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If you like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's story, you might also like:
Hank Aaron,
Yogi Berra,
Julius Erving,
Mike Krzyzewski,
Peyton Manning,
Willie Mays,
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and John Wooden

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's recommended reading: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
 
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Profile of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Biography of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Photo Gallery

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Interview (page: 2 / 7)

Basketball Scoring Champion

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  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

You've referred to the year 1964 as a rite of passage. Can you tell us about that? How old were you? Sixteen or 17 years old?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I was 17 years old and got to participate in a program, the Harlem Youth Project.


Dr. John Clark really figured out a way to teach the kids in Harlem how to think about the future and what they could do to make Harlem a better place, and they had a number of workshops to try and get the kids involved in thinking about the future and what positive things they could do to contribute to life in Harlem. In order to do that, they had to know what Harlem was about. Being involved in the journalism workshop, we had to write about those things and put them in front of the participants in the program. So that required that I go and learn about the history of Harlem. That just opened my whole world up in terms of what had gone on before me, particularly the Harlem Renaissance. Because of the influence of my dad, the musician, I knew all about the musical aspects of it, but I didn't know very much about the other aspects of the Harlem Renaissance, and that really filled in what happened and why, and it made me very proud, and it made me a student of black history.


Were you always going to go to college?


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I always was going to go to college. That was a goal that my parents identified for me; probably in fifth or sixth grade I was thinking about, "Gee, where am I going to go to college?" I recently found my grade school album. You write certain things in there about your future, and at that point I wrote in the space there, "Your Favorite College," and at that point I wrote UCLA. That surprised me to find that out. I always thought that that happened a little bit later, after seeing UCLA do so well in college basketball, but as early as the eighth grade I had picked the school that I wanted to go to.


When did you realize that basketball was going to be such an important part of your life?


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I realized basketball was going to be an important part of my life probably somewhere in the seventh or eighth grade, when I started getting recruited to go to high school. In order to go to Catholic high school in New York, there was tuition, and already I had offers to go high school and not have to pay tuition. So at that point basketball started paying some bills, and I knew that to go to college, the same process would take place, and that would be another set of bills that I didn't have to pay, that basketball would take care of. I also knew that professional athletes made pretty good salaries, so it started to be something that started to loom on the horizon there, so to speak.


How hard did you have to work to become a good athlete, a good basketball player?


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I had to work hard to become a good basketball player. You can just be tall and go out there and go through the motions, and you won't do very well. High school basketball in New York is a blood sport, it's a serious game. It's not something that's like a casual pastime. You'd better be at your best. It's almost like the whole world is watching. Kids in New York high school athletics, by and large, are very competitive. So from the very earliest, I was in a very competitive atmosphere and you want to be at your best. You just don't want to go through the motions, you want to distinguish yourself.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


You could have gone to any college in America. Why did you choose to travel 3,000 miles across the country to go to UCLA?


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I chose UCLA because my last two years in high school, UCLA won the "NC2A" tournament. Also, earlier, I remember seeing The Ed Sullivan Show when Rafer Johnson was on The Ed Sullivan Show. I knew Rafer Johnson was a world class athlete, but he was not on The Ed Sullivan Show as an athlete. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show as the President of the Student Body at UCLA. I was very impressed with that, that they appreciated him for more than his athletic ability. That said a lot about the attitudes at UCLA and that it would be a good place to go to school.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Interview Photo
Also, there was a guy who played on the Knicks, Willie Naulls, who had gone to UCLA. He spoke highly of it, and he spoke highly of Coach Wooden. All in all, it all seemed to make sense. I got a chance to meet Coach Wooden that year on my recruiting trip to UCLA, and that more or less solidified it. He came to New York and spoke to my parents, and they were impressed. They thought I would be in good hands, and that was that.

Was it scary for a young man your age to be traveling across the country?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: No, it wasn't scary. There is a lot of adrenalin in that situation, but it's excitement. It's a new place, a new world, a new set of circumstances to deal with, and I thought it could only be better.

You have written that it was a tough year for you, that first year.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, my first year at UCLA was tough. It was at times a lonely kind of situation. Going to school and playing basketball at a higher level -- it was very challenging, but I thought that I was up to the challenge, and things worked out very well.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 14:03 EDT