GREENSBORO — Three times in the 1980s, the Boston Celtics stood between the Los Angeles Lakers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and an NBA title.
In two of those finals, the Celtics’ roster included M.L. Carr, the motor-mouthed towel-waving forward who drove the Lakers and their fans batty.
And there Carr was again, sitting right next to Abdul-Jabbar on Tuesday night at the Greensboro Coliseum. Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA legend, was the featured speaker at the Guilford College Bryan Series event. Carr — who led Guilford to a national college basketball championship in 1973 — joined his former rival on stage for a few minutes.
As Carr walked out to a standing ovation, the two former rivals hugged and exchanged “great-to-see-you”s.
“We are in the presence of a giant — and I’m not talking about his size (or) all those great accomplishments he made on the basketball court,” Carr said of Abdul-Jabbar.
“Kareem … is a scholar and someone you had tremendous respect for. … You knew something was deeper about Kareem even when you competed against him.”
The 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA titles and six NBA Most Valuable Player awards in 20 seasons, and he has scored more points than anyone in league history. Kareem is one of the basketball greats, up there with other only-one-name-needed stars such as Wilt, Russell, Jordan and LeBron.
After retiring in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar, now 71, has gone on to star in other fields.
His foundation brings science and math opportunities to children in underserved communities. He writes and speaks about race, education and justice. In 2016, President Barack Obama presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
For about 90 minutes Tuesday night, Abdul-Jabbar covered a range of topics.
On his first sports love: It was baseball. He was a pitcher until eighth grade, when his height made it impossible to hide from his high school’s basketball coach. Abdul-Jabbar was born the day after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. He remains a fan of Robinson’s team, the Dodgers who opened the World Series against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night.
“Tonight I’ll be sweating it out, trying to figure out how well (the Dodgers) did in Boston,” he said. “I know how tough that is.”
On choosing a college: Abdul-Jabbar said he considered four schools, including Wake Forest University. But a letter from Jackie Robinson — “He said I’d probably have a good experience there,” he said — and the warm Los Angeles weather tipped the balance to UCLA.
On meeting UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “I went into his office and figured we’d talk about the PAC conference or where we go play or the new gym,” Abdul-Jabbar recalled. “Coach wanted to talk about academics. He told me that he was glad I had good grades and expected all of the players on scholarship to do well and graduate. ...
“And then we went to eat lunch. We never talked about basketball at all. He was amazing.”
On martial arts legend Bruce Lee: Abdul-Jabbar trained with Lee starting in college. The two became friends, and Lee invited his tall pupil to come to Hong Kong to act in one of his films.
“I got to play the villain,” Abdul-Jabbar said. He smiled and added, “I got killed.”
On taking a public stance: People need to get their facts straight and know what they’re talking about, Abdul-Jabbar said. Then they need to muster the courage to speak up.
“That’s our duties as Americans,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “The rest of us Americans who believe in what’s right, we’ll support you.”
Abdul-Jabbar said he was encouraged by the national condemnation of the violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Va., a year ago.
“Americans said that that is not America,” he said. “America is for everybody who loves this country and supports it. That’s what it’s all about.”
On white distrust of black people in public spaces: It’s a double standard, Abdul-Jabbar said. No one bothers white people who sit in Starbucks without ordering coffee or have a cookout in a city park. But when African-Americans do those things, he said, citing two recent episodes that got national media attention, the police are called.
In the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black Cleveland boy with a toy pistol who was shot by police in 2014, Abdul-Jabbar said, this wariness of people who look different can be fatal.
“That type of immediate fear and distrust of people who don’t look like you has ruined too many lives,” Abdul-Jabbar said as the audience applauded. “We’ve got to do something about it.”