Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is a basketball legend, US Cultural Ambassador, and bestselling author. His book What Color Is My World: The Lost History of African-American Inventors highlights “unsung heroes who shared a desire to improve people’s lives.” Ray Fouché, Associate Professor and Director of American Studies at Purdue University, interviews Abdul-Jabbar to explore his interest in innovation, the contribution of black inventors in American history, and how to encourage youth today to participate in technology and science to make a difference in the world.
The Innovative Lives series engages audiences in public conversations with diverse inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs about their pioneering work and careers. Go to About >> Events to see what's coming up!
John Gray - Good evening everybody and welcome. My name is John Gray and I have the privilege of being the director of your National Museum of American History, and we are very honored tonight to welcome author, cultural commentator, advocate for and lover of history, as well as sort of well-known basketball player. He's a pioneer in so many fields who has led the most innovative life, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Here at the National Museum, we preserve and share a collection of national treasures on behalf of the American people and indeed, the world, to demonstrate the power of American history, to help us make sense of this very complicated present, and shape a more humane future. Today's conversation will explore Kareem's important work to bring innovation, sport, and science together through the powerful lens of history to shape a more humane future for all of us, particularly for those in greatest need.
It is fitting that we're in the midst of our new floor dedicated to the exploration of invention and innovation in American history. And we use our Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, led by Arthur Daemmrich, who you'll hear from in a moment, to bring this all alive and inspire all Americans by sparking discovery and encouraging the process of invention. To transform American history literally, we're in the midst of a $600 million reinvention of every facet of our museum. We're working to bring the nation together around the very things that matter most to Americans: ideals and ideas like innovation, democracy, opportunity, freedom, and culture, and our speaker tonight is absolutely the pinnacle of all of those ideals.
We're living in an extraordinary but not unique period in our history where the very nature of our democracy is being painfully challenged. We're all asking the question, what does it mean to be an American? We answer through our new democracy wing, one floor above us, dedicated to the nation we build together. Our two keystone exhibitions, American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, and Many Voices, One Nation, on the peopling of America, engage and inspire the American people to participate in our democracy, so essential to the health and vitality of our nation and so complementary to Kareem's vision and work.
And then in 2018, we will open our new third floor wing, exploring how democracy has shaped a distinctive American culture from music to theater to sports and the expanding worlds of electronic media and gaming. So tonight's program beautifully builds on our work to make history matter. Please welcome Arthur Daemmrich, the Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Arthur.
Arthur Daemmrich - I just have a few opening remarks, but before I do that, let me see a show of hands for who here is this the first time you're in this museum. Okay, well welcome. We're really glad you're here and we hope get you to come back. So I wanna say a few words about the Lemelson Center, a little bit about tonight's program, and then introduce Ray Fouche who's going to be leading the dialogue and discussion with Kareem.
So the center was founded 22 years ago very much to inspire a new generation of inventors. It comes out of the concern of a donor, Jerome Lemelson, that America was no longer producing inventors the way it had in the past. And so very much, our goal is to engage and empower people. We want to engage people with conversations like tonight to show the human side of invention and innovation, and we want to empower people to deal with the current rate of technological change. We're constantly told how technology's changing the world, but we're the ones who need to be inventing and changing technology. And there's been recently, actually, and very importantly, some significant attention to the lack of diversity in who inventors are, and that comes out of two strands. It's not because African Americans and women and other minorities don't have ideas. It's not because the patent office is refusing them patents. It's not because people, when they buy technologies and buy consumer products, care about the skin color about the inventor. It's because we're not resourcing people from that idea into the next step. And so this is clearly a huge challenge for us as a society and it's something we can draw attention to in a program like ours tonight.
So tonight is very much about dealing with technology change and inspiring young people. After the program, we'll encourage the kids here to go into Spark!Lab, which is over here, and take their chance, use their own skill and creativity to invent solutions to problems. So tonight's program, a couple words of thanks. It resulted from a new partnership we have with the National Museum of African American History and Culture across the street, so I wanted to give special thanks to Deirdre Cross and Bill Pretzer. And like all of our programming, it was made possible thanks to support of the Lemelson Foundation.
And tonight, we also give special thanks to the Kenny Lattimore Foundation. So we have many special guests here tonight, but I also wanna point out one other who is Lonnie Johnson. Lonnie? So Lonnie is one of the inventors featured in Kareem's book and was gracious enough to be here last year for one of our programs, so it's a delight that he's back. So as you're about to experience, we're very fortunate to have Ray Fouche with us tonight to lead the dialogue with Kareem. And as their conversation proceeds, I'd like to encourage you, if you have questions, write them out on the index cards that you were given at entry. Put your first name on it and then pass it to the edge of the row. Several of my colleagues will be here to collect 'em and we'll get them up to Ray. So that's how we're gonna do Q&A tonight. Ray has an undergraduate degree in humanities from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell, which is actually where I first met him. We went mountain biking together and Ray used to be a competitive biker, so I kinda saw the tail end of his bike for about 30 seconds. So he's got some great insights about sport and technology. He's written a very significant book, "Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation," and his most recent book is "Game Changer: "The Technoscientific Revolution in Sports." Ray's the director of the American Studies program and associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Purdue. So now we welcome both Ray and Kareem to come on up.
Ray Fouche - Good evening, everyone. It's my pleasure to be here with you. And oftentimes, it's difficult to introduce someone who's known by only one name, Prince, Michael, Kareem. This reality means that you probably already know quite a bit about him. But let me give you a bit of a refresher. As a basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer, a 19-time All-Star, and a member of the Hall of Fame. He's won six NBA championships, six regular season MVPs, the NBA Finals MVP twice, 14 years apart, which is quite a feat, and 1969-70 Rookie of the Year. And to put his career into contemporary context, he averaged nearly 25 points in over 11 rebounds a game for 20 NBA seasons, which is amazing.
As a collegiate athlete, he was kind of legendarily dominant. Three NCAA championships, three NCAA Tournament MVPs back in the day when he could not play as a freshman, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is unquestionably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Yet it's important to remember that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has and will always be more than just a good basketball player. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also a father, an actor, a cancer survivor, a Muslim, an activist. He's also a doctor in that he holds honorary degrees from the University of Central Florida, Drew University, and Princeton, a coin collector, he is the first African American appointed to the Citizens Coin Advisory Council, and for me, most importantly, a humanitarian. Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory awarded him the Double Helix Medal for boldly participating in the fight to find cures for diseases that plague humanity. President Obama awarded him the Abraham Lincoln Medal as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He's also an author, and I think part of what we're here to talk about is one of his books, "What Color is My World?: "The History of African-American Inventors." Tonight, we would like for you to join us in a conversation with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, spanning sport, race, activism, invention, and innovation. And so it's with great honor I welcome you, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Thank you very much. Thank you and good evening.
Ray Fouche - We're excited to hear what you have to say on a host of topics. But again, this is Black History Month, and may I begin first by asking you to reflect a bit on the changes you have seen in African-American life that have positively changed black life, and unfortunately, what has stayed the same?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, I think the event that happened the day before I was born was a very significant day. I was born April 15th, excuse me, I was born April 16th, 1947, and on April 15th, Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. And I think that was the beginning of a whole lot that started happening with regard to the civil rights movement and the fact that black Americans had finally realized that we could not be afraid. We had to organize, band together, and fight for our rights just like Jackie did. And we learned a lot from him and we moved forward, and I think I was very fortunate to be born in times like that. It enabled me to see that the obstacles that were making black Americans' lives so difficult, they could be removed, but it would take a serious commitment and it was time.
Ray Fouche - Thank you. So you played basketball in a different era.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Yeah.
Ray Fouche - In this era, you would probably arguably may have been one-and-done perhaps. But in 1969, you graduated with a degree in history from UCLA.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Yes.
Ray Fouche - For most, I assume, this would appear to be an unlikely foundation for a champion of science, technology, and engineering and mass education. In light of your humanities background, could you talk about how your past experiences shaped your advocacy for STEM education?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I think the way it happened was I ended up writing about scientists. So this book that I did, the one that we're focusing on tonight, "What Color is My World?", I had the opportunity to write about black Americans who had invented things that all Americans considered to be part and parcel of American life and that nobody understood that they were black Americans, things like potato chips and the blood bank. Blood typing was figured out by a black doctor right before World War II. There are a lot of things that black Americans did. The person that really solidified Edison's career and his financial empire was a black inventor that worked for him and helped prepare his cases where he had to defend his patents in court. And if it were not for the expertise of Lewis Latimer, that wouldn't have happened and Edison wouldn't really have gotten all the credit that he got. So I thought this was a great thing to write about and that the black kids needed to know about this because all the good jobs in the 21st century will be related to science, engineering, technology, and math, and I wanted to give them a heads-up on it. So that's why this person from the humanitarian side of whatever university he went to ended up writing about the technical side of life, and that's how I got here.
Ray Fouche - That's great. So what inspired you to study humanities from the beginning?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I was just very taken when I learned what the Harlem Renaissance was all about. I took part in a mentoring program between my junior and senior year in high school, and we were told, since we were in New York City, we were told how significant Harlem was for black Americans. All black Americans that had achieved anything some time after 1910 through 1970 really were part of an event called the Harlem Renaissance, which showed America that black Americans had a lot to contribute to America, a lot more than just rhythm and blues. This was an important issue and science, technology, engineering, and math are a big part of it. So I just pointed these things out.
Ray Fouche - Well, kind of moving in a different direction, I would like to talk about your contribution, in a sense, to innovation. And as a historian of technology, I think about innovation very broadly, and innovation is not just done with devices such as this, but people do bodily innovation. And thinking about you as a basketball player, I would like to ask you, right, do you think about the way you innovated the skyhook as a fundamental innovation in the way the game was played and changed how the game was conducted?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Oh yeah, it definitely, that is what happened, but it wasn't a conscious thing on my part. I learned how to shoot the hook shot when I was in the fifth grade. I was given a drill to do that really defined the fundamentals of it, using both of your hands, getting some footwork down, learning how to use the backboard and getting a touch around the basket from a certain range. But I had to adapt that to my own physicality and my own athletic ability, and I think in figuring that out, there was never a moment where I said, "Oh, well, this is gonna enable me to do X, Y, and Z." But when I got out on the court, the things that I attempted that worked, I never forgot, and they stayed with me until I retired from the NBA, and it enabled me to be very successful. But I never really saw myself as an innovator at that point. If I did, I coulda said I was more like Charlie Parker.
Ray Fouche - Well, I do see you as an innovator, because part of the innovative process is repetition and iteration, and I assume you practiced a bit.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I practiced a lot. You know what Charlie Parker described as woodshedding, going in the woodshed and going over your scales and learning different ways to improvise, I did that working in front of a basket, figuring out how to turn a different way and get the shot off under different types of stress. So I did all the work, I just didn't know how to describe it, but it was the same kind of work.
Ray Fouche - Yeah, 'cause I think about it as being very inventive 'cause it has a high level of creativity.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - And maybe we should all blame my dad. When I tried to learn how to play basketball for my dad, he took me out on the court and tried to beat me up. So I said, "No." That was the only lesson I ever took from my dad. But sitting around the house and listening to jazz, wow, and understanding what innovation was about, I used those principles when I went out on the basketball court, and it worked out okay.
Ray Fouche - So what you're trying to say is Charlie Parker inspired?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Absolutely, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and Thelonious and all those guys, they really helped me.
Ray Fouche - Yeah, so I like that connection to innovation and the ways in which you kind of talk about creativity.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Right.
Ray Fouche - So kind of rolling back to black inventors, as a person who's written about African-American inventors, I often get asked the question, who is my favorite inventor? And I would like to flip that question to someone else who has written about African-American inventors and ask you, in writing the book, what story resonated with you, what story upset you most, what story made you most pleased that it was entering the book and being expressed to others?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, I was pretty annoyed by the fact that Lewis Latimer, the gentleman I mentioned earlier that helped Thomas Edison so much, they wrote a very good biography on Thomas Edison recently, and the author didn't even acknowledge Lewis Latimer, and that bothered me 'cause Lewis Latimer was the one who figured out how to make the light bulb a practical invention by using the copper filament in a vacuum. Copper filament in a vacuum enabled the, gave the light bulb a lifetime of a couple hundred hours, whereas prior to that, the lights would burn through the filament in minutes or maybe a couple of dozen minutes. And they went from a couple of dozen minutes to a couple hundred hours. All of a sudden, people started wiring their houses for electricity 'cause they could light them up cheaply for a long period of time. So Lewis Latimer's contribution to the progression of the invention of the light bulb was crucial, was crucial for Edison, and he's considered the one that gave us the light bulb as a practical invention, but actually, that person was Lewis Latimer, and he hasn't gotten his credit. So that annoys me a little bit. The one that I'm most thankful for though is Dr. Charles Drew, the gentleman who figured out blood typing. Blood typing has enabled medical science to find out so many things about our genealogy. Those of you who go and get your marriage licenses find out that you and your partner are compatible so you won't have children with birth defects because of blood typing. This is again from Dr. Charles Drew. I am a leukemia survivor. If it were not for blood typing and the work that they do now to analyze my blood, I'd be dead now. I've survived leukemia now for nine years and I'm very happy to be here. I wouldn't be here if it were not for Dr. Charles Drew. So I guess he's got to be my favorite.
Ray Fouche - Why do you think these stories haven't been told? We hear lots of stories about African-American greats, but oftentimes, the inventors, the scientists don't receive the same kind of attention. So what do you think is the rationale for that?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - The rationale for this has to do with a philosophy that developed in Europe that Africa had nothing to offer the world, that Africans could not think rationally or logically or invent things. Course, we know this isn't true. Most of our mathematical sciences come from North Africa. They're called algebra, trigonometry, plane geometry. Those were invented by North African mathematicians. Europeans found out this knowledge when they learned from the Moors who lived in Spain and North Africa. The Renaissance was started by people who went and studied with the Moors in Spain and North Africa. All the things that Europeans learned about the physical sciences really was started, and just to prove this, do we have any mathematicians out here?
[Audience Member] Yeah.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Okay, any mathematician, I will challenge you. Try and do what they call higher math using Roman numerals. You can't do it, you have to use Arabic numerals and the number zero, and these were the things that the Muslim scholars from North Africa and Spain gave to the world, actually. It was a refinement of mathematical concepts that had started actually in Iraq. It came through North Africa and picked up some steam and some knowledge, and nobody wants to give us credit for that. The very word algebra is an Arabic word. The word cipher for zero, that's Arabic. Those inventions and that knowledge was refined in North Africa. So the whole idea that Europeans had that Africans could not give anything worthwhile to the scientific disciplines got a foothold in people's imaginations and we're still dealing with it, but I'm glad that our kids don't still deal with it. And Lonnie Johnson's here tonight. He invented the Super Soaker and a few other things and he had some interesting things to tell me about his career and how they thought that maybe he might have been, he was walking around his plant when he was working for Union Carbide and they were trying to figure out what his function was 'cause he was the only black person at the Union Carbide plant who was on salary, and that was a mystery to most of his coworkers. He didn't say he got any hostility, but people's assumptions are that black people do not have the intellectual capacity to be capable in the sciences, and these stereotypes are reinforced. I think actually that's probably part of what our problem is with the police when they're so quick to shoot black kids that sometimes are acting out bad, but they seem to think that they have no worth and they have no intelligence, and this is a very unfortunate development, but we have to deal with it. It's become one of the myths that really causes a lot of pain in our country.
Ray Fouche - All right, well I think that's moving on to talking about activism and then your activism. You have been involved in movements for social and cultural change your entire life. As a supporter of Muhammad Ali and more recently, Colin Kaepernick, you continue to confirm yourself as one of the most dedicated critics of American racial injustice. How do you see social, cultural, and political activism as a defining characteristic of your life during your athletic career and after?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, I think that any rational human being, when they are oppressed, they wanna get to a place where they don't have to be oppressed, where they don't have to be singled out, where they don't have to have stereotypes developed around what they look like that says certain things about them. And when I realize that I lived in a country that did that, I wanted to do something about it, and I've wanted to do something about it my whole life. I'm very thankful for the role models that I was able to emulate, Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson being two of the principal ones because they knew how to take their dissatisfaction and demonstrate with it in a way that did not show people their anger but showed people what they were angry about. It's very important. A lot of people who are put upon just end up expressing their anger in ways that people don't understand. So I think that was really one of the big achievements of Dr. King in the civil rights movement to make Americans understand that we don't want anything special. We just want to be treated just like everyone else is.
Ray Fouche - So I also think about social and cultural movements as forms of innovation, right? The civil rights movement was defined by the ways in which it created new, innovative tactics to manage the racialized conditions of the time. In your situation, what happened when people told you that there was initially too much to lose to be involved and engaged in these social culture innovations to transform our society?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, for a lot of times, athletes are told just do your job, be an athlete and keep your mouth shut. But the fact that you're an athlete doesn't mean that you don't have issues. And the issues that all black Americans have supersede whatever their job is. It doesn't matter if you're a successful black athlete or just an average black laborer, cops are gonna treat you the same way. And the issues that you have, both the successful black athlete and the black laborer have the same issues with what's wrong with our society, and they would both need to understand that they wanna change that. People have to understand that. So I would tell anybody that would say that athletes are not supposed to be involved in social protest that that's not true. And in fact, our status gives us a better platform to be viewed in a positive light than it would be if there were unknown people out there making the same type of protest.
Ray Fouche - So along the same line, you stated that, quote, "America is not living up "to its responsibility to all of its citizens." How do you see increasing STEM education for the underserved and underrepresented changing the face of our nation? And how do you see your writing and the Skyhook Foundation contributing to this task?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, I think that having people from oppressed groups become better educated and more highly educated means that people have to respect them. They have to respect their education. They have to respect what they have to contribute to society, and they won't treat you so badly if they realize that you have something to offer. The stereotype that I mentioned earlier that people from Africa cannot contribute to any society, that's applied to every generation of young black Americans, and we've got to change that. So the way we change that is to give our kids the best opportunity to learn and go out and get the best jobs because then they will get much better treatment.
Ray Fouche - And so how does the Skyhook Foundation fit into that idea?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, my foundation, I work in conjunction with the L.A. Unified School District. The L.A. Unified School District has a camp in the Angeles National Forest. It's just 45 minutes out of the city. You can see it from L.A. You can see it up in the mountains. You can see that area. And a lot of kids from L.A. don't ever get to go up there. Well, we send 80 kids a week up there for four nights and five days, and they do hands-on STEM experiments, observations of the night sky. They might do water quality experiments. They might work with animals, identifying different flora and fauna in the area. And it gives them an idea of where the best jobs are in the 21st century. We have people come and talk to the kids, people who are technicians and engineers. People have jobs related to STEM disciplines and the kids get an idea of where the jobs'll be, and we try to get to them before peer pressure and popular culture get them thinking that they have to be like Beyonce or Denzel Washington or LeBron. Those are their only heroes. So when they get heroes more like George Washington Carver and Thomas Edison, we will have known that we have had our ultimate success, and we're getting there.
Ray Fouche - So what you're saying, it's not about capability, it's about opportunity.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Opportunity and just getting the message to the kids that look, if you pay attention in physics class, if you pay attention in chemistry, if you pay attention in math, you can go on and get a job and do all you wanna do with your life 'cause there are hundreds and hundreds of companies that are looking for engineers and technicians, and that's a great future for any young person who has the opportunity to get an education.
Ray Fouche - So what I'm hearing is you're saying that STEM education is a real powerful tool to fight racial, social, and cultural injustice.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Exactly, because the economic power that you get from that type of knowledge enables you to effect change.
Ray Fouche - Yeah, yeah. So, and not just going to the level of getting education, you've been trying to push them even further and opening up their minds and being more innovative and creative and pressing the idea of what is possible.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - What is possible and understanding what America is all about and what its potential is, because when we realize that we have the potential to get people from the whole world that can come here, if they wanna contribute to American society, they can do that and prosper. That's a wonderful incentive. That's why people come here from all over the world. That's why America's the greatest country in the world.
Ray Fouche - So in thinking about the idea of imagining, envisioning, "What color is my world?", the very first sentence begins, "You've gotta use your imagination." I've read that you are into science fiction, and can thinking about dreaming about and imagining future worlds, future technologies, future societies offer a way for young people to envision themselves as makers of these futures?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Oh, absolutely, because the people will start thinking about their own life, and hey, what can I do with my life? How can I use the way things are now in a way that will make things better for me and the people that I care about next year or five years from now or in the next decade? We gotta get people to think more like that because that's how we progress.
Ray Fouche - Yeah, and so what comic books did you like to read?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I read Batman and Superman and the one, the guy that was the plastic man, the guy that could reach around everybody and...
Ray Fouche - And what excited you about those?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, just the fact that it gave you some knowledge there, that there's a scientific basis for being able to get things done. Motion, power, all these things, they all have a foundation in science. Some of the villains are scientists, you know? Lex Luthor or Dr. Frankenstein or people like that, they can be villains, and then you got Doctor Strange who's a good guy. But it all has to do with knowledge and it's STEM stuff. So STEM is really the stuff of science fiction and horror, you know? It gets it all in there.
Ray Fouche - But we wanna stay people on the good side, not the horror side.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Okay, all right.
Ray Fouche - But I guess you gotta take the bad with the good, right?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Yeah, you have to.
Ray Fouche - Yeah.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, just you know, it gives people something to have fun with and play with. And the new Black Panther movie, it's about some imaginary element that enables people to do extraordinary things.
Ray Fouche - Yeah, well, can I ask you one more superhero question?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Sure.
Ray Fouche - So what's your dream superpower?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - My, geez, I don't know. I've always wanted to fly. Get up a little bit higher, a lot higher than Wilt Chamberlain.
Ray Fouche - So you write about innovation as a collaborative process that requires lots of different people.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Yes.
Ray Fouche - And so, how do you see our history and our past informing our future?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, I think that the people who formed our nation weren't all from Europe, you know? There were Native Americans and people here from Africa who definitely contributed greatly to the success of the American Revolution. I think we have to acknowledge that. When we do that, we get everybody in the picture, and I think that's a key issue. I always talk to people about the Battle of Bunker Hill. It wouldn't have been won if it were not for a sharpshooter on our side who caused the battle to end when he shot the last British officer that was trying to organize troops. Our sharpshooters really wore out the British officer corps in the Battle of Bunker Hill. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, the Europeans had a gentleman's agreement that they would not focus on officers with rifle fire during an engagement, and when the British came over here to suppress our revolution, we told them that we weren't playing that. So the Battle of Bunker Hill really decimated the British officer corps. They killed and wounded a lot of British officers that day, and the last one was trying to organize the remaining British troops to go up the hill and push the patriots off the hill, and Peter Salem shot that officer. He didn't die right away, but when the British troops saw that the rebels, it was such capable sharpshooters, it really intimidated them and none of them were willing to try to go up the hill, and it gave our guys the opportunity to get off of the hill and get back into Boston, and this was a black American who did that. So you know what? Black Americans have contributed so much to what makes our nation great, and they barely get the credit they deserve, and that's been an issue for me.
Ray Fouche - That's great. So moving in a different direction and thinking about sport, technology, design, innovation, increasingly, sport is being shaped not only by athletes, but new and emerging science and technology. Do you see these changes as improving or harming the games that people play?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, I think that the technology really has made it more interesting. Remember that swimsuit that they had to ban for a while because the swimmers were going so much faster? The different training items, the shoes, clothing that people wear that wick off the sweat and enable you to be dry quicker, all these things have helped improve performance and give people the ability to do things even more efficiently. I think that's pretty cool.
Ray Fouche - So can I ask you about your experience with technology? Shoes, what were the first basketball shoes you remember playing in?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - The first basketball shoes I played in actually were Chuck Taylor Converse. But I was the first person in the NBA to wear the Adidas leather shoe. And that was really interesting 'cause leather has a much different tensile and stretching, it has totally different qualities in that way, and it was interesting wearing those shoes. I wore 'em 'til the end of my career.
Ray Fouche - Were they sweatier?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - No, they're not. You know, it's different.
Ray Fouche - 'Cause that was the argument about the Converse, the canvas shoes allow your foot to breathe, they allowed more flexibility and ability to play.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Yeah, I think they allow your foot to breathe, but the Adidas shoe was well-designed. Yeah. And I think leather, well, leather's given away to nylon now.
Ray Fouche - Yes, and other wonderful materials.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - It's lighter, it holds its shape. But these things, I guess it goes in a cycle.
Ray Fouche - Well, and for instance, a handful of years ago, there was a controversy about the synthetic basketball as opposed to the leather ball, and as a child growing up, when I played basketball, I remember playing with a leather ball and it had a certain feel and sensation. So do you feel that there's certain materials like leather that really connect you to the game?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - No, but you know, every material has its own positives and negatives. I think that's up to the individual to make that choice as to what they like and what they wanna use.
Ray Fouche - So I think we're about to make the transition to some of the audience questions.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Great.
Ray Fouche - But I would like to ask you one last question before we make the transition. It's what words of encouragement do you have for young people who do not currently see themselves in a place where STEM is championed or feel that they have an opportunity to be inventive or innovative in a way that will alter the world in which we live for the better?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, I would tell any young person that wants to get into STEM, just take all the courses that you can at your high school that have to do with science or math. If that's all that you have, if that's the only thing that you can get into, all high schools have to have a math department and a science department, and just load up on those subjects as well as you can and take it from there to JC. If you can't get into a college, take it from there to JC. But absolutely, do it, you can do it. One of my sons has done it and I'm so proud of him. He's an MD, but he needed some help, but we got him through it.
Ray Fouche - Great. All right, so I have a stack of really wonderful questions from the audience, and I guess I'll just start from the beginning. This is a question from Ethan. Hi Ethan. "What was your most difficult challenge "during your NBA and civil rights activist career?"
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Geez, I think the challenge for me in my NBA career was trying to maintain a standard of excellence. You have a really good year, you wanna take it easy, and people expect you the next year to come back and do even better. So you really have to keep, maintain your training and your work ethic, and that can be difficult. Professional sports is very demanding. So I think that was really the challenge, just to maintain a quality, and I was so fortunate I was able to play for 20 years just because of that type of work ethic. I think I have my father to thank for that.
Ray Fouche - So here's a question from Gregorio, I believe the name is. "My question to you is was the NBA your only dream "or was it your second choice?" So was the NBA plan B?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - No, the NBA was plan A. Well, maybe one A. Plan A, actually, when I got out of high school, plan A was I wanted to meet Sophia Loren.
Ray Fouche - And?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - That never worked out. So the NBA was pretty good second choice. I made a few dollars anyway.
Ray Fouche - Here's a question from Eric. What historical people or person do you wish you could meet and have dinner with?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Oh geez. Imhotep. Imhotep was a scientist, he was an architect, he was a doctor, he was Egyptian, he was an administrator for Menes, who was the person who unified Upper and Lower Egypt. He's a very powerful and capable administrator and public person. I would love to have a chance to talk to him.
Ray Fouche - And what will be the first question?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - How did you do the step pyramid?
Ray Fouche - That would make you a very important person to have answered that question.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Yeah, and we're still trying to figure that one out.
Ray Fouche - All right, you're a hero to many. Who are your heroes?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Geez. Well, Imhotep, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, W.E.B. Dubois, Walter Mosley, Charlie Parker. I could keep going, but--
Ray Fouche - Well, but these are kind of all art and literary figures, right?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - No. No.
Ray Fouche - Who did I miss?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I'm sorry?
Ray Fouche - I'm sorry, I must have missed someone who was not an art and literary figure. But I guess I was asking you that it seems that a lot of your heroes tend to be on the, I would say, more on the creative, artistic side of the world.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Right, but you know, Joe Louis is in there.
Ray Fouche - Yeah, yeah, yeah, my mistake.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I really liked Joe Louis after my dad taught me how to box 'cause I got wore out there for a while. I started to get tall and figured out the jab and things changed. People started, instead of frowning when they saw me, they smiled and went the other direction. That was good.
Ray Fouche - That's great. So here's a question. "I'm eight years old. "How old are you now?"
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I'm too old to wanna talk about it. But I already told you the day I was born, so I'm 70. I'll be 71 in April.
Ray Fouche - Well, that deserves a clap. And why did they make dunking illegal?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - They made dunking illegal because people were annoyed that UCLA was winning the NCAA championship so often. So after my sophomore year, right after my sophomore year, UCLA, that was the third year out of four years that UCLA had won the NCAA tournament and people were already tired of UCLA winning it. Little did they know, they did ban the dunk, but that had no effect. My teams won two more consecutive NCAA tournaments and then the guys that followed me in the UCLA program won the next four, which made for seven in a row. And then they decided the dunk had nothing, that's not gonna work, and they finally reinstated the dunk, which was something that I think the fans enjoy. It's a great play and the fans enjoy it and it really gives the athletes something that they can aspire to that the fans like. So I'm glad they came back to their senses. The thing that got to me the most about that though was my own coach, Coach Wooden, was involved in the process when they voted on it, and he voted to eliminate the dunk.
Ray Fouche - Oh.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - And I didn't find this out that he had done that until like maybe five years before Coach passed. So I didn't have a whole lot of time to get on his case about it.
Ray Fouche - And how did you find that out?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Someone was, they were mentioning it casually. I think I was watching on ESPN or something, and he mentioned, "Yeah, well, I voted for it," 'cause Coach Wooden thought that the dunk shot was about domination and arrogance and he thought the game of basketball should be about subtlety and team play and that the dunk shot had no real, that that wasn't really what the game was about.
Ray Fouche - Well, that comment leads directly into this question from Coach Marco. "What teamwork advice "can you give to the Hustle Academy basketball team?"
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Work on the fundamentals, especially the ball handlers. Get the ball to the guys that are open when they are open. If you don't do that, you're not gonna have your job very long.
Ray Fouche - Another question. As a teacher, how do you turn students into activists?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - As a teacher, to turn people into activists, you have to find out what their passion is and what injustices or problems they see that they feel that they can do something about, and then you encourage them to do that. You encourage them to do something for their community, for the people who might need that service or that favor or that insight. Sometimes, just giving information to people can be so helpful. So activism is about helping other people, helping people who can't help themselves. I think that's one of the things that really endeared us about Muhammad Ali because we knew he wasn't talking, he wasn't saying the things he was saying to help himself. He was doing great. But the other people that weren't doing so great, he spoke for them, and that's why we loved him.
Ray Fouche - That's great. I think a couple more questions on the basketball in college. Did you have a plan B if the basketball thing didn't work out?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Well, if the basketball thing didn't work out, I had my degree. So I knew that I could at least fill out a job application, you know? Fortunately, basketball worked out, but I might have wanted to go to law school or something, I don't know.
Ray Fouche - Yeah, and another, lots of interesting collegiate questions. Were there any other colleges that you were interested in attending?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I thought about going to St. John's University, going to Catholic school in New York City. St. John's always looms there 'cause they have a good basketball program, but they made the coach retire the year that I graduated from high school, Coach Lapchick, and I didn't like that. I didn't know the new coach, Coach Carnesecca. He's a nice guy, but I didn't know him. I took my recruiting trip to UCLA right there at the end of March, and I left New York and it was slush on the ground and snow. I got out to L.A. and it was, and you know, that was the end of it right there.
Ray Fouche - Question, "How did you pick and choose inventors "for your book? "I'm missing Garrett Morgan, my favorite inventor."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Garrett Morgan, he's in there.
Ray Fouche - "Thanks for the wonderful book."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Oh, you're welcome, but I'm pretty sure Garret Morgan is in there, in my book.
Ray Fouche - I'm just reading the questions.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - I get the names mixed up sometimes 'cause it's been a while, but I'm pretty sure Garrett Morgan is in there.
Ray Fouche - That's good. I think there's one last question that I was looking to find before we call it an evening.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - How high is up?
Ray Fouche - I seem to have misplaced the one question that I was going to ask you in this stack, so thank you everyone for being so generous and writing such spectacular questions. Ah, this is the question from Anthony. "You mentioned that students should focus on getting "as much education as they can in order to be successful, "but how do we teach them to cope with cultural bias "and corporate racism "when many prevent them from job opportunities?"
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Those of you who are discriminated against, you have to be willing and ready to confront those who discriminate against you. There are lots of different types of racism, and the subtle types of racism are very detrimental. I'll give you an example. Someone is filling out a job application and he might have a name that implies that he's African American. His name might be Jamal or Kwami or Hassan or something like that, and the people who are making decisions, they just decide that they don't want any black people working for them. This is discrimination of a very subtle but effective type. So if you're discriminated against, you have to confront that and you have to be willing to fight that system, that type of discrimination. I remember I was in high school, I got discriminated against just because of my height. I applied for a job at a coffee shop, a chain, and they said that I was too tall. I was like, what? I'm too tall to wipe off tabletops and mop floors? But a woman came out and told me that. I was very insulted and I didn't know how to confront it. But we have laws on our books that say it's wrong to deny someone a job that they're qualified for and you have to confront that person. The NAACP still handles these issues because black Americans are still dealing with these issues. So go somewhere and get some advice as to how to confront and shame these people when they do these things, and that's the only way that we can do this. This is one of the prices that we have to pay in our country when these things happen.
Ray Fouche - And I think we'll use this as a final question. As we encourage students to focus on careers in STEM, how do we ensure that the knowledge of the humanities and the social sciences do not disappear? Because we're here in an evening at the National Museum of American History, where we are experiencing, understanding the wonderful science and technological invention, innovation that's happened here, but the building is replete with all kinds of wonderful elements of American history. So how do we balance the two halves of what seem to be an unresolvable tension?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - We just have to realize that we need both the sides of the coin. One side of the coin doesn't work. The all work and no play, what they say about all work and no play, I think that really applies. If we're all about science, we can become a little bit one-sided. So the humanities, I think, are the things that... Sciences improve the quality of life. The humanities enable us to enjoy life, and I think that there's the balance and we all have to find that balance point for ourselves. I know I have. At least I think I have, and I hope all of you do it.
Ray Fouche - Well, I think that's a fine point to end the evening on.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Thank you.
Ray Fouche - So, couple things in ending. First and foremost, join me in really thanking Kareem. That was fantastic.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Thank you.
Arthur Daemmrich - So the evening is not over yet. And so what I want you to do now and take the opportunity, especially the kids over to my right, to your left, we have Spark!Lab, a hands-on invention space. Go and check out the challenges and invent something. To my left, to your right, we have some artifacts out of storage. So some of the unique pieces of American history, including from Latimer and other people that were spoken of tonight. So some real historic treasures, so go check them out, and we're very grateful to our curators for bringing those out. And on that note, this evening really owes a very special thanks to some of my colleagues in the Lemelson Center, especially Will Reynolds, Monica Smith, and Laura Havel, so please thank them. We have several other programs in this series this spring. You can check them out at invention.si.edu. Thank you again for coming.