Editor's note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.
So much attention is rightly being paid to Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James for being on the verge of breaking one of the most iconic records in sports: Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time NBA scoring mark of 38,387 points. It is a monumental achievement we likely will see this week by James.
I have been friends with Kareem for more than six decades and had hoped that his record would remain intact, and it certainly looked as if it would. Kareem surpassed Wilt Chamberlain's then-record of 31,419 points on April 5, 1984, sinking a skyhook over Utah's Mark Eaton.
As James approaches the record -- he is 36 points behind the former Lakers center heading into home games Tuesday and Thursday -- I have thought about what an incredible contribution Kareem has made as a social justice advocate since he shot his last skyhook and retired in 1989.
He started this work as a very young man and has continued for more than 60 years. He has set a record as the longest-standing social justice athlete-activist in history that I don't think we'll ever see broken. And that is something, because along the way he stood with social justice giants Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Billie Jean King, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe, among a handful of others.
Now, of course, the floodgates have opened and we have seen moments such as the Milwaukee Bucks refusing to play their first-round NBA playoff game after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020. We have witnessed the courage of a generation of gymnasts, little girls who grew up and took down their abusers. Now we see athletes take public stands without impunity. It was not always that way, even up to 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled in peaceful protest of racial injustice and police brutality.
In the public record, Kareem started his activism by attending the now-historic Cleveland Summit with the likes of Ali, Russell and Jim Brown, who had gathered in the wake of Ali's decision to not serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Then known as Lew Alcindor, Kareem was the youngest person there. Ali and Russell have died. Others, while still alive, have not remained in the public spotlight as much all these years later.
Kareem might be best known as an activist for taking stands against racism and the effects of systemic racism against communities of color, especially Black Americans. But he also has stood tall against all forms of discrimination, including against women, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community, against anti-Semitism and religious intolerance in all forms. He has worked to bring people of different religious groups together and was honored last fall with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center's Spirit of Hope Award in Toronto in recognition of his contributions to human rights and social justice causes for his efforts to build bridges between communities and for his unwavering support in the battle against anti-Semitism.
He talks about Muslims in a world scarred by Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11. In an NPR interview in November 2015, Kareem said he had no misgivings about his faith. But he added: "I am very concerned about the people who claim to be Muslims that are murdering people in creating all this mayhem in the world. That is not what Islam is about, and that should not be what people think of when they think about Muslims. But it's up to all of us to do something about all of it."
I was not surprised when Kareem joined the Cleveland Summit in 1967. I have been blessed to have known Kareem since 1961 when we went to a basketball camp together. It was a startup camp with me and six players from Power Memorial Academy, an all-boys high school in New York City that Kareem attended. Power Memorial, which closed in 1984, was coached by Jack Donohue, who invited me to join the six Power players that summer. There were five white players and one Black player. One of the white players dropped the N-word on the Black player nonstop for the first three days until I challenged him. He knocked me out cold. The Black player's name was then Lew Alcindor, and a lifelong friendship began.
The other players wanted to talk about their game. Kareem, while loving basketball, also talked about what was happening in the country. We had conversations that summer about racism, and he shared what racism was doing to his community and other communities of color. I recently asked Kareem if, during those teenage years at camp, he thought he would become such a major social justice leader.
"No," he said. "I was just a 13-year-old kid trying to get through daily teenage angst. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom sparked something inside me that made me see myself as part of a larger movement."
Just a year before that first summer at camp, four Black students from North Carolina A&T, who became known as the "Greensboro Four," staged a sit-in at a Woolworth's department store lunch counter to protest segregation. It started a movement of Black students fighting against racism. Led by the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), protests were staged all across the country. Many people were arrested -- the movement had begun.
I asked Kareem which leader motivated him most as a social justice advocate, and he immediately replied Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was a minister and a politician in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"Technically, he represented Harlem, but most Blacks felt he represented all of us because he was outspoken and relentless in his pursuit of equal rights," Kareem told me. "When I was in high school and starting college, his was one of the few Black voices in Congress. He was also instrumental in helping Martin Luther King get his message out."
Kareem's amazing career point total will no longer be the record, but his standing as one of the NBA's greatest players will always be intact. And 60 years later, he is still out there talking about social justice, confronting all forms of discrimination.
Kareem is a sought-after and respected voice for what America stands for in principle. He spoke out against then-President Donald Trump's travel ban on people from countries that are majority Muslim, writing a column for The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 in which he said "the absence of reason and compassion is the very definition of pure evil because it is a rejection of sacred values, distilled from millennia of struggle." His Substack features perspectives on sports, politics and popular culture, and he is as bold as ever.
Russell's death last July left Kareem as the longest-standing social justice athlete-activist. It was fitting when I asked Kareem who was the athlete who moved him the most as a social justice advocate.
"Bill Russell was my role model, both as a player and as a Black man," he said. "I'd read his books 'Go Up for Glory' and 'Red and Me' and I realized you could be a great player and still commit yourself to helping your community. Bill introduced me to Jackie Robinson after I won Rookie of the Year in 1970. Being in the presence of both those amazing men made me want to step up my own commitment to social justice."
A huge congratulations to LeBron as he nears the points record and for all he has done in the community and for the nation for many years. He is truly an amazing athlete and an amazing person.
And most of all, thank you, Kareem, for all you have done for 60-plus years to help the United States focus on social justice. You are now the leader. The NBA even named its social justice champion award after you. And by the way, thanks for the record six NBA MVP awards. Those remain yours, along with those six NBA championships.
I love you Kareem, and know how blessed I am to have shared a friendship for those same 60-plus years.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.