Leadership lessons from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


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Former Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an NBA Hall of Famer, the all-time leading scorer in NBA history and was a member of six NBA championship teams. He was also a member of three NCAA national championship teams at UCLA.

Abdul-Jabbar has been an activist, has appeared in numerous television shows and movies (including “Airplane!”) and has written several books. His most recent book, “Becoming Kareem,” is a memoir of his youth in New York, his college years at UCLA and his early pro career, as he grew into an adult who converted to Sunni Islam in 1968 and publicly changed his name, from Lew Alcindor, in 1971.

Abdul-Jabbar’s unique life journey was the subject of a one-on-one, on-stage conversation with sportscaster Bill Michaels recently at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Milwaukee. The event was also called “Becoming Kareem,” and was based on the book published last year.

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Prior to the event, Abdul-Jabbar participated in an exclusive interview with BizTimes Milwaukee editor Andrew Weiland to discuss his leadership philosophies and what he learned from iconic basketball leaders whom he played for and with. Following are portions of that conversation.

BizTimes: During your career, you’ve been around great leaders and you have been a leader. What are the top leadership philosophies that you have developed over the years?

Abdul-Jabbar: “One of the key things in being a leader is to have an understanding of teamwork. You may be great at what you do, but without the support of the other people, their skill and expertise that support what you do, if those interactions aren’t well-oiled you are not as efficient as you want to be.”

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BizTimes: Any other key leadership philosophies you think are important?

Abdul-Jabbar: “As a leader, you have to understand how all of the parts fit together. Try to keep that as the primary focus of all of the different parts. Dealing with people, have an idea of what they should be focused on and make sure that’s always sharp and in contact with all of the others.”

BizTimes: You are wearing a UCLA jacket, where you went to college and played for the great John Wooden. What were some of the most important things you learned from him as a leader?

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Abdul-Jabbar: “The way he emphasized preparation. He always said he did his coaching during the week. And when it got to the weekend we were just going to enact the game plan that we worked on all week. Very simple! You have to know your part, you have to know your role and how you can contribute, how you make that efficiency the trademark of your team.”

BizTimes: You mention playing roles. I think basketball is a unique sport that especially requires players to stick to their role. Not everyone can be the star and the leading scorer. There is only one ball, and it has to be shared. Someone has to rebound and play defense. How do you get players to embrace and accept their role?

Abdul-Jabbar: “Everybody wants to score something. But there are guys when they start playing, they’re not that good at scoring but they are good at keeping other guys from scoring. You get guys with that mindset, and there’s a place for them. Guys that can control the defensive backboard, that’s a valuable guy to have on your team.”

BizTimes: Is it sometimes difficult to get people to buy into their roles?

Abdul-Jabbar: “Yes. It’s kind of like with acting. One guy says, ‘I want to get to kiss the girl.’ But he might have to play a different role! I think basketball is like that a lot. Some guys think they are always open and have a great shot, and that’s not the case. It takes a while before they get it.”

BizTimes: Thinking about some of the other coaches you played for…Pat Riley of course. What did you take away from him as a leader?

Abdul-Jabbar: “I was on the team when Pat went from being a player, to radio (broadcast) assistant, to assistant coach, to head coach. We started out as teammates, and he ended up coaching me. So it was pretty amazing to see the transformation happen. But Pat worked hard at it, and he knew the game well.”

BizTimes: Sometimes somebody working side-by-side with you as your peer gets promoted and becomes your boss and that can be a difficult relationship change. Was it hard for you to take Riley seriously in that role?

Abdul-Jabbar: “Let’s just say we had some ‘I knew you when’ moments. I’ll leave it at that, you know. When he had to be the disciplinarian…and he used to do a few things that he might not want to make the evening news.”

BizTimes: What about some of the leaders you played with? Magic Johnson. You played with him from when he was a rookie and played with him during much of his great career. Now he’s a leader in the Lakers organization as president of basketball operations. How has he evolved over the years as a leader and how do you think he’s doing in his current role?

Abdul-Jabbar: “As he went on, he matured every step of the way. Tough thing to deal with when he had to make the HIV announcement. He just kept working through it. He’s survived and thrived. A pretty amazing story.”

BizTimes: What about Oscar Robertson, who played with you during your years with the Bucks?

Abdul-Jabbar: “Oscar was just a consummate leader on the court. He always wanted everybody to do everything right. We always thought he drove us hard. But he contributed the same type of consistency and excellence that he wanted from us.”

BizTimes: When you played with Oscar you were a young professional and he was near the end of his career. What was it like to play with him at that stage of his career?

Abdul-Jabbar: “Oscar was great at keeping us focused. When he played for the (Cincinnati) Royals he was the primary scorer and had to do everything. You can’t win like that. This past year everyone saw with LeBron James, you can’t do it all by yourself… Oscar gave us consistency as our point guard and kept us focused in a very quiet way. I think that’s the difference between him and Magic. Magic was very exuberant. Oscar was reserved but very focused and kept us focused. Magic relied on the coach more to do all of the focus stuff; as far as our emotion and willingness to go out there and give it all, Magic was great at leading in that way.”

BizTimes: What was Larry Costello, who was the coach of the Bucks when you played in Milwaukee, like as a leader?

Abdul-Jabbar: “Larry knew the workings of the game, kept us focused on that. He coached me my rookie year, and then we got Oscar. Oscar is like having a coach on the court, so Larry really didn’t have to coach too much!”

BizTimes: Sometimes a leader needs to get out of the way when you have talented people.

Abdul-Jabbar: “Right. When you have a number of guys that have played in good programs and understand the game and how to work together, it’s easier on the coach, it’s easier on the point guard, because everybody is functioning in ways to coordinate and breed efficiency.”

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