EDITOR’S NOTE: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer who led the Milwaukee Bucks to their only championship in 1971, will be the guest speaker at the Journal Sentinel High School Sports Awards on May 14 at the Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee. He wrote this essay for the Journal Sentinel in advance of his talk to high school athletes.
Going through high school can feel like walking around with a severe sunburn where every touch can be a painful reminder of our vulnerability. Some students deal with it by joining social cliques or bands, or by becoming bullies or loners. Some deal by joining sports teams. That’s what I did and it changed not only my high school experience for the better, but also my future as an adult.
For most high school athletes, the sport we play isn’t just about winning the game, it’s also about defining our individuality among the hundreds of other students in our school. Sure, we want to be heroes on the court or field by winning games, but we also want to win the admiration of classmates and teachers. At the same time, sports allow us to build an insular world of teammates that have our backs off the court during those exposed teenage years in which no amount of padding, blocking or setting screens can protect the fragile heart from all the insecurities we face.
Coaches and parents may endlessly lecture about how sports can build character, but most students are just looking for a way to survive the constant anxiety. If we build character along the way, great. But mostly we just want to make it out of high school with as few emotional scars as possible. Yet, I’m here to tell you that, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, high school athletics didn’t just define me to my school, as I’d hoped, it also, unknown to me at the time, set me on the path to be the kind of man, citizen, friend and community member I would become. Looking back, I am so thankful for my experiences — even the bad ones — of playing high school basketball, because they prepared me for the world in ways my regular classes hadn’t.
I wish I could say the world was different when I was in high school in the early 1960s and how far we’ve come, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. Yes, we now have iPhones, the Internet, K-Pop and Yogurtland, but we also have many of the same social and political issues that we had back then. When I started high school, I was only vaguely aware of the social upheaval outside my seemingly safe Catholic school. Civil rights marches, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrested in Alabama, the Vietnam War, Ban the Bomb protests, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution — it was all happening Somewhere Out There.
Until it wasn’t just Somewhere Out There.
Until I was accidentally caught up in the middle of a civil rights protest gone bad after a police shooting of a black boy and had to run for my life. Until I interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while I was still in high school and heard his inspiring words about the plight of black Americans. Until a group of African-Americans peacefully marching for voting rights in Alabama were hospitalized after being attacked by police with whips, clubs and tear gas. Until my beloved coach one day called me the n-word. Then the illusion of living in a protected world vanished and I realized that I had to learn where I belonged, not just in high school, but in the world outside. I felt like a small row boat on the vast ocean, being buffeted by waves. I realized then that I either had to start guiding the boat or I’d be swamped and sunk. For me, that meant becoming more involved with my community outside school.