It was well over a half-hour into his appearance at Southern Connecticut State University on Friday night when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke with any real substance about basketball, and the topic was the NBA he dominated vs. the NBA of today.
"It all depends on what rules we play under," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Our rules: rough and tumble. People went to the ground, had bruises, scrapes, floor burns, that kind of game. Now, Steph Curry is shooting where the guy is making popcorn. And I'll tell you, I absolutely respect what they've done to get to this point. These guys are incredible. You're seeing great athletic performances, but it's totally different from what we did. That's it."
Abdul-Jabbar was a six-time MVP and six-time champion in a 20-year NBA career, and he's still the league's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 career points. But he was SCSU's featured guest for the 19th Mary and Louis Fusco Distinguished Lecture at the Lyman Center for reasons extending well beyond his dominating the sport with the iconic skyhook.
In the years since his 1989 retirement, Abdul-Jabbar has distinguished himself in many arenas. An author, social justice advocate and cancer survivor, Abdul-Jabbar was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016, and he has been an outspoken voice on a number of issues political and societal.
On Friday before a crowd of about 1,300, he sat for a Q&A with Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine. This discussion explored current political policies, race relations and his views of living in the United States — in the 1960s and the 2010s.
"What we're going through now is just an extension of what started right after World War II with the civil rights movement," Abdul-Jabbar said. "We still have strides to make, to make sure the strides of the civil rights movement are not lost. … Our country has changed a lot for the better. I'm not going to say it's been all bad. Recently we've done some backsliding, and we have issues that need to be resolved."
Tickets for the event were priced at $25 and $30. Abdul-Jabbar joined an impressive list of lecturers that began 19 years ago with Colin Powell and includes Walter Cronkite, Bill Belichick and Robin Roberts of "Good Morning America."
There were many cancer survivors in attendance, with the Smilow Cancer Hospital having purchased 250 tickets. There were also groups representing the NAACP, Southern Connecticut athletic teams and campus organizations, the Boys and Girls Club of New Haven and Hillhouse High.
"As a public institution, we're very much a community institution," said the university's director of integrated communications and marketing, Patrick Dilger, who organizes the event every year. "We have sponsors who have been with us every year, and an endowment that helps fund it and a loyal following that has built up over time. Every year we pick a different type of speaker that appeals to a different audience. It's really about community engagement. We look for someone who is inspiring and has a great message."
The event, originally scheduled for 7 p.m., began about a half-hour late because traffic issues in the New Haven area delayed Abdul-Jabbar's arrival. He had planned to meet with a few dozen young people in a more intimate, backstage setting at 5:45. Instead, Zirin and ESPN columnist Howard Bryant led a ranging discussion about race in sports and difficult decisions famous athletes face regarding cultural messages.
Abdul-Jabbar called the recent health care reform "a hostile act. It's like forcing people to choose between eating and taking their medicine."
He also discussed NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, his friendship with Muhammad Ali and Ali's role in the civil rights movement, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (another Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient). Abdul-Jabbar, 70, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia in 2009.
"Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is certainly a champion on many fronts," said Smilow Cancer Hospital director Charles Fuchs, who introduced him.