Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will always have the best, most appropriate title for an athlete’s autobiography. His 1983 book was called Giant Steps. Abdul-Jabbar is still writing and still taking those giant steps. The basketball legend, who scored more points in the NBA than any other player, retains an uncompromised view of the world. And it’s not because nothing stands in his way. It’s because so much has.
So when it comes to understanding the effects (subtle and not) of racism and the myriad ways it manifests in the US, Abdul-Jabbar’s is a very valuable voice. He’s the subject of an interesting profile in the New York Times Magazine this week, in which he explains the reassuring appeal his former teammate Magic Johnson had on white fans: “He had that great smile, so white people thought his life was okay. They thought that racism had not affected him. They were wrong, of course. But that’s what they saw when they saw him. Magic made white people feel comfortable. With themselves.” In other words, Magic Johnson enabled white people to look at him and disregard racism, to blot it out.