Immortalized for his "sky hook" shot on the basketball court, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is recognized as one of the best players in the history of the National Basketball Association. During his 20-year professional basketball career with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar scored more points than any other player in the history of the league and racked up six NBA championships and six MVP awards. He continues as a special assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. Off-court, Abdul-Jabbar has authored several books and appeared in television shows and films, most notably "Game of Death" and "Airplane!" Born Ferdinand Lewis "Lew" Alcindor Jr. in 1947, Abdul-Jabbar changed his name when he converted to Islam. After being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in 2008, Abdul-Jabbar said publicly the illness would not prevent him from living a normal life. The former basketball star recently sat down with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton to talk about being a role model, figuring out one's work ethic, and leadership.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Kareem, thank you very much for joining us today in Abu Dhabi. A really big theme at the Festival of Thinkers event is role models for young entrepreneurs. Who has been important for you in terms of being a role model as you were growing up?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Probably the most important role model in my life was Jackie Robinson [the first African-American Major League baseball player and a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team beginning in 1947], both as an athlete, and then also as a student and scholar. He went to UCLA, (University of California, Los Angeles) and he is one of the reasons that I went there.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Tell me more.
Abdul-Jabbar: After he was finished playing professional baseball, he was involved in … a bank in New York called Freedom National Bank, which encouraged people in Harlem to go and patronize this bank. He was also working [as an executive] at Chock Full o'Nuts; they make coffee.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So you had personal contact with him?
Abdul-Jabbar: Not really personal. One of my good friends was his godson. But my own personal contact was just that I've been a baseball fan my whole life and I have rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers and I admired him. So, throughout my lifetime I saw him as someone who really pointed the way in terms of pursuing an education and those types of things.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How does your experience since you retired from basketball help you serve as a role model?
Abdul-Jabbar: I think the whole idea of understanding what to do after you've had a professional career as an athlete [is important]; you get such a great opportunity to accumulate some capital, and then if you don't have an idea of what to do at that point, things can all fall apart. That's a very unfortunate aspect for many American athletes. They don't get it in terms of the opportunities that are there until it's too late and they've lost the access, and just the whole chance that they had to make a transition into the world of business.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Keeping the momentum and the transition — that's interesting.
Abdul-Jabbar: Right, and just having a plan, having an idea. I can think of two gentlemen that I played professional basketball against [who are] doing very well entrepreneurially. One, Junior Bridgeman, owns a number of fast food restaurants, and he used his basketball career to launch that. Another person would be Dave Bing. He has a very successful company in Detroit that produces machine parts, etc. He is presently the mayor of Detroit. There are many aspects to being a professional athlete that the average young man does not understand. When he enters [the world of professional sports] he says, 'Hey we have an opportunity to make a lot of money, let's jump on it,' and beyond that they don't get it.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I'm sure your height was one of the assets that helped you succeed as a basketball player. But what are some of the other attributes that you think contributed to your success in this area?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, I think you can't be a success in anything unless you have some type of work ethic, and that you understand that as a professional person you have to be prepared and know how to consistently deliver on whatever it is you are supposed to deliver, whatever profession that's in. Whether it's information, or if you're a plumber, you have to consistently know what you're doing.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What sort of work ethic did you have as you were getting into basketball and learning how to become a professional athlete?
Abdul-Jabbar: I learned a lot in terms of understanding my work ethic … from my father. My father had to go to work when he was 9 or 10 years old during the Depression. He delivered ice into people's homes when they used to have little things called iceboxes. Very few people remember that but that's what my father did. And he had to help support his family. Then after World War II, he was a musician and he didn't really get an opportunity to play music for a living, so he became a police officer and supported our family on his salary as a police officer. But he always felt that he had a duty and a responsibility, and he always fulfilled that and I absorbed it. He never sat me down and told me these things in words, but just observing his life and what he did for my family then, that's how the message got through.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: When you think back about your career as a basketball player, what lessons in teamwork and leadership did you learn?
Abdul-Jabbar: I think professional sports teach you a lot about teamwork because you can't achieve anything just by having talented individuals involved; you have to have people who can work together. The things that you achieve, you achieve as a unit and it's done as a team. It's not done because one individual was very extraordinary, had some type of extraordinary talent and that's why you won. You won because everybody was able to help each other and make the group effort successful.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: That's great. Just one final question: What do you think of role models for the current generation? How pivotal are they, and how might have they changed since you were young and needed role models?
Abdul-Jabbar: I don't think there'll ever be any difference in terms of the influence of role models. Leaders are very few and far between, and their contributions to group efforts are always crucial. It doesn't really matter what context you're talking about; if it's a group effort, there's usually a leader or two in there who enables whatever goals the group is seeking to be attained. It doesn't really change that much, no matter what you're talking about — business, sports, or any other effort.