WILKES-BARRE — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was an elite scorer during his basketball career at UCLA and in the NBA.
But since his retirement in 1989 his focus has shifted to writing, talking about race relations and supporting STEM education.
The former Milwaukee and Los Angeles Lakers star spoke at Wilkes University’s McHale Athletic Center in the University Center on Main for the annual Max Rosenn Lecture in Law and Humanities on Sunday.
His 50-minute lecture, titled “Becoming Kareem,” was moderated by Wilkes University president Patrick F. Leahy. It dove into a wide-range of topics from Abdul-Jabbar’s time at UCLA, his relationship with legendary coach John Wooden, political activism in sports and the benefits of a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
“It was great to see one of the greatest basketball players ever,” said Wilkes-Barre resident Adam Ciechoski, who attended the lecture Sunday afternoon. “This lecture was great because it didn’t just talk about basketball but real-life issues.”
The issue of race entered Abdul-Jabbar’s mind in the third grade, he said.
“The first time I realized I was black was in third grade,” Abdul-Jabbar, 71, told the crowd of more than 1,000. “A classmate of mine brought in a Polaroid camera, and I noticed I was the only black face in the picture.”
When Abdul-Jabbar first met Wooden, he thought he looked like the Pepperidge Farm guy.
“I came to UCLA because I liked Wooden, and I thought I fit in well with their program,” the three-time NCAA national champion said. “He never told us that he expected us to win. He would just say go out there and execute the game plan we went over in practice.
“Coach Wooden never let me down. What was great about him was that I could talk about anything with him, it wasn’t just about basketball.”
He continued: “I was with him three hours before he passed away. He was a great man and an amazing friend.”
Abdul-Jabbar went from UCLA to the Milwaukee Bucks as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in 1969.
“I’m proud at which the speed the Bucks won the championship,” he said. “No one talks about it, but we won the championship after being in existence for only three years.”
After Abdul-Jabbar’s prolific NBA career came to a close, he went on to become a bestselling author, philanthropist and documentarian.
“I was an avid reader and enjoyed writing in grade school,” he mentioned. “I was an English major at UCLA. I always wanted to write a book on my own about black history.”
Abdul-Jabbar has gone on to author 15 books.
He is not only an author. He is the founder of the Skyhook Foundation, named after his trademark shot, that focuses on bringing educational STEM opportunities to under-served communities.
“You don’t have to be like Beyonce, Denzel or LeBron,” he said. “All they have to do is pay attention in chemistry class.
“My foundation helps kids from the inner-city go to camps and labs and learn about a STEM education because that’s where the good jobs of the 21st century are going to be.”
In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Abdul-Jabbar with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The former Los Angeles Lakers center noted that race relations in America have made progress but have also had points of regression.
“I think the problem today is that people are not being rationale,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Critical thinking is something we need to teach young people to make wise choices.
“This is the best country in the world and thinking about making that. It has to be our constant goal. If individuals think like that, we will get things done.”
The six-time NBA champion also weighed in on the who is better debate: LeBron James or Michael Jordan?
“You can’t compare them,” Abdul-Jabbar stated. “Both play the game very differently. They are both leaders and at the end of the game they are the one’s you want to take the final shot, that’s how they’re the same.
Abdul-Jabbar left a message for students in the crowd of nearly 1,000 people.
“Take your time as you go through school,” he said. “You will figure out what you want to do. Just be patient and follow your heart. Everything will work out.”
Reach Dan Stokes at 570-991-6389 or on Twitter @ByDanStokes