Now, as the namesake of the NBA’s newest annual honor, he has helped select the players who are continuing his legacy. On Friday, the league announced the finalists for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award: Portland’s Carmelo Anthony, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes, Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris, Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Golden State’s Juan Toscano-Anderson.
The winner, which will be announced ahead of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, will choose an organization to receive a $100,000 contribution on his behalf. Each of the remaining finalists will select a group to receive a $25,000 donation.
“My criteria has to do with someone who has seen issues, problems … within his community and has done something about it using his platform as a professional athlete,” Abdul-Jabbar said of the selection process. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have done that. The NBA has a decades-long tradition of activism, doing things in their communities and navigating for social justice. This is nothing new.”
Last year, after the murder of George Floyd and the increased awareness of racial inequality that followed, the NBA amplified its advocacy. Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon marched in peaceful protests, and Jerami Grant spent an entire interview session with reporters in the Disney World bubble discussing Breonna Taylor’s killing. LeBron James and Chris Paul championed voting rights, and players across the league led an unprecedented push to increase voter turnout.
In Abdul-Jabbar’s view, social activism will remain a priority for players.
“Too many people are going to be very upset if there’s any backsliding because a lot of times that has happened,” he said. “Right after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, we kind of like went to sleep. People both in the Black community and America in general thought that everything was taken care of.
“We really were just waking up to the reality of what life in America [was]. That’s still happening, so we’ve got work to do. That’s how I see it. The young men and the others in the NBA will contribute a lot toward framing the discourse. I think so far, so good. I’m happy to see what’s been out here.”
To pick the finalists, the league put together a seven-person selection committee that included Abdul-Jabbar, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 from President Barack Obama. Also on the panel were Richard Lapchick, whose Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport produces racial and gender report cards for professional and college sports; UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía, who leads the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the country; Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League; 2019 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Amanda Nguyen; teenage anti-violence activist Teyonna Lofton; and NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum.
“For us to honor a player for their work in this area, we thought it was critical to have a diverse group of people who have dedicated their time and lives and professions to fighting for social justice,” Tatum said. “I can’t think of a better group to do that, starting with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who’s been involved in this work and using this platform since he was a teenager.”