ASSOCIATED PRESS/Victor R. Caivano
US Cultural Ambassador and former NBA basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spins a basketball as he visits children in the Alemao complex slum in Rio de Janeiro, Jan. 26, 2012.
Growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, I had only heard the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar because my father was a Lakers fan. I knew there was some backward connection to Kareem and a selective favoritism, but I didn’t know much about the man other than his name.
Then, one day, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to visit Pakistan.
He was to come and stay with my dad’s friend, and the stories of a basketball legend visiting began to spread. One story talked about the extra-long bed that was being built specially for his visit. I recall an ignorant family member asked if he was Paula Abdul’s father.
Needless to say, the arrival of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man over seven feet tall, made news.
I didn't get to meet Kareem on that occasion. The only lasting memories from that visit were an autographed picture of him that sat in my parents’ bedroom for several years, and a few newspaper pictures of the Lakers legend playing squash with one of Pakistan’s top professional players. At the time, Pakistan boasted the top two ranked squash players in the world, and I vividly recall a picture that featured a smiling Abdul-Jabbar with Jahangir Khan, a Pakistani squash legend.
Several years later, my father’s friend visited Los Angeles with his family. My family and I had by then been living in the City of Angels for a while, but I was only in my early teens. My father and his friend asked me to come along on a trip because I was keeping the visiting children company. I had no idea, but I was on the way to the home of a legend.
As we arrived at Kareem’s house in Bel Air, there was a squash court attached to the home. That only seemed natural from what little I knew about the man they called "Cap."
During the visit, basketball and sports were not discussed, but we did talk about history. It seemed Kareem was working on a history about the first black regiment in the Civil War.
Seeing as I have always been genuinely interested in history, I began to talk about what I had learned from watching the movie "Glory" a few weeks earlier. I even managed to remember the number of the first all-black regiment: the 54th.
Kareem was visibly impressed. He walked over and presented me with a replica hat from the 54th regiment that was part of his book promotion.
I held onto that hat for years.
Then, we drove to Westwood for lunch and went to the Cheesecake Factory. In the few steps Kareem took from the parking spot to the restaurant, every man on the street called out to Kareem. "Hey, Champ!" "How’s it going, Champ!" "You were the greatest, Champ!"
The feeling was surreal, but it was at that moment I realized I was standing next to a true champion amongst men.
Since then, I’ve studied Abdul-Jabbar. On the court, no big man has ever been as skilled or scored as many points. Off the court, few have been more involved in promoting black history than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
On Friday, the "Champ" deservedly gets his statue outside Staples Center.