Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA Hall of Famer and Laker legend who continues to reign as the league's all-time leading scorer, transcends basketball with his latest gig: global cultural ambassador.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the appointment Wednesday, tasking Abdul-Jabbar with engaging young people worldwide and "using people-to-people diplomacy as a means to create opportunities for greater understanding."
His first state visit is to Brazil, where Abdul-Jabbar "will lead conversations with young people on the importance of education, social and racial tolerance, cultural understanding, and using sports as a means of empowerment," according to the secretary of State's website. And, of course, there will be basketball clinics.
Compare that with Abdul-Jabbar's website, where he says he is honored for the appointment and adds: "My first assignment will be in Brazil, a country that I'm thrilled to visit. The culture there is so vibrant and engaging. I'm a big jazz fan and Brazilian jazz is a very popular part of the nation's cultural profile. I think I'll get a chance to sample some of the current jazz on this trip. And of course there's basketball. I'll be involved putting on some clinics for the local hoopsters! All in all this is going to be a fun and exciting trip both educationally and culturally."
Abdul-Jabbar is an intriguing choice for cultural ambassador. He was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. and raised Roman Catholic in New York City. He later changed his name and converted to Islam.
Although he was a superstar on the court, he continues to be a powerhouse off of it, promoting social justice as well as African American history.
Among his post-NBA career projects: the acclaimed 2011 documentary "On the Shoulders of Giants," starting the Skyhook Foundation to help children through sports and schooling, and his new book, What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors.
He has also received a Lincoln Medal for continuing Abraham Lincoln's legacy through commitment to education and equality.
On America's international affairs, Jabbar said he'll be honest, as cultural ambassador, discussing the United States' roll in the world when asked by foreigners.
"After Sept. 11, our viewpoints and our concerns got magnified in terms of what was happening overseas, because the perception people had of us made us, in their eyes, a target. So people really need to understand what we're all about, and we have to be very clear about that. I have to speak the truth, but explain myself and my country's approach to dealing with it and with other nations, how we as Americans see that."
But, it being the State Department and all, Jabbar will be sure to be as diplomatic as possible.
"I definitely don't want it to be political," said Jabbar of his new post. "I want to be an ordinary U.S. citizen. I'm not going representing any political issues. I see it more as something that's in line with doing my patriotic duty, having an opportunity to represent my country and explain my country and engage other people in ways they can understand."
On the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jabbar gave his assessment of the state of race relations in the U.S.
"With my perspective, I can see such a great change. When President Obama got elected, I really connected very emotionally and deeply because I just wish my parents were here to see that. They would have been astonished.
"We've made so much progress. There's still more progress to be made, but so much has happened for the positive. That is one thing that makes me believe in my country and see it as the best place for this progress to be made."
The 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar was bearing gifts when his appointment was announced. First was a Lakers jersey bearing his now-retired number 33, which could double as a nightgown for the secretary of State.
"I'm not going to be able to keep that away from my husband, you know," she said, drawing laughter.
Abdul-Jabbar then gave Clinton a copy of his book, For when you start to read to your grandchildren.
"Kareem Abdul-Jabbar named U.S. global cultural ambassador " Los Angeles Times January 19 2012
Patrick Gavin, "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scores diplomatic role"Politico January 19, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today