His Excellency, Ambassador Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
To find the earliest stories the Los Angeles Times wrote about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I had to search for his birth name -– Lewis Alcindor Jr. He was a New York high school student being courted by UCLA and other powerhouse basketball schools.
So it took a bit of mind-bending to go from reading about that teenage school kid to interviewing the sports legend who’s about to turn 65 -- the man who, when I talked to him for my "Patt Morrison Asks" column, joked that his arms, the arms that pulled off that phenomenal "sky hook" shot, are getting too short to read the newspaper.
Life after basketball has meant some TV and movie roles (he was hilarious in "Airplane!"), writing and co-writing a slew of books, and now as a U.S. global cultural ambassador. Check him out with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the event in January, where he says, "I remember when Louis Armstrong first did it back for President Kennedy, one of my heroes. So it’s nice to be following in his footsteps."
He’s made his first trip abroad in that new iteration, to Brazil, and I asked him about the job description, and his visit to Brazil.
"They want me to speak to disadvantaged kids about their future with an emphasis on education, and answer questions about Americans and democracy and what it’s like here in this place we call America."
I wondered whether Brazilian kids knew who he was.
"Yes, I was surprised! They have three or four [Brazilian] guys in the NBA, so the kids there now play the game. They have courts in some of the slum neighborhoods."
And what did they want to know about the U.S.?
"They were very taken with President Obama. They [also] have a history of slavery there. To see President Obama become president, it really gives them a different idea about the potential of democracy. That was something they all wanted to ask about, [whether] this democracy stuff can work for [them]."
Photo: Former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar poses with a jersey of Barcelona's basketball team during the official presentation of the friendly basketball game between Barcelona and the Lakers at the Palau Blaugrana in Barcelona on June 1, 2010. Credit: Josep Lago /AFP/Getty Images