The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: LeBron ‘should be embarrassed’ about some actions

NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum unveil a social justice trophy at Arena on Sunday. (Ben Golliver/Washington Post)
4 min

LOS ANGELES — NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called on LeBron James to raise his advocacy game.

Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time MVP who has written extensively on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines, said Sunday that he respected James’s community activism but added that the Los Angeles Lakers star “should be careful” when speaking about issues that “really affect the Black community.”

The 74-year-old Hall of Famer explained his past critiques of James after unveiling the NBA’s new Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Trophy, which will be given annually to recognize a player’s work on social justice issues, during a ceremony at Arena before the Denver Nuggets beat the Lakers, 129-118. Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony was the inaugural recipient of the award, which the NBA said is meant to reflect Abdul-Jabbar’s “commitment to creating an equal and just society, leveling the playing field and ensuring that every child is free to dream.”

The 2022 NBA awards all belong to the next generation of stars

“I admire the things that [James] has done that have gotten all of our attention,” Abdul-Jabbar said, citing James’s “I Promise School” in Akron, Ohio. “Sending a whole school to college? Wow, that’s amazing. His thoughtfulness and willingness to back it up with his wallet, you’ve got to give him credit for that. I’m not throwing stones. I just wish he would — some of the things he’s done, he should be embarrassed about.

“Some of the things that he’s done and said are really beneath him, as far as I can see, and some of the great things that he’s done. He’s standing on both sides of the fence almost.”

While Abdul-Jabbar starred in an NBA public service announcement in January 2021 that encouraged covid-19 vaccination, James was initially reluctant to get the shot and said in September that it was “not my job” to publicly support national vaccination efforts.

In December, James shared a social media meme that compared covid-19 to the common cold and flu. Abdul-Jabbar criticized James’s Instagram post in an essay, saying that the meme was “uninformed” and “encouraged vaccine hesitancy.” James said at the time that he had no response to Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism and that he was “trying to figure this pandemic out.”

On a less weighty subject, Abdul-Jabbar took James to task for doing a “stupid, childish” dance during a December 2021 game that “disrespect[ed] the other team.”

Abdul-Jabbar explained Sunday that “there’s absolutely a higher expectation” for James given he has spoken “quite forcefully and eloquently” on several issues of importance, including education, voting rights reform and police brutality. In December 2020, Abdul-Jabbar penned a complimentary essay when James was named Sports Illustrated’s sportsman of the year.

The two basketball stars have met briefly, Abdul-Jabbar said, but they have not spoken at length about covid-19, vaccination advocacy or other points of contention.

“I wouldn’t mind doing it if he would want to take the time,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who retired in 1989. “I’ve definitely got the time.”

Despite the Lakers’ struggles this season, James has moved into second place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list behind Abdul-Jabbar. James, who has 37,062 points, is on track to pass Abdul-Jabbar’s record of 38,387 next season. Abdul-Jabbar said that the well-chronicled chase had no bearing on his feelings toward James.

“I’m all for him doing it,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “There’s no envy there.”

The 37-year-old James, who missed Sunday’s game against the Nuggets with an ankle injury, didn’t immediately respond to Abdul-Jabbar’s latest comments. Anthony said in his post-game comments that he believed Abdul-Jabbar and James were “two powerful Black men” who should handle the matter “behind closed doors.”

Later Sunday, Abdul-Jabbar wrote on Twitter that his comments about James were an “off-handed response” that had been “blown out of proportion.” In a follow-u email to the Los Angeles Times, he clarified that his comments were made “in the spirit of a loving older brother offering guidance” and said that he believed James was “strong enough and gracious enough to understand that I have only love for him in my heart.”

Sign up for our weekly NBA newsletter to get the best basketball coverage in your inbox