By Sean Woods, Apr 2013, Men’s Journal
The NBA’s all-time leading scorer on growing up during the Civil Rights era and why even a big man needs a good left jab.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
I didn’t appreciate this at the time, but one of the things UCLA coach John Wooden always said was, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” And as the years go on, you see how true that is.
What advice would you give the younger you?
To plan for a life beyond a sports career. For the first five years, I didn’t do much of anything. I wasn’t bored – I did a lot of things that basketball had made impossible, like traveling and spending time with my kids. But then I wrote ‘Black Profiles in Courage,’ because I knew there were so many examples of blacks doing courageous things in American history that most textbooks had ignored. After I wrote it, I realized I wanted to write more and that it was a positive way to occupy myself.
How did you deal with bullies as a kid?
For the most part, I didn’t get pushed around – once I realized I had a strong left jab. That kept me out of people’s plans. Plus, by the time I was 12, I was six feet tall.
But on the court, opposing players always tried to push you around. How did you handle it?
That’s how people played me from day one, when I was in grade school and had the strength of one of those skinny red rubber bands. So I had to learn the skills of the game. Fortunately, when I was 14, I started to watch Bill Russell play at the old Madison Square Garden and learned a lot about how to play. There were certain parts of the game that he just dominated, and if you wanted to shoot the ball near the basket, you were going to have to deal with him – and that was going to be tough.
What is the best way to intimidate other men?
To be really confident in what you’re doing, and have people understand that they’re not going to have an easy go of it. That usually works.
How should a man handle fame?
Like it’s some kind of a cheese that spoils really quickly and starts to stink, especially when you put it on top of a bunch of money and limited values.
There have been some great athletes over the years, but few of them stand for anything off the field. You took stands on important issues.
Maybe they didn’t see what I saw. I witnessed the whole Civil Rights era – I was born in 1947. I saw all of it, starting with the boycott of stores on 125th Street [in Harlem]. I had to go through Emmett Till, who was murdered when I was eight. I saw the pictures [of Till’s dead body] in ‘Jet’ magazine, and I wanted to know why. My parents’ response was, “That’s the way things are.” It just mystified me. That the people who murdered him didn’t think any prosecution could succeed against them, which is exactly what happened. It showed people how bad things were.
How much did Muhammad Ali influence you?
Ali was extraordinary, because we knew that what he was saying was true. He didn’t take any really radical positions, but he spoke the truth. The way he said it was special: “Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” That’s what a whole lot of people were thinking.
Has studying history changed your perspective?
Certainly. You can see how significant America is to the world. As a kid, you take that for granted. As I’ve gotten older and seen how bad things can be, I’m really grateful that we have this wonderful way of dealing with things that enables us to live as well as we do, and to evolve. It’s part and parcel of what America’s about, and it’s pretty awesome.