Interview with Marc Stein

In which I discuss the GOAT debate, the start of my Skyhook, and LeBron breaking my NBA scoring record.

This week, I did a fun email interview with NBA writer Marc Stein, first published on his Substack here. With Marc’s permission, I’m reprinting the full text for you:

Marc Stein: Substack has attracted some prominent figures to its platform, but not too many six-time NBA MVPs. What made you decide that you wanted your own Substack?

Kareem: I think I’m in pretty good company. Salman Rushdie is a terrific writer and Scott Snyder is one of my favorite comic book writers. You’re one of the best sports writers. When I see a lot of people I like and admire form a creative and energetic community, I’m eager to join in.

I also saw this as an opportunity to create my own community of fans, friends and others who share my interests and point of view about sports, politics and popular culture. I wanted to provide a more personal, even intimate experience for us to examine the world, celebrate it and even try to make it better.

I also get to create unique content in one place that I couldn’t do before. Each publication I write for wants a different kind of article from me. But here I can do whatever I want. Plus I can interact with my audience with audio and video clips just for them.

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Marc Stein: You have been writing columns and books and various other forms of content for years, so you know as well as anyone how taxing this medium can be. What is it about writing that appeals to you so much?

Kareem: Since high school, my academic studies have always been just as important to me as my athletic pursuits. I have a deep interest in history, literature, science and the arts. I also have a passion for social justice — for voicing the needs and concerns of marginalized people. Writing is an opportunity to combine those interests by using my knowledge to help promote the causes that make America better.

The documentaries I’ve worked on at the History Channel about Black Americans’ contributions in the American Revolution and Civil War allow me to educate America on parts of history that have often been deliberately suppressed. The books I’ve written about the Harlem Renaissance and overlooked Black inventors create pride in the African American community.

I also like to entertain. Writing gives me a chance to be frivolous. I’ve written novels and a graphic novel about Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s smarter brother. I was a writer on the TV show Veronica Mars. I wrote young adult novels about basketball-playing kids who solve mysteries. That was pure fun for me and, I hope, for my readers.

Marc Stein: I saw a picture of you recently near a mural in downtown Los Angeles that lists more of your off-the-court achievements than on-court achievements. Do those things mean more to you than basketball honors?

Kareem: They are both important to me. I don’t think about awards or records as a personal validation, but as a measurement of how hard I worked to provide good entertainment for the fans and to be a good teammate. I am grateful that my success in basketball gave me a platform to speak out against injustice, to create the Skyhook Foundation to help kids get a better STEM education and to bring awareness to issues affecting the country.

Marc Stein: To go back to Milwaukee as a spectator and sit next to Oscar Robertson and other Bucks teammates from the 1970s … what was it like to reconnect with that fan base and watch from up close as the Bucks finally won it all again after 50 years?

Kareem: The Milwaukee fans were always very supportive of me, even when I converted to Islam and changed my name. That had to be a hard transition for them, especially 50 years ago. So being back in Milwaukee was like returning to my place of birth, because that’s where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born. Being there with Oscar was especially rewarding because he’s always been like a big brother to me. I often relied on his wisdom and experience to help me navigate my early career.

Director Malcom Lee, NBA Legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Comedian Dave Chappelle, NBA Legend Oscar Robertson, Comedian Chris Tucker, Hall of Famer Bobby Dandridge. 

Marc Stein: LeBron James is right around 3,000 points behind you for the NBA's all-time scoring lead. If he can put a couple more injury-free seasons together, he has a real opportunity to pass you. How would you feel about that?

Kareem: I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.

Marc Stein: Younger fans likely don't realize the influence that you and Wilt Chamberlain held as players you're an ideal person to ask about what has been described for the past decade as the NBA's Player Empowerment Era. How do you see the level of control players can exert over their own careers today compared to the 1970s and 1980s?

Kareem: Every generation of athlete feels they were born too early to reap the benefits that they see the current generation enjoying. Sure, this generation of NBA players is the most empowered in terms of guiding their own careers, getting paid and having the freedom to speak out. But it can always be better and years from now a journalist will be asking a similar question to old-timers LeBron and Steph and they’ll say the new generation has it better than they did. And they’ll be right.

Marc Stein: One of the things we can certainly say about the Player Empowerment Era is that it's very noisy things don't stay secret for very long. How were you and the Bucks able to keep your desire to be traded quiet for most of the 1974-75 season?

Kareem: There were a lot fewer reporters then because there were a lot fewer outlets clamoring for content. The siren song of Twitter and the need to feed hungry followers didn’t exist. Mostly the reason we were able to keep it secret was because everyone acted with honor and good faith.

(Stein’s note: Remember my recent This Week In Basketball item on Thomas Bonk and his cool watch from the 1975 All-Star Game in Phoenix? This 1987 story from T-Bonk in The Los Angeles Times recounts how it was actually legendary Knicks broadcaster Marv Albert who broke the news of Abdul-Jabbar’s trade availability in March 1975 — five months after Kareem lodged his trade demand and promised the Bucks he wouldn’t make it public.)

Marc Stein: The skyhook certainly looks to an outsider like a difficult shot to learn, which explains why we really haven’t seen anyone make consistent use of it since you played. How old were you when you developed the shot and what made it so comfortable for you?

Kareem: In fifth and sixth grade, I spent more time on the bench than on the court. But Coach Hopkins saw something in me and brought in a college kid from the neighborhood to teach me the Mikan Drill, named after George Mikan, whose hook shot devastated teams when he was at DePaul University. I just kept practicing it until I could hook with the left or right hand as well as with a higher arc and from farther away. I was also pretty good at the slam dunk, but what I like about the skyhook is the grace and athleticism of it as opposed to the sheer power of the stuff.

Marc Stein: Too often the NBA's greatest-of-all-time debate gets boiled down to Jordan vs. LeBron. I know this bothers many observers who were old enough to watch you play; how bothersome is it to you to be excluded from the GOAT discussion?

Kareem: GOAT discussions are fun, like debating who’s faster: Superman or the Flash. It’s a metaphysical mystery. The question can never be answered because players from the past were trained under different restrictions and played under different rules. Then you have to ask what to give more weight to: Scoring, defense, assists? All of them? But the stats don’t always reveal the particular conditions and challenges of each season. Way too many variables. How about we just discuss the O’GOAT (One of the Greatest of All-Time)?