What My Life In Sports Has Taught Me
An exclusive guest-post for Thought Economics
By: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – The NBA’s All-Time Leading Scorer, 3x Award Winning Columnist of the Year, NY Times Best-Selling Author & Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.
Sports has dominated my life for most of my seventysome years, not just as a career, but as set of values and teachings as codified as any philosophical or religious text. The lessons I learned as a player and fan helped shape my moral path as an adolescent and later as an adult. As with many kids, for me sports started as a way to distinguish myself from other kids, to establish my own identity. As I matured, I found that playing competitive basketball taught me many more vital lessons about how to live my life for maximum happiness and fulfillment. But the older I got, the more I realized that these lessons were not the glib and simplistic one-size-fits-all, sports clichés often displayed on uplifting posters. Rather, they were nuanced and complex ideas that evolved as I did.
I first became aware of the complexity of sports lessons when I arrived at UCLA. Coach John Wooden sat all the freshmen basketball players down in the gym and proceeded to teach us our very first sports lesson: how to properly put on our socks. One of the winningest coaches in college basketball was lecturing some of the most elite athletes in the country on how to put on socks. We all exchanged worried glances. But Coach Wooden explained by quoting one of his favorite people, Benjamin Franklin: “A little neglect may breed mischief …for want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost.” Huh? we all thought silently, wondering if it was too late to transfer. “If you do not pull your socks on tightly,” he told us, “you’re likely to get wrinkles in them. Wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters force players to sit on the sideline. And players sitting on the sideline lose games.”
Coach Wooden’s little lesson wasn’t just about socks, but about how everything in life was basically a Rube Goldberg contraption with many seemingly unrelated parts that form a greater interrelated machine. Neglecting what appears insignificant can create a domino effect of failure. That’s how sports is: seemingly insignificant games that have become a major part of the foundation of our society, like schools, government, and selfies. Sports has never been “just a game,” it’s also a celebration of community, a benchmark for human achievement, and a teacher of social values.
Finding My Way
The first lesson every coach teaches is about teamwork. They pepper us with platitudes like “There is no ‘I’ in teamwork” and “Teamwork makes the dream work.” Pretty much the same scrubbing-clean-of-individuality approach as in the military, religions, and Kardashian cults. The purpose is to give us a shared common goal by teaching us to play together rather than showing off by trying to be the hot-shot star. We’ve all witnessed sports teams in which one run-and-gun player consistently scores a tremendous amount of points, but the team still mostly loses. That player, clearly chasing a sports shoe endorsement, has never learned to put the benefit of the team above personal gratification. They don’t understand that—here comes another sports platitude—“The rising tide lifts all boats.” When the team wins, each member of that team benefits more. Being a star player on a losing team focuses the blame on you.
As a child, I was eager to accept this teaching because I wanted to belong to a team. I was developing my identity as a player, as a too-tall teenage boy, and more importantly, as an African-American. As a player, I started as a gangly, uncoordinated kid. Belonging to a team was a safe place to learn the fundamentals and to thrive. The team was a meritocracy in which performance alone was rewarded. As I got better and my team started winning championships for my school, my status as freakishly tall black kid became a badge of accomplishment and inclusion.
That was the opposite of my experiences as an African-American in which I was daily negatively judged based on appearance alone. My height, which was an asset on the court, was seen as a threat by white people on the street. This was the Sixties and there were only two teams in America: black and white. You were born into your team and one team did its best to make sure you never competed with it on a level playing field. The game was rigged. There was no meritocracy.
It was a confusing lesson. On the court, teamwork was crucial to our success. We all had strengths and weaknesses and we learned how to capitalize on each other’s strengths and help protect our teammates’ weaknesses. Victory never felt like a personal triumph but a group accomplishment. All those sports clichés and cheezy posters about teamwork were right.
Up to a point.
Because that was also a way to exploit people. We were hip-deep in the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Black people were being told they needed to be patient and wait if they wanted the same rights as the white team. Women were being told they weren’t physically or mentally capable of joining the Men Team. Patriotism was being touted to our youth as a form of teamwork. Enlist. Be part of the military team.
But the way white people treated blacks—including me—never made me feel like I was part of Team America. Maybe that’s why being on a sports team meant so much to me. On the court, there was no prejudice, just your contribution to the team. Off the court, teamwork seemed like a parody of what we did. So, the lesson I eventually learned was to distinguish between which teams are sincere in promoting true teamwork, and which are jingoistic self-serving pretenders. Teamwork does make the dream work, but not every team is worthy.
Life in Sports
In the baseball movie, Bang the Drum Slowly, the professional players like to fleece fans of their money by inviting them to play a card game they call tegwar (The Exciting Game Without Any Rules). Unbeknownst to the fans, the players just make up rules and terms as they go. The fans, too embarrassed at not knowing the game they’re told every real fan knows, just let the players take their money. What makes that scene so effective is that life itself seems like tegwar, in which we face an indifferent Nature that punishes and rewards the good and evil equally. In the movie, this is illustrated by one of the young athletes (Robert De Niro) dying of cancer.
Rules in sports create a world of fair play that doesn’t exist in nature and those of us who’ve spent our lives in sports appreciate that distinction. Yes, we push the limits of the rules sometimes in the heat of the game, but what makes any sport exciting is learning how to excel by staying within the confine of rules, not by winning through ignoring them. Not all players agree, some believe that winning is all that matters.
This is where we go back to that notion of teamwork. When you’re a child, you define your team as those wearing the same jerseys and your team’s goal is to defeat anyone wearing different jerseys. But as you get older, your notion of what constitutes a team evolves. If you cheat by breaking the rules, you may be promoting your personal team, but you’re undermining the sport itself, and all sports. The team isn’t just the one with your jersey, it’s everyone who wears a jersey. Then you realize that harming the sport also negatively affects the fans, especially the kids who look up to athletes as role models. Then you understand that you’re damaging our national value of all people being created equal and our country’s commitment to creating fair play where history may have robbed some people of equal opportunities. For want of a nail.
Having said that, I also realize that rules are not always fair and those making them sometimes have agendas that benefit them rather than the sport. The NCAA makes about a billion dollars a year while the college athletes who risk their health, education, and even lives are paid nothing. The NCAA top ten basketball coaches’ salaries range from over $2 million to over $7 million.When I was playing for UCLA, I was so broke that I hardly had enough to eat. The rules were that those who were on academic scholarships were also allowed to work jobs to earn money; those on athletic scholarships weren’t.
Between 1967 to 1976, the NCAA banned the dunk. This rule became unofficially known as the “Lew Alcindor rule” (my name was Lew Alcindor in 1967) because of my ability to dunk and the frequency with which I did it. The rule-makers justified the decision by complaining that my height gave me an unfair advantage. But there were a couple dozen players at that time about my height or taller but who weren’t as effective (today there are 43 NBA players 7’ and taller). The decision was based on my use of the shot to help UCLA win championships.
Rules are good. We need to obey rules. But we also need to be vigilant in changing rules as the game, the players, and our society evolves. It’s the same principle as the U.S. Constitution. What makes the framers so brilliant is that they recognized that whatever their values were at the time, history has a way of revealing the flaws in our beliefs. Therefore they made provisions for changing the Constitution to reflect an enlightened population. We amended it to, among other things, protect freedom of the press, end slavery, and give women the vote. Sports taught me that, rather than be blind followers of rules, we need to constantly question them as to their purpose and validity and be bold enough to change them if they don’t serve our value of fair play.
Life After Sports
Since leaving the NBA, I’ve used many of the lessons I learned as an athlete to pursue my career as a novelist, columnist, and screenwriter. The discipline my coaches instilled in me to practice, practice, practice is crucial when it comes to writing. No one wakes up eager to write because it often reveals your shortcomings. It’s like staring at your face in a mirror for two hours—after a few minutes, all you see are flaws. Discipline sees me through those self-doubts.
So does teamwork. Sometimes I work with a partner on projects and we send each other pages, critiquing each other and then rewriting. When I wrote on the Veronica Mars TV series reboot, I was in a room with five other writers and we pitched ideas that were refined or rejected, always with the goal of what was best for the script, not our egos. By the end, it was difficult to distinguish who had done what, but we all felt pride in what we had created together.
But the biggest lesson from sports that I’ve focused on in recent years is the responsibility of the athlete to the community, whether local or national. When I was growing up, athletes were generally portrayed as muscle-bound lunkheads and locker-stuffing bullies. Their opinions were whatever the coaches’ opinions were and anyone who disagreed got a beating.
While I was still at UCLA, I was invited to join a group of athletes known as the Cleveland Summit, a self-appointed “team” whose purpose was to judge the veracity of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to submit to the draft based on his religious convictions as a Muslim. At 20, I was the youngest member, but I was determined to be as impartial as the others, despite my admiration of and friendship with Ali. After very aggressive and sometimes hostile questioning, we agreed that Ali was sincere in his convictions. White America might have taunted us as just a bunch of athletes, but black America understood we were vetting Ali’s position as an African-American hero.
In the 50 years since, athletes have struggled to find their voice as Americans without some group trying to silence them with phrases like, “shut up and dribble” and “stick to (insert appropriate sport here).” But the lessons we learned as athletes were meant to drive us to overcome obstacles and adversaries and to persevere. Which brings us back to that childhood notion of teamwork that we learn at t-ball leagues and toddler soccer camps. However, once again, the concept of what a team is has morphed.
Team owners want athletes to stay silent for the sake of ticket and merchandise sales. Politicians want athletes to stay silent to protect their exploitative policies. And some fans want athletes to stay silent because they don’t want to be reminded of the social injustices that the athletes are talking about. They want athletes to stay silent for the sake of profit and power and they try to bully the athletes with oppressive rules, fines, and attacks on their careers.
But what’s admirable about these athletes is that they have redefined teamwork to go beyond the jersey, beyond the political party, beyond tradition to embrace the entire country as one team and the rules of the game are laid out in the U.S. Constitution. They want fair treatment for people of all colors, gender identities, religions, and immigrants in need. Not special treatment—just fair treatment. The level playing field.
They have learned the lessons and values of sports well and are willing to risk their own careers to help others share in the bounty of victory rather than never be picked to participate. Sports made me believe in the potential of America and inspired me to help bring about that potential for everyone. Because that would be our ultimate championship season.