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America still holds the torch with the NBA

Mbenga at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Blog

Recent times have seen many people decry the loss of prestige that America has suffered by way of the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other fiascoes. But I can point to a story that has touched my life that clearly shows how America still holds the torch of liberty and freedom for all the world to see.

The Lakers recently signed Didier "D.J." Mbenga to a contract with an eye to solidifying our bench. His  story has helped me to see how much freedom and opportunity mean in the world today. D.J.'s dad was involved in the regime of Mobutu Sese Seku in the Congo. He was an administrator in this regime. Politics in that part of the world are in many ways a minefield, but Mr. Mbenga did his job and was able to send his family to live in Belgium. D.J. lived in Belgium from the age of 6, but his father felt that the family should return to the Congo to see first-hand what their homeland was all about. The timing of their visit was most unfortunate. D.J.'s father was implicated in an attempted coup and imprisoned immediately, along with other family members. He never returned from the lockup. D.J. was imprisoned also and would have  met the same fate as his dad if  not for a relative who was able to secure the family's release by bribing their jailers. A flight was arranged for their escape, and they made it by the slimmest of margins. There were threats to shoot down the flight as it took off, but somehow the Mbengas made it back to Belgium.

D.J.'s athletic potential has made it possible for him to have an opportunity to play in the NBA. He is a quiet, cheerful young man with a positive outlook, and he is so thankful for the opportunity to play basketball. His story should serve as an example of how lucky we are to live in a country with the many rights and opportunities so that many cannot dream of in the rest of the world.

Have no doubt about it, the torch of liberty that  is held high in New York Harbor sheds a very special, wonderful light. We who live here are truly privileged.

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Comments

Beautiful entry about young Mbenga, Kareem. I'll watch for him.

I still remember I game I attended in the 1980s when the whole Boston Garden stood up for you when you broke a socring record -- I forget which one: most FGs in a career, perhaps? 25,000 points?

Here in Boston where I live, we may even see you in June. Let's hope, eh?

JOE NOWLAN

Hi Kareem!

This is a truly great blog! Do you have a chance to work with DJ or Pau very much on the floor?

Ajax

Hello Mr. Abdul-Jabbar!

Wow, I just found your blog for the first time today (the LA Times should do a better job with publicity!) and had a great time reading through it. It's exciting to have a chance to write.

I'm a professor at UCLA. Many of my students know the only half-joking story about how I came out here for school to UCLA because of how big a Kareem Abdul Jabbar fan I am.

It all started back when I was a kid -- I was a huge Bruce Lee fan and after seeing Game of Death, started to really follow and root for the Lakers. This wasn't too hard with the Bullets playing badly (I'm from the DC area originally) and the Lakers commencing Showtime. Of course, I'm a huge Magic fan too, but somehow both my older brother and I were always the biggest fans of you. Anyway, just as my Bruce Lee fandom rubbed off on you, so did my Kareem fandom rub off on UCLA. That is, at least in part, how I ended up here in LA!

Anyway, I have quite a few #33 jerseys that I wear around town from time to time, and I enjoyed both your biographies, especially Giant Steps. That's one of the best Bruce Lee anecdotes I've read -- the one about "Loberston" boulevard. I saw you once in a movie theater up in Encino one Christmas when I took my family to see House of the Flying Daggers. I really wanted to say hi and thank you for all the sky-hook memories, but thought I'd respect your privacy. So it's nice to have a chance to say hi now.

Ok, let's see... just a few comments/questions.

1. I'm curious (as I'm sure many are) as to why Drew hasn't pulled out the sky-hook as he suggested he would. It's not like an under-the-legs free-throw shot -- it's an awesome weapon that's nearly undefendable!

2. I'm a big jazz fan. I often think back to Giant Steps (your version) and wonder about if my house burnt down, what it would be like to lose my CD collection, especially since I own some hard to find, or out-of-print discs. Anyway, I must agree with the comment in response to your blog, and say that I'm not a fan on Wynton's recreationism. It's like the Preservation Hall band for the new millenium -- the guys can play, but are they really saying something new and original? My brother and I talk about how maybe Coltrane took jazz to it's limit and there's not too many other new places to venture. You could say the same of Cecil Taylor, who I also love. Anyway, I do feel a bit like jazz is dead. Is there anyone new that you like? The older I get, the more I notice that listening to music becomes more of a nostalgic experience, but once in a while, I still get to hear something new and there's nothing better than that.

3. Gotta ask a Bruce Lee question. You've probably been asked a million times, but do you know anything about more Game of Death footage? I know there are scores of fans who would love to hear more stories about Bruce... is there other footage, what discussion led to the decision to make you have lizard eyes, and what other personal anecdotes do you have? Speaking of US immigrants (your blog today), maybe a good next book idea would be spotlighting some stories about the immigrant experience with a chapter on Bruce.

Did you see that art exhibit exploring the intersection of hip-hop culture and asian martial arts? It was at Bergamot Station a few years ago. The video project featuring GOD footage was the coolest.

Anyway, sorry for the long email, thanks for the sky-hook memories and I'll be following your blog.

I had heard from the Loose Cannons that Mbenga was a great acquisition, but I hadn't heard his life story before. That was a great piece Kareem, I'm loving your blog so far, keep up the good work.

UCLA class of 2006.

Hey Kareem, big fan here. Watching the Laker game right now as we speak and see you behind the bench. Go Lakers! We were discussing politics today at work and joking around. I was saying that I'd vote for Kareem Abdul Jabbar for president anytime. His blog on the L.A. Times is great. Well, just wanted to say that I really enjoyed the story today on D.J. Keep up the good work!

Wow, this is truly special, to have the opportunity to communicate with the 'greatest' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I just wanted to point out my frustrations with todays youth be it civilians or professional athletes. Kids these days are so about image ,which is most of the time an image of despair and without hope.Or an image that is based on what they see on T.V. Your story about the Lakers newest center, Didier "D.J." Mbenga, is simply amazing and eye opening. I wish todays modern athletes were more interested in social awareness rather then keeping their endorsements coming in. Your blog just reaffirms why i feel you are the greatest NBA player of all time. Thanks for the great Laker moments and i will look forward to your blogs and reading your books.

We are lucky to be living in this country where people can find sanctuary from oppressive governments all over the world. But "freedom is never free" and we must be "forever vigilant." The torch serves more than one pupose. One is to shine light on those who would violate and undermine the tenents of what our freedoms are based upon,less we become the oppressed.

Hi Mr. Abdul Jabbar,
I remember your days at UCLA as a child visiting my brother at UCLA, well. Now I am a proud dad of two Bruins who graduate this spring and I am greatly looking forward to hearing you speak at commencement!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and perspectives on such a wide variety of issues. Your viewpoints on historical, artistica and athletic topics are appreciated.

Ted

Kareem,

Love your blog, have made it my daily reading. Thanks for sharing Mbenga story.

Seems like Andrew is a very smart and quick learner kid, I hope the Lakers keep bringing good character players to the team so they can learn from you not only about basketball but about life too.

Roy
Laker Forever.

Great post. First time I saw Mbenga on the floor for the Lakers, I wasn't sure about him - his game is a little awkward, due to the fact that he came late to basketball. He lacks the instincts you get by playing the game from a young age.

But he won me over the first time I saw him interviewed, as "the newest Laker." What a great attitude: positive and confident while still humble and appreciative. Since then, while his performance has been up and down, I really really root for him when he's on the floor (love his hustle and team-first mentality), and was relieved when the front office decided to keep him on for the whole year.

Re the nickname DJ, I'm in the camp that says ditch it since it reeks of Mark Cuban. What - Cuban embraces foreign players, but doesn't wanna go to the trouble of pronouncing their names?

Didier is a perfectly fine name, and is pronounced thousands of times every day by English-speaking soccer fans of Chelsea's Didier Drogba, who's from the Ivory Coast.

That said, Mr. Mbenga says he likes the name DJ, so it's up to him.

Got here by way of Huffington Post. My former hometown and forever root-for team is doing great this year, and Now I've got a blog to hang out with Kareem. Is it any wonder I'm a Laker fan til death us do part?

Kareem,
Just want to add my voice to the chorus of praise for your work. You represent everything that is good about sports and are a true role model for all of us.
I was a huge fan as a kid, but I think I am a bigger fan today.
What do you think about Greg Oden making a political endorsement? I am guessing that you are proud that he is standing up for something. I hope that more athletes take your lead and do like Oden, and put human dignity above making money and the fear of upsetting someone.
Look forward to the next column.
john

Hi Kareem,

I'm a long time fan, who used to rain sky hooks on the playground. My last name's Balmer, so as a kid I was kareem abdul 'balmar'...sorry i didn't do the name proud on the court! Thanks for taking part in the 'yes we can video!' Your support means a great deal, Please check out my efforts at www.barackbypopulardemand.com Thanks!

Kareem, thank you for confirming that story - I had heard it several hands later. I appreciate that your blog is not just about defensive sets and trade rumors, etc. So many do that and do it fine. I just wish more of today's youth followed your lead: stand for something more than just themselves.

It's great to see you're still around. The Lakers organization are lucky to have you.

Peace.

Aloha Kareem

Have you been staying on Kauai in recent years?
I grew up on Kauai. After I left Kauai I would hear all these stories about you on Kauai so I never got to run into you. I will say I ran into Magic and Byron Scott at the strip clubs on Oahu during the mid-90s. It was fun getting to thank Magic for all of the pleasure of watching him play.

I ran into your blog after reading a Harlem Globetrotters wikipedia entry (which I was reading because of Curly Neal). I was curious as to what is Kareem up to now. Your blog gives great insight to Kareem the man.
I have shared your URL with a lot of people I know.

First biography I ever read was Lew Alcindor. I must have been 5-6 years old.

I'll read about you in Hawaii ...

Mahalo
john

Lets not be so naive as to forget the US active role in creating so many of these disasters.

Hello Kareem,
You have a marvelous web log. Thank you.
Kind regards,
Stan Karber

So true that many US citizens take our freedom for granted. I was watching a group of multi-cultured teens practicing soccer or European football at a local park. As I watched, I was thinking about the children in Iraq who are either living in terror of US bombs or already dead from the same. Makes me sad these innocent people were denied the right to enjoy a simple game of sports with their friends.

I thank you for your part in the Will.i.am tribute to Senator Obama. Shortly before that appeared on the web I read an article that quoted you and I liked what you said about the senator, even though it said you did not endorse any candidate.

I am rather mad at the brothers Johnson, pun intended, Magic and Bob. The Will.i.am tribute expresses why we, the people find Senator Obama so appealing. We, the people...

Kareem,

Your blog is as insightful and informative as your books. As great a basketball player as you are, I think it's outstanding that we get to see more of your intellectual side.

Please keep it going. Like others, I look forward to reading your entries. Perspective is such an underrated attribute now days.

I became a laker fan when I arrived in LA in the early 70's.Through television and newspapers I have followed the Lakers saga through all these years. I never had a chance to see the lakers play In the Forum or now at Staples Center. My limited means somewhat restrict my ability to see my beloved Lakers play in person. No matter, I still really enjoy watching the team on TV or reading of their exploits good and bad in the LA papers. I read of Kareem's blog on DJ Mbenga. I truly agree that despite of the flaws trumpeted "all those nattering nabobs of negativity" this country is still a beacon of freedom and opportunity the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in this small speck of a third rock from the sun. I myself came to this country with nothing but the shirt on my back and 25 centavos Philippine money which at the present rate of exchange is equivalent to maybe half a penny. But through sheer determination and unflagging effort I was able to build a family, get three children to graduate from california state colleges and was able to retire from a government job at the age of 54. I did not become wealthy enough to afford to see my Lakers play in person yet I am able to follow them through TV and print news. The joy that the lakers team had given me throughout all my struggling years is immeasurable. Thanks to people like Dr. Buss and the rest of the Lakers family for bringing a semblance of happiness to an otherwise dreary life of this old cog who in his retirement years still find happiness watching the lakers team slog through their ups and down of life in the NBA.

Hi Kareem,

Mbenga is a favorite of all of us over on the Lakers blog. There
was a whole thread there of people's suggestions for a nickname
for him. My favorite was Congolian Beef. :-)

Go MBenga! Go U.S.A.! Go Lakers!

Re the post on being proud of Greg Oden for endorsing Obama:

While I'm an Obama supporter, I'm wary of athletes overtly taking sides in political races. Sure, as long as the athlete supports OUR guy we're proud of him. But what if Oden was a staunch McCain supporter?

Anyone remember, soon after the last out of the '04 World Series, when the Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling concluded his celebratory interview on national TV by looking into the camera and saying, "Vote Bush"?

Who was proud of that? About 50 percent of the people watching. Who did it piss off? The other 50 percent.

We should hope that politics - or at least partisan politics - stays out of sports. If players start taking sides it'd pressure others to do likewise and ultimately alienate a lot of fans. Watching ESPN would end up like watching Fox or MSNBC.

That said, I wish more players would run for public office after they retire, especially African Americans.

Kareem, I remember you from your days at UCLA and then with the Bucks. I attended a couple of the playoff games in Madison Square Garden when the Bucks lost to the Knicks in the 69-70 season. I think it was the year before the Big O joined the Bucks and you won it all in 71.

Great story on D.J. I was wondering, are you were working him like you are with Andrew? He seems to have the size and atleticism to be an NBA center if he develops his basketball skills. It would be great if you could develop another quality big man for the Lakers.

Hello, Mr.Jabbar, you have been my hero since my best friend Kaz Doyle got me into the Lakers, as a fifth grader at Oka Elementary School in Huntington Beach, California. Without a great hero like you, I wouldn`t have gained the confidence or be where I am today. It`s remarkable now, even after all this time, I still learn so much from you...at the moment, it`s Harlem and jazz, both of which I remember reading about--but didn`t quite get until this time. Between you and Coach Wooden, the kids I coach now (in Japan) are still excited and curious about The History, of black America, basketball and everything you represent. So thank you. Sincerely, Jackson Lo

Hi Kareem,
Livng here in Europe I'm only too aware of the scandalous history of African colonization. Although none were good, no country was worse or more brutally racist than Belgium. Many of the problems in the area, including the Rwanda genocide, can be traced back to the way the Belgians, French, Germans, Dutch and British exploited Africa.

Didier Mbenga escaped to Beligium, which has a strong Congolese community as a result of decolonization. Belgium today is of course part of the European Union and Brussels is the capital of both. It is a democratic and humanistic country that nevertheless suffers from a severe linguistic rivalry between the French and Dutch speaking populations, a rivalry that has created deep political instability.

I don't know why Mbenga didn't play in Europe, although there's no doubt that the NBA is the ultimate goal, at least psychologically, of all basketball players. But he could have enjoyed just as much freedom and security in Europe as in the US. France offered the US the Statue of Liberty in a gesture of political solidarity. I hope you didn't intend to give the impression that liberty is something that shines only in America. And Tully is right to suggest that freedom is too precious to tke for granted. We were the last country to abolish slavery and there are a lot of very respectable people who shout about our being the land of freedom but have no qualms about instigating oppression, even here at home, but especially -- just like King Leopold II of Belgium -- in the rest of the world, valued for its resources, not for its people. Isn't it ironic that Leopold the racist called his colony "The Congo Free State"?

I'm sure DJ knows all about these things.

Sometimes "freedom" like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Kareem:

Besides Bynum, are you working with any of the other big men (Mbenga or Pau)? Thanks.

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Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of www.iconomy.com unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

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Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is the 2008 Honorary Chair Library Card Sign-up Month, which takes place in September. He will also appear at the American Library’s National Convention on June 28th and 29th at the Long Beach Convention Center to sign his poster.

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