Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 7-foot-2, and when he stands up beside you, you feel like you’re 3-foot-2.
When he shakes your hand, you feel like you might not get it back, because for a brief moment you can’t see it anymore.
It’s all part of the allure.
I had the pleasure of meeting Kareem this past Sunday, when he was the commencement speaker for the New England Institute of Technology’s (NEIT) graduation.
If it seems odd to you that the NBA’s all-time leading scorer is delivering addresses at NEIT, you and I are were in the same boat. But upon further review, it turns out that NEIT has a history of bringing in high-profile, can’t-miss celebrities for their commencements. Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger have done it, to name a few.
Kareem, though, is different. For sports fans, and particularly basketball fans, he’s one of the most recognizable names in history. He’s famous for being one of the all-time college greats at UCLA, for being one of the all-time NBA greats for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers and for being genuinely hilarious during his appearance in the 1980 movie "Airplane!"
There’s also a different side.
He’s 66 years old, yet he’s reserved, quiet and doesn’t always seem completely comfortable. He’s one of America’s most visible Muslims, as he was once known as Lew Alcindor before changing his name to the now household Kareem.
He’s a New York Times best-selling author of history books, a reality TV show contestant, a former NBA assistant coach and PH positive CML Leukemia patient, kept alive thanks to a medicine called Tasigna.
Yes, there a lot of layers to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which is why the opportunity to hear him speak at the commencement, and then to speak to him personally was impossible to pass up.
His sense of humor was on display (he told the graduates to play video games, because “If college has taught us nothing, it’s that Nazi zombies won’t kill themselves.”), and so was his humility (Kareem on why he told the graduates to have regrets, as opposed to the more common theme of having no regrets: “I didn’t want to focus on me. It wasn’t about me – it was about them. Like I said, we all have regrets. I don’t think anyone in this room has gone through their life without doing something wrong or something they regret.”).
Following his commencement speech, myself and three other reporters were brought into a room with one of the most famous men in the country, and we had 10 minutes (and only 10 minutes, unfortunately) to ask him about whatever we wanted – basically.
There were certain topics that were off limits. We couldn’t talk about the Boston Marathon bombings, his conversion to Islam and various other issues.
That was of no real concern to me. I wasn’t there to drill Kareem about his religion. I just wanted to talk some hoops with one of the best ever, and get a little insight on whatever he wanted to offer up. He’s not quite the guy in the
“Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials – I don’t think if Kareem punched you in the face, you’d have to fight off the strong urge to thank him, and I don’t think his enemies list him as their emergency contact – but he’s not far from it. Here’s what he had to say.
On whether Dwight Howard can be successful in Los Angeles:
“I don’t know. That’s up to Dwight. There are things that he needs to learn, but he’s an incredible talent. I’ve met him – he’s a nice kid. We’ll see if he’s able to provide what he needs.”
On the Lakers’ problems this season:
“They’re not used to having things go wrong. So many things have gone right for the Lakers for a very long period of time, and this year was not one of those years. I think it kind of shocked them that they found out what the other kind of luck was.”
On whether college athletes should be paid:
“I believe that college athletes deserve some type of stipend or something. They generate a lot of revenue for the money-making sports. They generate a lot of revenue for their respective colleges. I think that would not be a bad idea. I think colleges could do a lot more to sure that up, like guaranteeing their scholarships so even if they get injured they get a chance to pursue their degrees if they want. That’s what college should be about.”
On life in the public eye:
“At first I didn’t enjoy it, because I just wanted to play basketball. I thought I could just play basketball and just go about my life. You can’t do that. I had to find that out the hard way. But I’ve made peace with it, especially since I’ve retired. I have more time to deal with the other issues.”
On why he’s become an author:
“I started in high school, I realized I wanted to write. I was an English major at UCLA. I continued to accumulate an incentive to do it. I had a wonderful opportunity in playing NBA basketball, so that was 20 years of my life. Once I was finished with that, I was able to get back in to it.”
On his leukemia, which he was diagnosed with in 2008:
“I do a lot of speaking to other survivors about their condition and the fact that we have to raise awareness and raise money for research and for them individually to have faith that there are cures there. I have a type of leukemia that can be managed, and I’m very fortunate. That’s a direct result of the advances of medical science. I’m very thankful that that’s happening.”
On his experience on the ABC reality show "Splash," a show in which celebrities compete by diving 30 feet into a pool:
“For the most part, it was fun. I got smacked one time. But just having the opportunity to swim every day, I got back in to some kind of shape. It was fun learning about diving. I learned that someone as long as I am can’t do all those things in that confined space. For the most part it was fun. I had a good time.”
On potentially playing basketball with the president:
“I wouldn’t mind. He’s got a full plate.”
On who’s going to win the NBA Championship this season:
“Geez, I don’t know. People just keep getting injured. My fellow Bruin, Russell Westbrook got injured and it really turned it in the wrong direction for the Thunder. It’s going to be interesting.”
On his relationship with Larry Bird, with whom he famously fought in the 1984NBA Finals and with whom he recently filmed an AT&T commercial:
“I’m cheering for Larry Bird’s team, the Pacers. I like the way they play. I think he’s done a great job putting the team together. I’m rooting for him.”
After that question, we were basically cut off, so I didn’t have a chance to ask him the other 15,000 things that I would have liked to get his opinion on. And that was it – we stood up, shook hands a second time (amazingly, I was able to regain my hand again) and everybody left the room.
I probably didn’t learn anything life-altering, and I’m sure Kareem wasn’t as excited to be talking to the 50,000th person to interview him as I was to be talking to him.
But it’s not every day that you get to pick the brain of one of the best ever, even if I couldn’t reach his brain standing on my toes. Plus, it definitely beats watching "Splash."
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.