Robinson 'helped change the world'
There have been very few men in this life who've stood above legendary Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in size or stature.
As a man, as a player and as an icon the 7-foot-1 Abdul-Jabbar towers over most. But on this night, he was proud to look up at the man who he says "helped change the world": Jackie Robinson.
"Dodger baseball was really what drew me to him," Abdul-Jabbar said before a pregame ceremony honoring Robinson and the day he broke baseball's color barrier.
"I was very passionate about it when I was a kid. All those guys, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, all those guys meant a lot to me."
Robinson was his hero. Born in Manhattan one day after Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) grew up listening to Dodgers games on the radio. He dreamed of playing in the major leagues and begged his mother to sign him up for Little League.
Basketball, obviously, was his calling, though. Near the end of high school, as his fame and reputation as a basketball player grew, he received a letter from Robinson.
"He sent me a letter while I was in high school telling me that UCLA would be a good place for me to go to school," Abdul-Jabbar said.
Later, when Alcindor won his third consecutive national player of the year award as a Bruin, he was finally able to meet Robinson at an awards dinner.
"I was in awe," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I was sitting with Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell and I was just in awe. I didn't say much, I just let them say what they had to say."
Robinson died a few years later, in 1972, but Abdul-Jabbar still cherishes his memory.
"What he did was really a milestone for the country,'' Abdul-Jabbar said. "Especially when it happened after [World War II], after we realized that the thing we had fought against in Europe, against Hitler's mentality, was something we were actually practicing here and that needed to end.
"His was the first significant step away from that. I think we can't overemphasize that. He opened the door, and those of us who came afterwards have to follow through to give it depth and meaning."
Since his playing career ended, Abdul-Jabbar has written extensively on the early civil rights movement and its heroes. He is currently producing a feature film on the Harlem Rens, the country's first all-black professional basketball team, which he chronicled in his book "On the Shoulders of Giants."
Last fall he announced that he is battling a treatable form of leukemia. Thursday night he said he is feeling great, although he regrets not working out as much as usual due to his heavy work schedule because of the film.
"It hasn't pulled me down," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I haven't worked out as much because I've been real busy this winter, but after the [NBA] season's over I'll get back at it.
"I'm doing well. I've got to take my medication and go see the doctor, but things are happening the right way."