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“If only Uncle Jordan’s hearty bro advice wasn’t so lazy and superficial” — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's elegant dismantling of Jordan Peterson

The column titled ”Jordan B. Peterson’s DIY Cult: When Malicious Nonsense Passes for Worldly Wisdom” isn't just proof Kareem is the NBA's most eminent intellectual. It also provides two important points, one about NBA history and one about the modern NBA.
Los Angeles Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan Peterson

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan Peterson

If there was ever an NBA superstar that didn’t fit into the athlete mold, it’s without a doubt, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s probably why he’s always neglected when we talk about the greatest players of all time - Kareem never cared about conforming to the norm. A free thinker and a true intellectual, Abdul-Jabbar often ignored the rituals expected of athletes to make them popular and media-friendly. 

While it may have cost him during his career, and in terms of historical basketball status, being an out-of-the-box, big-picture thinker gave Kareem the most interesting post-basketball career and presence. His latest column on Jordan Peterson makes it clear why it was difficult for Kareem to fit into your average locker room - and why we’re lucky he didn’t. 

”When Malicious Nonsense Passes for Worldly Wisdom”

Jordan Peterson was suspended from Twitter after tweeting about Elliot Page, saying this: “Remember when pride was a sin? And Ellen Page just had her breasts removed by a criminal physician.” Very on-brand for Peterson, who built his brand on fighting for “gender truth.” In his column, Kareem doesn’t only explain why Peterson’s position is wrong and harmful but also removes the veil of his quasi-intellectualism.

“Much of Peterson’s fame and infamy is the result of YouTube debates he does with other YouTubers, mostly with people that agree with him. On those occasions when he debates people who don’t agree with him, his tactic is similar to Ben Shapiro’s: name-drop famous writers and thinkers, keep changing the subject so he never has to fully defend his position, throw out irrelevant facts and studies so he sounds smart. You would be hard-pressed to know what Peterson’s thesis is during a debate.”

Kareem goes on to point out all the logical fallacies in Peterson’s position but then has a surprising twist - he supports Peterson’s right to continue using Twitter. Abdul-Jabbar makes an excellent point on the difference between hate speech, one that “promotes violence and biased actions against groups” and hateful speech, one that “spews irrational anger that is hurtful.” The all-time leading scorer summed it up beautifully. 

Kareem speaks from experience

If you ever heard ”I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” you’ve probably been misinformed it’s a quote from the French 18th-century philosopher Voltaire. It is not from Voltaire; it was a paraphrase from a biographer named Evelyn Beatrice Hall of what she thought Voltaire was thinking.

The fact Kareem is defending Peterson’s right to say dumb sh*t, as hurtful and incorrect as it is, demonstrates how passionate Abdul-Jabbar is about freedom of expression, understanding the cost it brings. And in his column, Kareem explains why he can relate to Elliot Page more than you may think.

“Fifty years ago, when I chose to convert to Islam, I heard a lot of the same complaints that Page faces. People thought I was influencing Black children away from Christianity, that I was ungrateful to the country, that I was insulting my Catholic upbringing. In fact, I chose a religion that took me back to my African roots rather than the religion that the slaveholder who owned my ancestors followed. I felt more like Me. Some people then—and still today—refuse to call me by my legal name, as if they should have the power to determine my identity. That’s just another form of slavery.” 

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Despite the fact Kareem cites numerous sources directly disproving Peterson’s claims and demonstrating the damage they do, he still supports his right to speak freely. Apart from hoping you take the few minutes necessary and read Abdul-Jabbar’s entire column, I write all this to make two important points about the NBA - one historic and one contemporary. 

Understanding Kareem

Going to Miami isn’t the only reason Ray Allen got on Garnett’s, Pierce’s, and Rondo’s sh*tlist. Before the final act of “betrayal,” there was always tension between Allen and the group because Ray would spend a lot of time playing golf with Danny Ainge, the Celtics GM. 

There’s a weird dynamic on every NBA team - coaching staff + players vs. the front office, and on a more micro level players vs. coaches. As a player, ultimate loyalty is expected towards your teammates, then comes the coaching staff and then, possibly, the front office. 

Despite the fact Paul Westhead led the 1980 Lakers to the top, coaching in a very difficult situation, he was let go in 1981. Why? Magic Johnson didn’t like the fact a lot of the game was flowing through Kareem. What contributed to that dynamic was, again, a bizarre fact. 

Westhead was known as “The Professor” because, in addition to being the head basketball coach at La Salle University, he actually was a professor in the English department. Westhead would often quote Shakespeare and other authors while coaching. It was music to Kareem’s ears, and annoying to almost everyone else.  

You can imagine the joy Abdul-Jabbar felt, finally having someone to discuss literature with and exchange book recommendations. The cost of that soul food was the suspect eye of his teammates - Westhead wasn’t keeping the system revolving around Kareem because it was the best way to win, he was doing it because Kareem is his book club buddy. 

Throughout his entire career, Kareem was described as weird, distant, aloof, condescending, etc. A part of it was because there were certain compromises he wouldn’t make - Kareem was one of the first NBA players to consistently speak truth to power. A part of it was also because at times, it was probably true. But the thing is, we all have bad days. The difference is, Kareem’s were accentuated and used as ultimate proof he was the problem. 

Speaking truth to power

When making his point on impact in regards to Peterson (and others like Ben Shapiro), Kareem points out the millions of followers they have on social media and their ability to impact people’s minds. With great power comes great responsibility. 

This is what most modern NBA players are slow to accept. They have more power than ever (asking a trade with 4 years left is the latest example of that) and an unprecedented platform and reach directly to fans, without the horrible media distorting their message. But that power comes with responsibility - to be logically and ethically consistent, and to accept questions and criticism. 

Whether it’s LeBron fighting for human and civil rights in the US, but somehow still not finding the time to get educated on the same in China, or Kyrie Irving’s anti-vax position, NBA players have refused to argue their position on a fair playing field. 

They are using their platform for one-way communication, and guess who was the only NBA legend with enough courage to consistently call them out on it. That’s right, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As a former debater and debate coach/adjudicator, I can appreciate it's annoying to discuss stuff with people who tell you you're using a red herring, going down a slippery slope, or poisoning the well (all versions of logical fallacies). But Kareem always showed a lot of good faith, taking people at their best, and backing the theory up with numbers and examples. 

I hope LeBron, Kyrie, and others read his substack and columns and take the time to understand Kareem’s legacy. Instead of considering Abdul-Jabbar an old hater who’s hating cause his time has passed, they should learn from Kareem’s example. Speak about things that are important to you, but make your case with reason, facts and be open to criticism. 

The first step in that direction is having the courage and intellectual honesty to admit when you were wrong. Just like when Kareem apologized to LeBron after realizing he wasn’t accurate enough in his criticism

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