Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished just about everything in basketball. Three NCAA titles at UCLA, six titles and six MVP awards in the NBA. Arguably, the greatest center of all time.
But Abdul-Jabbar’s trophy case is missing one item that is owned by the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Bill Russell.
An Olympic gold medal.
Even though the NBA barrier to the Olympics wasn’t broken until 1992, Abdul-Jabbar had one shot at an Olympics in 1968 following his junior season playing for John Wooden at UCLA.
He declined to try out.
Abdul-Jabbar, now 70 years old, detailed that decision in his new book, “Coach Wooden and Me,” published earlier this month:
My development as a basketball player paralleled my evolution as a social activist. The more confident and successful I was on the court, the more confident I felt about expressing my political convictions. That personal progression reached its most controversial climax in 1968, when I refused to join the Olympic basketball team. This started a firestorm of criticism, racial epithets, and death threats that people still ask me about today.
I didn’t reach that decision easily. I really, really wanted to join the team. It would be an exciting challenge to play against the best basketball players in the world as well as to be on the same team as the best college players in the country. Plus, the adventure of going to Mexico City and hanging with athletes from around the world appealed to the young man in me.
But the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country. The previous summer had seen two major riots, one in Newark that had lasted five days, and one in Detroit that had lasted eight days. And on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. White America seemed ready to do anything necessary to stop the progress of civil rights, and I thought that going to Mexico would seem like I was either fleeing the issue or more interested in my career than in justice. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I did go and we won, I’d be bringing honor to the country that was denying our rights. It was the same feeling I’d had that last year playing for Coach Donahue after he’d called me a nigger.
I seemed to permanently reside in the exclusive neighborhood of Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
That same year The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published, posthumously since he’d been assassinated three years earlier. I didn’t just read it, I devoured every chapter, every page, every word. His story couldn’t have been more different than mine—street hustler and pimp who goes to prison, converts to Islam, emerges as an enlightened political leader—but I felt as if every insult he suffered and every insight he discovered were mine. He put into words what was in my heart; he clearly articulated what I had only vaguely expressed.
Malcolm was dead. Dr. King was dead.
Black leaders were an endangered species. That enraged me. There had been public accusations that the U.S. government, specifically J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, were targeting black leaders in secret campaigns to discredit, humiliate, and publicly ruin them. White America dismissed this as black paranoia due to lack of proof, but black Americans knew it was true simply from observation. It wasn’t until two years later that these suspicions were confirmed, when anti-war activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and found classified documents that detailed the FBI’s active policy of intimidation against black leaders.
It was too difficult for me to get enthusiastic about representing a country that refused to represent me or others of my color. Another reason I chose not to participate was my intense dislike for the International Olympic Committee’s president, Avery Brundage, who, during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, benched two Jewish runners so as not to embarrass Adolph Hitler by having Jews win a gold medal. Not only was this against the Olympic rules, but information has since been revealed that Brundage’s construction company was bidding for German contracts, which is why he was so eager to please Hitler. I couldn’t bring myself to work under the supervision of someone like that. America was angry at me for not showing gratitude to the country that had given me so many opportunities. I was grateful, but I also thought it disingenuous to show appreciation unless all people had the same opportunities. Just because I had made it to a lifeboat didn’t mean I could forget those who hadn’t. Or not try to keep the next ship from sinking.
To their credit, no one at UCLA tried to talk me out of my decision. Coach Wooden respected my choice and never brought it up. The university issued a statement explaining that I had turned down the invitation because it conflicted with classes, but I openly discussed my decision with the press. Joe Garagiola interviewed me on the Today show in a contentious segment in which he proclaimed the usual motto of entitled white people: America, love it or leave it. I couldn’t help but wonder what he would have said to the colonists who declared independence and fought to create their own country. Britain, love it or leave it.
I tried to make the point that true patriotism is about acknowledging problems and, rather than running away from them, joining together to fix them.
Although I missed the Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos made international news and Olympic history when, during the medal ceremony for the men’s 200-meter sprint, in which Smith received the gold medal and Carlos the bronze medal, they raised their gloved fists into the air in what was then known as the “Black Power salute.” This was a gesture of acknowledgment of the racial injustice in America. The U.S. Olympic Committee suspended them. They returned home to angry criticism and death threats. At a time when black leaders were routinely slaughtered, death threats were taken seriously.
Although Coach Wooden didn’t discuss my choice with me, I had the feeling that he disapproved, though not because of anything he said or did, even indirectly. I just knew that he was very patriotic. He had been a lieutenant in the navy during World War II. I couldn’t imagine him endorsing my refusal to play in the Olympics and bring glory to the U.S.
I found out years later just how wrong I was.
A couple years ago I received a letter from a woman I had never met, a letter to her that Coach Wooden had written in response to a note she had sent to him complaining about my decision not to participate in the Olympics. Until I’d held it in my hands, I hadn’t even known it existed. I opened the letter and began to read Coach’s neat script:
Dear Mrs. Hough,
The comments of this most unusual young man also disturbed me, but I have seen him hurt so much by the remarks of white people that I am probably more tolerant than most.
I have heard remarks within his hearing such as “Hey, look at that big black freak,” “Did you ever see such a big N—-r?” and others of a similar nature that might tend to turn the head of a more mature person in normal times. I am truly afraid that he will never find any peace of mind regardless or not of whether he makes a million dollars. He may be able to afford material things, but they are a poor substitute for true peace of mind.
You may not have seen or read about the later interview when he said that there were so many things wrong at present of the treatment of his race in this country that it was difficult for him to claim it as his own.
Thank you for your interest,
I read the letter again. Then again. Oh, Coach, I thought, I wish I’d known how you felt. If only to ease the burden you’d taken on to defend me. I thought back on my own arrogance at thinking I understood the man by reducing him to the kind of easy stereotype, the very thing that I’d been complaining about my whole life when it was done to me. He’d been too humble ever to say anything to me about the letter. Most people would have made a point of telling me how they’d come to my defense. But Coach Wooden didn’t care about receiving credit. A good deed was its own reward. Seeking praise or gratitude would have negated the deed.
Coach Dale Brown once asked him why he didn’t take some credit for the things he’d done or why he hadn’t been more outspoken about the civil rights movement. Brown recalled, “He held up his thumb and index finger so closely together you barely could slide a piece of onionskin between them. ‘That’s why,’ he said. I asked him what he meant and he explained, ‘That’s how much difference I would have made. So I tried to make a difference in other things.’”
I shook my head as I folded up the letter. Coach had been dead for several years and I would never get to thank him. Even then, at my age of sixty-seven, he was still teaching me about humility.
Excerpted from the COACH WOODEN AND ME by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Copyright © 2017 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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