En español | In 1675, Sir Isaac Newton explained his remarkable achievements in physics by saying, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” That expression of humility and gratitude resonated with me so much that I titled my book about the literary, political, musical and sports giants of the Harlem Renaissance On the Shoulders of Giants.
In the 32 years since I retired from the NBA, I have been writing books, articles, documentaries and movies about many of the overlooked giants of color throughout American history. No group has had more influence on society — and on me — than athletes. Because of the courageous men and women who played games for a living, I have not only seen further but been able to achieve more in a profession and a country that for so long routinely resisted people of color. And, sadly, still does.
Now it's almost time for the Olympics, and the best athletes in the world will gather to prove once again that human beings are capable of more than we thought possible. People will jump higher, run faster and leap farther than ever before. And the rest of us will watch in awe, fervently believing that the human body is an unstoppable vehicle of the imagination, rather than a thick tether of aging flesh. To watch Olympic athletes soar is to feel, if even for a few moments, untethered.
In 1968, I was asked to join the Olympic men's basketball team, but I refused, as a protest against the police violence and brutal racism bubbling up throughout the country. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April of that year, and there was an anger and hopelessness permeating the Black community. I didn't feel comfortable being an envoy of the American way to the rest of the world, as if everything was OK.
It was an act of defiance that probably hurt me more than it did the country, but after watching Muhammad Ali sacrifice his heavyweight-championship title, endure three years of being banned from boxing (worth millions of dollars) and face imprisonment simply because he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, I had to heed my conscience as well. I couldn't forget his story of coming home after winning an Olympic gold medal in boxing, only to be refused service at a restaurant in his hometown. He was one of the giants who hoisted me up.
For the past hundred years, sports has been both a litmus test and a spearhead for racial progress. In some cases, Black athletes trying to break through the color barriers were like canaries sent into a coal mine to choke on the poisonous racism. In other cases, they endured the foul air and kept getting up, each time proving their worth as athletes. Like many pioneers, they were attacked, abused, vilified, excluded, jailed and sometimes beaten or worse. For Black athletes, trying to break into white sports was like climbing a rope that stretched up into the clouds — while someone set the bottom on fire.
My own climb up that rope has not been without feeling the heat from below. But the greats who came before me were like thick knots in the rope, each helping us all climb just a little faster and just a little higher.
Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe are only a few of the giants on whose shoulders I ascended. More important than how to be a winning athlete, they taught me how to be a significant athlete. They taught me that winning wasn't just about trophies and rings but about using those things as currency to lift up the rest of the community. They taught me that every time I spoke out about injustice, I was providing strong shoulders from which the next generation could climb higher.
When I was young, sports seemed like a welcome oasis from the open racism around me. I had been shaken by reading about the brutal slaying years earlier of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury and who, once released, bragged to Look magazine that they'd killed him. Then, when I was 17, I accidentally got caught up in the Harlem riot of 1964, which broke out after a white cop killed a 15-year-old Black kid, James Powell. How was I to feel safe in a country where that could happen to me, simply because of the color of my skin?
But with basketball, the ball didn't care who put it through the hoop. The game was based only on ability. If you had better skills, people wanted you on their team. No one cared who your parents were or how many friends you had. It was a pure, sweaty meritocracy. For me, it was a glimpse, however temporary, of the way the world should be. When I played, the world outside the gym doors, with all its irrational prejudices and enraged injustices, was silenced. There was the sound of the ball being dribbled, the squeal of sneakers on wood, and the cheers of the crowd when the ball slapped through the net.
Of course, all paradises eventually fall. The more successful my high school team became, the bigger the crowds and the more I would hear the racial slurs and taunts. Even my beloved coach used the n-word, in a misguided attempt to fire me up. It did, but not in the way he'd anticipated. I began to realize that there really was no safe haven from racism. This inspired me to learn more about American history, and especially African American history, to understand why things were still this way a hundred years after the Civil War. I met Martin Luther King Jr. I read the words of Malcolm X. I stopped hiding in the gym.
Even while playing at UCLA, I heard the same slurs and even threats. But it wasn't just the overt racism that polluted the purity of the sport. I started playing for UCLA in 1966, and a year later, the NCAA banned the slam dunk. The ban, which lasted until 1976, was popularly known as the Lew Alcindor rule, because I had made liberal use of the slam dunk. In fact, many of the frequent slam dunkers were Black, and there was a definite feeling that the rule had been invoked to keep Black players from dominating.
We all knew it was no coincidence that the rule was laid down less than a year after the all-Black players from Texas Western College defeated an all-white team from the University of Kentucky and won the national championship. Even that historic victory was tainted with racism: The custom was to bring out a ladder and ceremonially cut down the net. No ladder was brought out. Traditionally, the winners appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to celebrate their victory. Not this time.
As I graduated from college to the NBA, and as more Black players were slowly integrating professional sports, a popular theory being tossed around was called Black athletic superiority, which credited the rise of the Black athlete to genetics. The gist was that white athletes earned their athletic success through hard work and grit, while Black athletes were just born that way. In 2003, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education addressed this claim: “If there is a ‘black gene’ that leads to athletic prowess, why then do African Americans, 90 percent of whom have at least one white ancestor, outperform blacks from African nations in every sport except long-distance running?"
Some would say, “Easy there, Kareem. That was all a long time ago. We've come a long way.” Yes, we have. But not as long a way as many white people think. There's been plenty of publicity about how COVID-19 is having a much greater effect on the Black and Latino communities, both in the death rates and the economic devastation. Late last spring, an estimated 15 million to 26 million people marched to protest police brutality against Blacks, in the largest protest movement in U.S. history.
The headlines are also filled with the current aggressive attempts of states across the country to pass 361 laws to restrict access to voting, which will mostly impact minority and poor voters. The definition of democracy is being rewritten to be exclusive rather than inclusive. And most of those being excluded have dark skin.
How much have times changed? Amanda Gorman, the 23-year-old Black poet who read at President Biden's inauguration and then read again at the Super Bowl, is now one of the most recognizable Black people in the country. Yet, in March, she tweeted that she was followed home by a security guard who said she “looked suspicious” and demanded to know if she lived there. He did not leave until she showed him her keys and let herself in.
Add that to the white woman, walking her dog in New York City's Central Park, who called the police simply because a Black man reminded her that her dog needed to be on a leash. Or the Black graduate student at Yale, napping in her dorm's common area, being questioned by police because another student thought she was not supposed to be there. And the two Black men, waiting for a friend at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, whom the manager called the police on because they were not paying customers.
Where do we belong?
That's what Black athletes have been asking for decades. Unfortunately, they are forced to keep asking that question. Because Black athletes can't just perform for fans and forget that while they're being cheered, their own children are in danger when they're just walking in the park, napping at college, waiting in Starbucks. When these athletes speak out against injustice, they aren't just virtue signaling; they are fighting for survival.
The great Black athletes I mentioned earlier all had a profound influence on me and thousands of other young Black athletes. They are all international superstars whose accomplishments in sports and effect on society have been well documented. Less well known are those like baseball player Moses Fleetwood Walker, whose life in some ways mirrors my own.
Moses played in the 1880s, nearly 90 years before me. He was the first Black man to regularly play big league baseball. (William Edward White was technically the first, having played one game in 1879, but he was biracial and passed himself off as white. Moses was also biracial but proclaimed himself Black.) Teams would protest his inclusion in the lineup, sometimes leaving the field until he was pulled. He faced relentless abuse from fans, newspapers and players. Two of his own teammates constantly tried to sabotage his play.
The team released him a few weeks after receiving a threat that a mob was preparing to attack Moses if he played in Richmond, Virginia. At the time, he was the third-best hitter on the team. He was the last Black major league player until Jackie Robinson, 63 years later. For many ordinary people, to be so passionate about baseball and then lose their dream would drive them into a dark descent. Not Moses.
He used his baseball earnings to buy a theater. He became the coeditor of the Black newspaper The Equator; he wrote a 1908 book, Our Home Colony, which his biographer called “the most learned book a professional athlete ever wrote"; and he held four patents for inventions — from artillery shells to motion picture reels. Those are some mighty shoulders to stand on.
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"Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the heroism of Black athletes is also a story of resilience. For many African American athletes — and the Black fans watching them — winning isn't just crossing the finish line. It's a symbol of every Black American hurdling and dodging the multitude of cultural, economic, educational, health and other obstacles launched like grenades in their lane, meant to stop them.
Athletes always wonder what their legacy will be. But they can make choices during and after their career to ensure their legacy reflects their values and their cultural history. We just have to remember that sports records come and go, but social justice can change lives forever.
Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 74, has written and spoken out about racial justice in America since he was in high school. The six-time NBA champion and six-time NBA MVP was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2016. Last month, the NBA announced the creation of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award, an annual honor that will recognize a current NBA player for pursuing social justice and upholding the league’s decades-long values of equality, respect and inclusion. On June 19, the History Channel will release the documentary Fight the Power: The Movements That Changed America, executive produced by Abdul-Jabbar and his business partner, Deborah Morales. For more, visit kareemabduljabbar.com.