Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 61 years old. Hard to believe, isn't it? For most of the first 42 years of his life, he was celebrated as one of the greatest basketball players in history — from his days at Power Memorial Academy in New York, to three national titles at UCLA, then with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, winning six titles and becoming the NBA's all-time leading scorer. Since leaving the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar has remained politically active and is an author of numerous books and articles about black history and culture. On Saturday, he spoke at the Florida Holocaust Museum's To Life dinner in Tampa. Today, he will speak at the Campus Activities Center at Sixth Avenue S and Second Street S at USF St. Petersburg. Doors open at noon for the free lecture at 1 p.m., with a book signing to follow. Abdul-Jabbar spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about his love of history, his life after basketball and his reaction to Barack Obama becoming president.
You're coming off two bestselling books, the first one about the African-American 761st Tank Battalion, which liberated concentration camps during World War II. How did you come across that story?
There was a documentary on the 761st Tank Battalion, and I went to a screening of it. There I saw one of my dad's buddies — someone I had known since I was 7 or 8 years old back in New York. I had no idea this man I had known almost my whole life was a part of 761st Tank Battalion.
How did you feel when you heard the story? Pride because of what they had done or anger because their place in history had been ignored?
Total pride, but there was some anger involved, which is the usual reaction when you see African-Americans written out of history. First off, these guys should've been in the movie Patton. What they did in the Battle of the Bulge was key … and they liberated Dachau. The overall effort of black Americans during the war has rarely been discussed, and there is some anger associated with that.
Where did your passion for history come from?
It started very early for me. I was raised in Manhattan, which was a Revolutionary War battlefield. Growing up, my friends and I would find lots of arrowheads and musket balls and really old bottles that dated as far back as the Dutch colonies. That's where it kind of started for me.
You've written six books. Is writing something you will continue to do for the rest of your life?
I've always enjoyed writing, and it's my attempt to leave a legacy. My book Black Profiles in Courage specifically was something I felt needed to be a part of all standard history books in America. I was disappointed in the way black people had been written out of history. Young people can read that book and have an understanding. I continue to get mail from teachers who teach history in the inner cities who use that book as a part of their lesson plan. It's a very rewarding thing to have impact in a very positive way.
Are you working on a book now or is there any subject that you want to explore?
Right now, I'm beginning a children's book, which will deal with the inventions that black Americans have made that most people don't know. Things like the golf tee, potato chips, peanut butter, stoplights. This will be a book for kids to understand the contributions black people have made. I also want to do something on the Underground Railroad.
You're a guy who, if you wanted, could sit back and live off your name and celebrity.
But you could just show up on television playing yourself, and go around the country signing autographs and so forth. So why throw yourself into these projects that appear to take painstaking research and lots of work?
Well, it's what I enjoy, and I think it's important. These are things I would be doing with my life even if I hadn't played in the NBA.
You're also a special assistant coach with the Lakers, but do you still have any desire to be a head coach in the NBA or at a major college?
Sure, if I had the opportunity. I really haven't gotten that.
I don't know. Lots of things. For starters, I got into it really late. When I retired, I was 42 and I had to take a few years to deal with the burnout. So by that point, I was 50 or so, and it's a considerable thing to start your coaching career at that age. But I've enjoyed working with the Lakers and working with players like Andrew Bynum. It's worked out very well for me and, I think, for him.
What do you think of the NBA these days?
I think the game has suffered from the tremendous amount of money earned by young players. Players come out of college early and it has made for a less attractive college game. And then you have unschooled players who still don't know how to play the game coming into the league, and it has affected the quality of play.
When you were at UCLA, you were there for four years. How do you feel about kids being able to play one year and then enter the draft?
I don't think anybody is happy with the way that has worked out, and it's a poor compromise. Look, I understand where the kids are coming from. Your choice is to go to college and get a degree or make $30 million right now. That's a hell of a choice. I can't blame the kids who take the money. But they would be better off as professionals if they stayed in school. The same situation exists in professional baseball. Kids sign right out of high school. But the difference is they go to a minor-league team in Iowa and ride the bus for a couple of years. While they're there, they learn how to play the game and how to be a professional athlete, and that's something we don't have in the NBA.
Speaking of your UCLA days, you boycotted the 1968 Olympics, in part, to protest the treatment of African-Americans at that time. At those Olympics, track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raised a fist on the medal stand to protest the same thing. What memories do you have of that time?
I thought that it was something that needed to be said. John Carlos and Tommie Smith suffered their whole lives because of what they did. But I don't think any of us were wasting our time. It was a statement that needed to be seen around the world. They suffered, but they ultimately achieved something for standing up the way they did.
And here we are in 2009 and an African-American was elected president. What was going through your mind when Barack Obama was elected?
I think I held it together until I saw all those people in Lincoln Park. Then I saw Jesse Jackson crying. And I thought about all he had been through and marching with Martin Luther King and how emotional he became, and then I lost it.
But Obama becoming president hasn't ended race problems in this country, has it?
It's a great milestone, and it shows that the majority of Americans can judge someone on the content of his character and his abilities rather than the color of his skin. It's really indicative of the great deal of progress that has been made, and it is remarkable that we have an African-American president. But we have more work to do. A lot more work.
Poverty remains a huge issue in this country. That and the aftereffects of slavery and the reconstruction era still remain an issue. There is still so much to do.