By Garry Smits for The Florida Times-Union
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played professional basketball for 20 years and retired after the 1988-89 season as the NBA’s career scoring leader, a six-time MVP and member of six championship teams.
In recent years, he’s turned a corner in his life: he’s been an author, philanthropist, motivational speaker and actor for at least two years longer than he played basketball.
“It took me two or three years to find something to do,” Abdul-Jabbar said on Monday during a news conference at the Wolfson Children’s Hospital, before speaking at the Times-Union Center as part of the Florida Forum, sponsored by the Women’s Board at Wolfson. “I was in my early 40s. What do you do at that point? I figured it out and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Abdul-Jabbar also visited children at Wolfson and gave them autographed copies of one of his childrens’ books, “What Color is My World?”
He said speaking on behalf of the Women’s Board of Wolfson was “special to my family,” because his son recently graduated from medical school and has begun his residency in pediatrics.
“I’m very happy to give support for what the Women’s Board is trying to get done,” he said. “[The speaking engagement] was a good fit.”
Abdul-Jabbar, who turns 66 next month, has led a full and varied a life. He speaks around 100 times per year, ranging from corporate meetings to charity organizations. His seventh book is due to be published soon (a children’s book). He was named a U.S. Cultural Ambassador by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012.
And, he created the Skyhook Foundation, named for his go-to shot when he starred for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers after leading UCLA to three NCAA national championships. The mission of the Skyhook Foundation is to connect at-need students with mentors to motivate them to pursue careers other than in sports or entertainment.
“I was fortunate to have been mentored while I was still in high school and knew what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t have that opportunity. [Skyhook] gives them some choices to make that are positive. Too many kids have a limited idea on what their potential is.”
Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t take everything serious. Next week, he will begin filming an ABC reality show, “Splash,” in which celebrities train and compete in platform and springboard diving. Among the other celebrities are Detroit Lions player Ndamukong Suh, comedian Louis Anderson, actress Keisha Knight Pulliam, former Playboy centerfold Kendra Wilkinson and Katherine Webb.
The tallest of the celebrities training for the show said he’s doing it as one more challenge.
“I’ve already broken a toe,” he said. “It feels like I might break my arm every other day. It’s about overcoming fear and showing people that at any age, you can be fit and healthy and learn things.”
Abdul-Jabbar said he doesn’t follow the NBA enough to offer an opinion on his former team this season. But he said the franchise and the NBA lost one of the all-time great owners in Jerry Buss, who died last week at the age of 80.
“The thing that makes the best owner is the fact that they understand how to delegate authority and power to the people who know what they’re doing,” he said. “With the Lakers, we had Jerry West [coach and general manager], Bill Sharman [team president] and Pete Newell [who was the Lakers’ GM who traded for Abdul-Jabbar in 1975], three really great basketball minds. Dr. Buss gave them the power to make the decisions. He didn’t second-guess them and that was the reason we were so successful.”