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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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A Most Personal Conversation with a Most Public Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

A Note From Chaz Ebert:  On November 6, 2015, basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke about what is was like to convert to Islam while he was an active player with the National Basketball Association. This speech was part of the annual Muslim-Cultural Students Association fall keynote event. The moderator was the author of this piece, Omer M. Mozaffar, the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago and a contributor to RogerEbert.com. On Friday, November 13, over one hundred people were killed in Paris in coordinated terror attacks. Islamist extremist group ISIS took credit for the attack. This piece was scheduled to be published before that day, but in light of it's contents I think this conversation between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Omer M Mozaffar is even more topical and illuminating.  

It is a Friday evening in November at Northwestern University. A crowd of undergrads and families sits in a large auditorium. Waiting in the moments behind the curtains, just before we walk in front of the cheering crowd, just before he gives the audience his spiritual autobiography, I ask Kareem Abdul-Jabbar if he ever gives talks about Islam.

“No.”

I wonder if this is the first public conversation with the Muslim by a Muslim. Everyone knows Kareem as a Muslim, but in the stratosphere of celebrity and popular culture, during the forty plus years of his Islam, we gave far more attention to others. Muhammad Ali was our chosen spokesman for Islam, until it was Osama bin Laden.

Once, Islam in America was Muhammad Ali. His boxing earned our national applause, his politics earned national disgust, and his perseverance earned global reverence. On the other hand, Islam in America was and is geopolitics. In the 1970s, we positioned Islam through the four events that dominate the entire conversation today: the OPEC Oil Embargo, the assassination of Israeli Olympic athletes, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Ayatollah Khomenei. We trace everything back through those narratives: 9/11, ISIS, the War on Terror, Palestinian Self-Determination, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the Taliban, and for the Right-wing, all-things Barack “Hussein” Obama.

But through it all, for this Pakistani kid from the South Side of Chicago, as well as so many Muslims across the country, so much of Islam was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Meaning, Islam was all those other things, like piety, politics, and activism, but, through Kareem’s example, Islam was a persistent determination to be the best. As Muhammad Ali went into retirement, Kareem was winning NBA championships and breaking records. He followed a career less like the boxer and more like the late tennis great Arthur Ashe, transitioning from premier athlete to respected social critic and author. This November 6th night, however, at Northwestern University, in an event entitled sponsored by their Muslim Cultural Students Association, entitled “Champion. Scholar. Believer.,” his goal was to speak about Islam. First, however, we sat together, letting him relax as we planned out the evening.

Because he carries such a polite slouch, as lanky as he always was, it is easier to overlook his presence. I have the same thing in my own behavior: it is not merely a slouch, but a polite slouch, to speak eye to eye to people when they are shorter, as they usually are.

In his case, they always are.

He is definitely quiet. He has those moments of abrasiveness that we feel when we hope for generous attention from someone shy, especially from a celebrity. But it is not abrasiveness. It is a modesty that comes from carrying a burden in the mind and heart. I wonder if the gravity I project on to him is the simple prison of celebrity, never being given—in his case for half a century—the privilege of anonymity. 

Or is it the weight of Race? Every African American I have met from his generation, nearly 70 years old, carries it in posture and facial expression. When you are a Person of Color you are not permitted to not be a Person of Color. More than that, Race is not the concern that Whites will hurt you. Race is the burden of keeping yourself standing straight, glued together in an environment that shows in discourse and institution that it wants to crush and shred you.

Or, maybe he is just a regular guy in the body of a physical and social giant. As we chat in the makeshift green room, normally used as an academic conference room, he nibbles at some nachos and guacamole, and sips some apple juice. We reflect on topics as heavy as a Chicago nine year old murder victim, wondering how to fix things. We talk about movies: he loves "The Maltese Falcon." He inquires. He thinks. Never talks about his accomplishments. Always polite, and always frank. He does not seem to be performing. Rather, he sounds more like an uncle than a superhero.

In sum, it seems that he is always present.

In writing about movies, I have met many celebrities. I have never seen anyone gawked at with such wide-open anticipating expressions, until this evening. Looking at his basketball stats—all-time leading scorer, so many championships, so many MVPs, so many blocked shots, so many rebounds, in addition to an astonishing high school and college career—he might be the only person alive to challenge Michael Jordan on any claims as “the greatest basketball player of all-time.”

As he walks on stage, I can hear gasps. In this evening, he gives a speech about his spiritual path, I then interview him, and the audience asks questions.

In his speech, delivered with the same calm, matter-of-fact friendliness we get in all of his interviews, he tells us he was raised Catholic. As a young adult, he learned about Christianity’s history in Slavery and Race in America. In college, he was introduced to Islam through the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Converting, he attached himself to an off-shoot of the Nation of Islam led by Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis. 

He comments that the explicit appeal of Islam is its moral guidance. He never says it, but considering the people he favors, like Malcolm X, it is clear that another aspect is a demand for integrity. While other celebrities seek an audience, perhaps even to sell shoes (and we will get to that in a bit), Kareem seems to be need to be himself, not someone forced to fit a mold, even if his views and actions might agitate. I ask him later, during the interview what he would tell his younger self. “I would tell myself to have confidence and courage, to not be afraid.” 

He tells us that Abdul-Khaalis’ arbitrary authoritative behavior unfounded strictures—including a forced separation from Abdul-Jabbar’s parents—would alienate him. To make matters even worse, Abdul-Khaalis’ organization had a few murderous episodes, first from an attack by members of the Nation of Islam, and second in a siege in Washington D.C.  Abdul-Jabbar’s departure from Abdul-Khaalis led him on a solo trek through religious life. 

Years later, he reconnects with his parents. Continues his study of Islam. He completes his athletic career. Has a second career as a writer, scholar, commentator. He is grateful for the life he has had. Even when he speaks about Abdul-Khaalis, I hear no venom. Just frank assessment.  As Kareem wonders at the end of his speech about a posthumous Paradise, he is hopeful for himself.

When we start our interview, and I ask him why now he is become so public about Islam.

He tells me on stage, sitting casually in a chair that would barely fit me, “I would like Americans to understand that Muslims do not adhere to what ISIS is all about. They are most at risk for getting murdered. ISIS views Muslims the same as their enemies. If you do not follow their edicts, they will kill you. It is a very evil movement. They try to legitimize rape and murder all in the name of Islam. Their actions really disturb me. Muslims have a special responsibility to stop this. I hope we can push them back into the hole they came from.”

When I make the same statements, I receive as much hostility and skepticism as appreciation. But why him? Despite being one of the most lauded players in the history of sports, even Kareem gets subjected to hate for his statements on Islam. On Twitter, despite his criticisms of violent ideologies done in the name of Islam, he gets accused of being an ISIS supporter. In Right-Wing websites he still gets linked with Abdul-Khaalis’ movements. So, I ask him why.

“People have a tendency to take their fear and make it the most important thing in their life. I can understand that. And, there are definitely things in ISIS to fear. But, they have to be confronted. People want to take their fear and make me feel afraid, but it should not be about that.”

For Abdul-Jabbar, the task at hand is to figure out what can be done to eliminate ISIS, and such groups that have “such an irrational approach to life, who want to suppress everyone else.”  When later asked by an audience member when the killing will stop, he says, he is “burdened by the fact that I do not have an answer.”

Further, in the current Presidential race, candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson have received attention for obnoxious comments on Islam. He says, “People like Ben Carson and Donald Trump get people to feel their fear. It is as though they are saying, ‘Be afraid and if you vote for me, I’ll deal with these people, and you won’t have to deal with these horrible Muslims who want to murder people because they are all the same.’ It is as though they are saying that everyone with an Islamic identity is ISIS. This is clearly not true, but they get political boosts from that attitude.”

Though he himself is often a political commentator, he does not see himself as religiously political. The appeal for him with Islam is practicality. He tells me on stage, Islam has, “a morality that I believe works. We are supposed to love and cherish our families. We are supposed to work with other communities in positive ways.”

I interject suggesting that his prior Catholicism also had the same.

“But I was getting called ‘nigger’ by Catholics,” he replies. “That is not supposed to be what Christianity is about, but here in America the people who very often suppressed Black Americans were Christians. We can’t get away from that. The incident in Charleston, South Carolina where the man killed all those people in the Church is a very powerful example of that. The people of South Carolina began to take down Confederate flags, because they understand what it perpetuates, especially for people who believe that ‘maybe slavery wasn’t all that bad.’”

On the topic of Race and violence, our conversation takes place a few days after 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee in Chicago was lured into an alley and murdered. I ask him what has changed since 1965? 

“In 1965, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act, Blacks had the legal means to fight Racism, but it did not end Racism. It is still an issue. There are some who use Dog Whistle signals, using code words to perpetuate Black Inferiority and White Superiority. At this point it is up to Blacks that they have to advance in education, politics, economics to enable them to overcome the stacked deck against them in many ways. Criminal justice. Employment.”

I wondered, then, if he had a complicated relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement, considering that his father was not only a boxer and a jazz musician, but also a police officer. In 1955, he was one of the first Black Police Officers in the NYPD. In response, he says, “They keep us safe. We have to have police. But they should respect people. Certain things the police have to deal with, make them callous toward people, especially toward people who do not look like them. Black Lives Matter is an extension of the Civil Rights movement because Blacks have been subjected to brutality since the inception of our Republic. That has to change at some people. The worst was the killing of the young boy, Tamir Rice, in Cleveland.”

I ask him what makes him hopeful and despair about the future. He tells us, “I am hopeful because we see more and more people of various factions come together on the same issue, whether we speak of rights denied on the basis of Race, Sexual Orientation, or Gender. All of these issues have to be dealt with so that we can make America the best that it can be. That requires that we give everybody the same chance to be successful. Equal opportunity has to be a reality. If it is, then the meritocracy will take care of itself.”  “I am in despair about the politicians who are trying to exploit the fears of people so that that scenario does not play out.” I hear in his comments, despite all the criticisms about his experiences and about America’s shortcomings, a love for people and for America.

He gained notoriety a few days earlier for criticizing Michael Jordan in an NPR interview, asserting that in avoiding taking political stances, Jordan chose “commerce over conscience.” Jordan was asked to endorse a Democrat, and refused, commenting “Republicans also buy shoes.” I asked him how he feels saying that in front of a Chicago audience. “They understand what I’m talking about,” and the audience erupted in applause.

About professional athletes, I ask him about Charles Barkley’s comments from many years ago, claiming that he is a not a role model. “Well he is right and wrong. Charles Barkley is not a role model.” The audience again claps. “He cannot help being drafted into that position because he is so prominent. He has a daughter and relatives. We were all in that type of scrutiny. One time my mother called me for ‘acting a fool’ after my behavior in a game.”

We know, from watching him, for his eclectic pursuits. A scholar not just of Islam, not just of Race, he is also an expert on Yoga and was a student of Bruce Lee, with a short but major role in Lee’s “Game of Death.” He says, “Bruce Lee was an incredible guy. Very down to Earth. All the different martial art schools have very strong traditions and they believe they are each the best. Bruce’s idea was that they were all good, but you need to adapt the right parts to your physique.”

This approach seems to fit his approach to religion, so I ask him. “I do feel that in following the way of the Prophet Muhammad, it has to be practical, that works here with the people I interact with. I do not try to make my faith why people interact with me. If people want to talk about it, we can. I’m a citizen just like everyone else.” 

“Muslims see here that people of all religions succeed,” he says. “That’s the wonderful message of America. It’s a wonderful thing.”

He has survived leukemia and had a good friend die from leukemia, which made him very afraid. He just had major heart bypass surgery. Speaking about his mortality, “It made me realize that I am a lot closer to my final day than I thought. It makes you understand what your priorities should be.”

As a man who has seen death, he no longer fears death, though he does fear getting old, learning “to live life in a way that has wisdom.” He hopes that he will be remembered as someone who achieved a number of things as an athlete, as a scholar, as an author, including his new novel, Mycroft Holmes.” He speaks of gratitude for his parents, family, his teachers, his coaches, his mentors, and his experiences. He credits his family as much as his beliefs. “My mom and dad wanted me to be polite, and I’ve taken it from there.” He says, “It’s been a wonderful ride.”


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