How Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Avoided the Michael Jordan Syndrome

Former Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan recently opened yet another gym shoe store – this time in the heart of Chicago’s “Loop.” As with everything Jordan touches (especially in Chicago), this latest opening became something of an “event” – another opportunity for Jordan to further pad his already billionaire bank account. Hundreds of people camped on the street’s of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile days before the Grand Opening, hoping to be among the first to grab this latest iteration of Air Jordans. image image

During a recent interview with NPR‘s Michel Martin, however, another NBA great, L.A. Lakers all-time scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, threw several buckets of cold water on Michael Jordan and his highly touted (and expensive) shoes. Abdul-Jabbar aimed his patented, sweeping “Sky Hook” directly at Jordan’s ongoing abdication and denial of social responsibility.

Martin asked Abdul-Jabbar about Jordan’s comments in support of the GOP: “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Jordan once quipped. Abdul-Jabbar said that taking a stand on the side of social justice is more important, necessary — even imperative — than anything money can buy.

“You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights. [Michael Jordan] took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s gotta live with it.”

Unlike Jordan, of course, Abdul-Jabbar has paid a price for speaking out against injustice. But he believes that price should be expected by all who aspire to become “celebrities.” And if you are unwilling to pay that price, then one’s fame (and often fortune) will be squandered in a sea of self-indulgence and meaningless “individuality.”

“[S]ometimes you can’t pick or choose,” Abdul-Jabbar told Martin. “When something happens, it doesn’t matter if it’s convenient or not. If it’s time to speak up, you have to speak up. You can’t be afraid.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s political and social activism tracks all the way back to his college days at UCLA. His 7-foot-plus frame stood out at campus protests against the Vietnam War, for civil rights and women’s liberation. He took these stands in the face of demands from coaches, scouts and not a few Bruins fans to just ignore all this “social justice” stuff and instead concentrate on honing his considerable basketball skills so as to enhance his draft status for the NBA.

However, like many young people back then (myself included), it was the now infamous date of April 4, 1968, which ignited Abdul-Jabbar’s political conscience and forced an unvarnished re-think of just exactly what kind of society this so-called “greatest nation on earth” actually was.

Sayeth Abdul-Jabbaar:

When Dr. King was assassinated, within a couple of days I was involved at UCLA. We had a demonstration. … People were telling me, ‘Hey, you’re going to get a chance to play in the NBA and make a lot of money, you shouldn’t be out here protesting like this.’ To me, there was no correlation. Somebody needed to speak out about what had happened.

And, long before Quentin Tarantino stirred up the cops’ nationwide hornet’s nest with a less than full-throated endorsement of police brutality, Abdul-Jabbar had defended Black Lives Matter protesters against accusations that they were anti-police.

“Those who are trying to connect the murders of the officers with the thousands of articulate and peaceful protesters across America,” explained Abdul-Jabbar, “are being deliberately misleading in a cynical and selfish effort to turn public sentiment against the protesters.”

He then went deep: “This is the same strategy used when trying to lump in the violence and looting [of rioters] with the legitimate protesters, who have disavowed that behavior. [The cops] hope to misdirect public attention and emotion in order to stop the protests and the progressive changes that have already resulted. Shaming and blaming is a lot easier than addressing legitimate claims.”

Finally, Michael Jordan opened his first restaurant in Chicago while he was still playing for the Bulls. As if Chicago’s elite needed even more “capital,” or downtown was crying out for more “development,” Jordan positioned his eponymous eatery right smack dab in the middle of Chicago’s “central business district.” The restaurant was an immediate and huge success. And so, the die was cast.

Meanwhile, however, the crack epidemic and ensuing gangland turf wars were getting serious.

Consider this: Had Jordan placed that first restaurant deep in the heart of Chicago’s black ghetto, along with its attendant jobs and sure-to-follow enhanced “commerce” for the South or West Sides, perhaps today’s ongoing and escalating street warfare and child murders might have been avoided.

Sure, Jordan might not have made as much money as fast as he would have liked — perhaps. But he just might have saved thousands of lives – and souls – with the mere presence of a “Michael Jordan’s Restaurant” on the black side of town – just for a change of pace — maybe?

Herbert Dyer, Jr. is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Herb may be reached at: Read other articles by Herb.