Posted: Wednesday December 13, 2006 9:26PM; Updated: Thursday December 14, 2006 1:24PM
Despite the height advantage, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was no match for Bruce Lee in the 1978 classic "The Game of Death."
SI.com: Tell us about what you're trying to do.
Kareem: The NBA is trying to get onboard with the prostate cancer research problem [the disease killed more than 27,000 men in the U.S. just in 2006] and encourage all NBA fans to get checked. We have a wristband program [with bands bearing the signatures of LeBron James, Jermaine and ShaqO'Neal -- just to name a few -- sell for $3 a pop] that we hope will help raise a lot of money for cancer research.
SI.com: Is there a personal story here why you picked prostate cancer as your cause?
Kareem: In my own family, there's a gene for colon cancer. It affected my grandfather, my father and my uncle. My uncle died of prostate cancer. My grandfather died of an intestinal blockage. My father almost died of [cancer]. So these kinds of conditions that are easily treated if there's early analysis are a good thing to attack because we can seriously impact their effect on our population. Those conditions, when they're analyzed early, medicine can work in many ways to effectively treat them and have it not become a life-threatening situation.
SI.com: It wasn't cancer but cerebral edema that ultimately did Bruce Lee in. How did your relationship with him come about?
Kareem: When I met Bruce I was interested in studying martial arts. One of the editors over at Black Belt magazine recommended him to me.
SI.com: Was he a known commodity at that time?
Kareem: Bruce was a known commodity to people in the martial arts industry because of his work on The Green Hornet, and that's how I knew him. The guy said that Bruce was teaching, he had his own effective style, and that maybe I'd like to work with him. So I went over and met him, and we got into a discussion about what works and what doesn't about the martial art [Jeet Kune Do]. I was won over by the argument and started working out with him, and our friendship lasted until he died.
SI.com: How did that meeting turn into the role as his foil in Game of Death?
Kareem: It took a long time. What happened was Bruce, after he saw that racial attitudes were not going to make it possible for him to get the best opportunities here in America, he went to Hong Kong and did a movie and it was a mega hit. And all of sudden at that point he had power. We always talked about if we ever had the chance to do a movie together we would do it. He got to that point, and we decided to do it.
SI.com: These days, the role -- a pretty pioneering bit of career crossover -- seems quaint given how many of today's athletes boast on-screen experience. But what you and guys like Jim Brown were doing in those days was rare. Had you always hoped to parlay your basketball success into a film career?
Kareem: I had hoped to do that, but it wasn't there for me. It wasn't happening in those days. Jim Brown got to make westerns! (laughs) I'm jealous.
SI.com: And Blaxploitation films before the genre really existed ...
Kareem: Yeah, but that's just how the story goes.
SI.com: Speaking of Jim, what does the date Nov. 10, 1966, the date you, Brown, Bill Russell, Bobby Mitchell and five other prominent athletes came together in Cleveland to support Muhammad Ali's contentious objection to the military draft, mean to you? It's easily one of the most powerful assemblies of athletes -- black athletes, specifically -- in support of one cause ever. Were you hip to the enormity of the moment then?
Kareem: I wasn't aware of the enormity of the moment, but I thought if I had the opportunity to help Muhammad Ali I wanted to help him. I just admired, and I wasn't in the Black Muslims or anything, but what he had to say politically was on the money. I thought he was being persecuted, and I wanted to see him cope with it somehow.
SI.com: Had you hoped that that moment would've begat further activism among athletes 10 years later? Speaking just in terms of the NBA, it seems like a lot of guys have opinions that range beyond their sport -- especially about the war. Etan Thomas and Steve Nash are two that have voiced objections, but their activism hasn't gone much beyond poems or snarky T-shirts. How come don't today's guys band together for causes like yesterday's guys did?
Kareem: I think that the way that everything has been organized to combat the evils of the Civil Rights era really lent itself to getting a mass movement behind Ali, whereas nowadays there's no such mass movement. It's hard to tune into getting any mass movement around these issues. It's just become a scattered situation.
SI.com: Do you think the leather ball is the closest we'll come to athletes coming together to effect change in today's body politic?
Kareem: Well, the way things are going you might be right. There's not much out there that anybody gets excited about. People just do things on their own as individuals. This just might be a time where that's the way things have to be done.
SI.com: Do you think, though, that this could be an instructive moment for today's athlete? Here it is they objected to an idea, banded together as one voice and affected change. Imagine the potential!
Kareem: Well, you know, it's possible but I don't see the building up of any movement in that direction.
SI.com: What are your impressions of the new ball? Much ado about nothing?
Kareem: I think the new ball was no good. No question about it. It was not a success in terms of being useful. I think it was a step down. I've had to work with it every day, and it didn't strike me as an improvement.
SI.com: Last week, we rankled much of the sports world we chose Dwyane Wade to be our Sportsman of the Year. Do you recall people being as up in arms when we chose you as Sportsman in '85?
Kareem: I don't think there was much clamor when I was selected -- was there? (laughs) God only knows! But Dwyane had a great series and was the clear-cut leader for his team, so I don't think you can say he didn't deserve it. He deserved the attention he got as MVP of the NBA Playoffs. I don't have any problems giving him the award.
SI.com: Wade seems like one of a handful of throwback players in the league where playing the pivot seems like an antiquated notion. To that end, where have all the 5s gone? If I told you when you retired in '88 that your species was headed for extinction, what would you have said?
Kareem: I don't think it's headed for extinction, but there are fewer and fewer guys who can play the pivot and aren't learning as early.
SI.com: Is it that they aren't learning it early enough or are getting turned into hybrids that play outside-in instead of vice versa?
Kareem: I think that people are going to try and affect the game in a variety of ways, and some ways are now out of fashion.
SI.com: Speaking of out of fashion, the Knicks are so 10 years ago. You're a native New Yorker. How would you fix 'em?
Kareem: Jeez, I think they're going to have to get rid of a lot of players and start from scratch. It's hard to get the right amount of players together that have some cohesion. That's the real trick, putting some guys on the court together that go out there wanting to win. That doesn't happen to often. And until that starts happening again [in New York], it's going to be tough coaching.