There are many people I look up to, but only one both figuratively and physically. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands tall, in multiple ways. At 7 feet 2 inches, he’s a towering figure wherever he goes, as much for his oversized achievements on and off the basketball court as for his height.
During Abdul-Jabbar’s recent visit to Toronto, it was a pleasure to spend time with him, speaking about current issues related to his lifelong commitment to social justice. Like many sports fans, I’ve long marvelled at his jaw-dropping exploits in the NBA: a record six-time Most Valuable Player, a record 19-time All-Star and a member of six NBA championship teams as a player. To this day, 33 years since he retired, he remains the league’s leader in points, career wins and games played. His less well-known pursuits far from the spotlight are no less impressive.
Justly celebrated as an athlete, Abdul-Jabbar has also reached lofty heights for his long-standing work in advocating for social justice and human rights, for which he’s earned great respect and numerous awards. As part of his activism for equality, respect, inclusion and building bridges between communities, he’s been a steadfast ally in the fight against antisemitism.
In late October, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC), the human rights organization I head, presented its inaugural Ally Against Antisemitism Award to Abdul-Jabbar at its 2022 Spirit of Hope benefit in Toronto. Addressing more than 1,200 people in attendance, Abdul-Jabbar began by echoing his recent blog post, strongly condemning the repeated antisemitic outbursts of U.S. celebrity rapper and fashion designer Kanye West.
“We can’t let people who set standards and who everybody wants to emulate, to have them talking like that,” Abdul-Jabbar told the crowd. “That’s not what we’re supposed to be about, especially in America where we say that all men are created equal, and this is not what’s coming out of Kanye’s mouth.”
One can only imagine that Abdul-Jabbar’s comments helped prompt other former NBA icons to take a similar position days later against Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving for promoting an antisemitic film on social media. Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller all denounced Irving, after which Abdul-Jabbar commended his three fellow NBA Hall of Famers in a blog post, taking a similar position. Hours later, the Nets suspended Irving for at least five games without pay for refusing to “unequivocally say he has no antisemitic beliefs.”