When I was a teenager, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar met me, and it was awesome.
For those who are unaware of my numismatic background, I collect coins and used to work in rare coins and auctions. By work, I mean when I was in high school I coordinated with the administration so I could get a work permit to be employed by the now-defunct Superior Galleries in Beverly Hills. I continued working there during breaks from school for years.
I think it during the summer of 2004–my first stint working there–that I was told by a coworker that Kareem had just left. When it was clear I didn’t understand, he continued: Abdul-Jabbar. I thought my coworker was teasing me. And to be on a first-name basis with the guy couldn’t be real. I grew up in Beverly Hills, so celebrity status doesn’t mean much to me. But I’m from a UCLA family, and home wasn’t far from campus. That meant UCLA summer programs like rocketry at the Corrine A. Seeds University Elementary School (RIP) on what was then-known as Circle Drive North, not Charles E. Young Drive North, and guitar class in a room of Pauley Pavilion before it was redone. I got a gym membership at the Wooden Center. I would go to the J.D. Morgan Center to play NCAA football on the PlayStation 2 that was available to everyone.
Installed on the wall near the PS2 at the Morgan Center was a comparison of the extremes of heights of two UCLA Athletes: Lew Alcindor at 7’2″ towering over the [NAME OF GYMNAST AND HER HEIGHT HERE–I’m going to update this when I find out the name, and if I can get the picture of that comparison, I’ll post that, too. I appreciate and credit any help. The @UCLAAthletics twitter has not yet replied to my inquiry]. It seems like this juxtaposition is gone from from the remodeled Morgan Center, and that’s really too bad.
So when I heard that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would be coming back in a few days, I was cautiously optimistic. It bears mentioning that I loved his scenes in Airplane!, but whose scenes didn’t I like in that film, which stands as my favorite of all time, and each time I watch it, I get something new out of it.
I was sorting through some bulk coins in the office of Wayne Pratali, which was right behind the display counter that snaked its way through the room. Wayne came in and told me that Kareem (was everyone on a first-name basis with him?) had just arrived. The 15-year-old me with a lifetime of being unfazed when meeting someone whose name filled columns in newspapers, was excited and nervous. I walked out of the office and looked forward and a little up because I knew he’s tall. But I didn’t look up nearly enough. He is a skyscraper.
For a man who is larger than life in all ways, what happened next was lovely.
Wayne said: “Kareem, I’d like you to meet Matt.”
“Hi, Matt. Nice to meet you. I’m Kareem,” he said as if there were any chance I didn’t know his name already, and he extended his hand to shake mine. I think I returned the greeting, but I don’t really know. I’d like to believe that I said something intelligible in my glee at what was happening, but I remember my thought in the moment: His hand is bigger than my entire arm!
He could have been gruff. He could have been barely tolerant. He could have been in a hurry.
He wasn’t. He was kind. He was genuine. He made time for me.
I tell this story as how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar met me as a way to get people listen to the rest, albeit begrudgingly. In reality, he did meet me. He could have waited for me to introduce myself to him before he returned the greeting. But he jumped right in.
Sometimes meeting your heroes makes them seem smaller. Sometimes they’re not as nice as you’d wished they were. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar transcends all the reasons why anyone would be hesitant to meet him.
I’m proud that that has withstood the test of time.
He wrote in the Hollywood Reporter the other day about how there’s no excuse for anti-Semitism. It’s written wonderfully, and it’s worth a read: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kareem-abdul-jabbar-is-outrage-anti-semitism-sports-hollywood-1303210
As a Jewish kid who grew up in LA, I had thought anti-Semitism was dead. But over time it became clear that it isn’t. And it should be should be appalling to everyone that anti-Semitism is so easy to do in a world right now that is appropriately putting extra emphasis on sensitivity that leads to introspection with the idea for change for the better. I’m glad we have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on our side.