The homemade paper Dr. Seuss hat atop the head of Kingsley Elementary kindergartner Harley Cruz gave her a foot of extra height during an assembly last Friday, but she was still dwarfed by the school’s imposing visitor.
Nonetheless, she walked up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and thanked the Lakers legend for a “wonderful” assembly before scurrying back to her seat.
Abdul-Jabbar spoke to approximately 275 students at the East Hollywood elementary school on Thursday morning to kick off Read Across America — which celebrates reading and the life and works of Dr. Seuss.
“When I talk to kids in these circumstances, I just want them to get an idea that they should start thinking now about what they want to do in the future,” Abdul-Jabbar said after the assembly. “Usually when you wait until they get to the high school ag e, it’s too late and they’ve already made some bad choices. Peer pressure and the influence of gangs are overwhelming. If you get a chance to impact them now before those issues predominate, you get a chance to turn many of them into really effective and productive scholars and contributors to their society, to their community.”
The morning assembly opened with a short film chronicling Abdul-Jabbar’s life from high school, to UCLA, from Milwaukee, to the Lakers and currently as an author of eight best-selling books. The rapt crowd broke into cheers as the former NBA player walked into the gym, which was decorated in purple and gold.
Abdul-Jabbar told students about his own struggles during grade school.
“I stood out,” he said. “It was very difficult for me to fit in. Each of you is a unique and distinctive individual and you will have your own way through life.”
Students lined up in the middle of the gym to ask questions of the former Laker. Topics included the work it takes to become a professional basketball player, the civil rights era, writing tips and more.
Abdul-Jabbar said he wasn’t initially very good at basketball, and he originally wanted to play baseball. A Harlem Globetrotters video inspired him.
“I got over it and I kept playing and I got better,” he said.
In regards to his early academic struggles, Abdul-Jabbar joked that he wasn’t the best at writing in cursive when he was a child.
He told the students that they should aspire to go to college — he was the first person in his own family to attend — and that when they were done they should strongly consider coming back to the neighborhood where they grew up to help make it a better place.
“That’s what community is all about,” he said.
Many Kingsley Elementary students recently attended, through help from Beyond the Bell, Abdul-Jabbar’s Camp Skyhook, which places an emphasis on learning STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills applied in the wilderness of the Angeles National Forest.
“The kids go up there and they have people there who are trained to take them through various little observations and experiences with the flora and fauna of the area, and just talk to them about how technology impacts that area and explain to them different aspects of how technology is involved with what they are learning,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
“To have the opportunity to develop those strategies and those skills and that knowledge base, is something [our students] will remember for all their lives,” said Kingsley Elementary principal Karina Salazar.
At the end of the assembly, three students were chosen for a skyhook — Abdul-Jabbar’s famous shot — mini-clinic in front of their peers. The auditorium erupted with applause after each skyhook was made.
“Working in an inner city school, the opportunity to interface with a figure of his stature, who is nationally and internationally known, it is such a treat for our community,” Salazar said, adding that she was hopeful the students would be inspired by his story. “The kids were remarkable. They had some very well written questions and they were really curious. Many of them had actually conducted research and we saw that in their questions that were thought provoking.”