By Sam Rubinoit, 16, Malibu HS
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Photo courtesy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Few people are able to dominate their field the way Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did during his NBA career: a the six-time world champion with the Lakers and six-time MVP who still holds the NBA record for most career points (38,387). Under the guidance of legendary coach John Wooden, Abdul-Jabbar also won three national championships while playing at UCLA. Abdul-Jabbar retired from professional basketball in 1989, but his love of the game remained. Today, he works as a special assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, mentoring their young center, Andrew Bynum.

Despite being one of the premier players in the history of the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar does not want to be remembered principally for his years playing basketball. He has made a name for himself off the court, enjoying additional success as both an actor and an author. He’s made appearances on Scrubs and Everybody Loves Raymond, and written about jazz, World War II and the Harlem Renaissance.

Abdul-Jabbar is now looking for ways to help younger generations succeed on and off the basketball court. Recently, he established the Hoop IQ program, which helps schools and teams raise money for uniforms, equipment and travel expenses and learn more about the concept of teamwork. Players fundraise by selling Abdul-Jabbar’s latest book, On the Shoulders of Giants, and/or the audio CD read by sports commentator Bob Costas, and their teams receive 40 percent of the profits. Players also get the chance to win prizes ranging from autographed memorabilia, tickets to an NBA game with Abdul-Jabbar, and even a half-day basketball clinic at their school hosted by Abdul-Jabbar. By signing up for the Hoop IQ program, teams also receive instructional videos breaking down the game of basketball.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit with Abdul-Jabbar to discuss his program and his work with Bynum.

What was your inspiration for starting the Hoop IQ program?
Basically, what I wanted to do was get through to the present generation of players some of the things that they are not getting about the game. So many of today’s young players think that the game is about what an individual does, when actually what it is about is five people working over the whole period of the game to achieve a win. That’s how games are won. By getting the focus on the individual, the entire idea of teamwork and sportsmanship has suffered. It is my hope to get across to a new generation what the game is about and how to play [it]. I have instructional videos on my website which break the game down into its component parts and show how to work on individual skills, and, more importantly, how to focus as a group to get it done. Again, it’s about what the group gets done, not about one guy making a wonderful shot from 50 feet. [The] videos are about three or four minutes, and they show you how to do a fast break, how to work on your shooting, individual defense, team defense, ball handling, passing, rebounding, boxing out, and all of the things you need to know as an individual that you apply to team sports with a focus on the group working together.

What sets this program apart from other schools that sell candy or magazines to try to raise money for their programs?
What I think sets my program apart is that you can actually learn something about [basketball]. In any other program, you get the chance to sell candy or whatever and you get the money, but in doing that you don’t get the chance to learn what you get to learn from me by associating with this project.

The current economic crisis is sure to affect schools’ budgets and extracurricular activities like sports. How important is it to be creative in finding new ways to raise money?
We need to find new ways to peel the onion. It is the same onion, but sometimes we need to be innovative. Coming up with these ideas enables me to help young athletes learn the game of basketball and also do the things they want to do in terms of their aspirations.

When you were in high school what helped you learn your basketball skills?

When I was in high school, the Internet hadn’t even been thought of, so it’s a completely different environment now. That’s one of the things that I’m addressing in doing this. I can get through to people in a different way. I was very fortunate that I had the chance to go to watch the greatest team ever, Bill Russell’s Celtics, and I got the chance to see him do what he did. I got the chance to see Wilt Chamberlain the year he averaged 50 points [a game] and that was an extraordinary opportunity that I was able to take advantage of.

What do you see as the future of this program?
I’m going to be happy if the young people understand that you need to work together and play as a team. [And think,] “I need to tailor my individual skills to ways that will help the team. It’s not just about me, it’s about what I can do to help the other four people on the court with me at any one time.”

How important is college for a player to develop both physically and academically?
College is a good place for young players to learn the game in an atmosphere that is not high pressure. For someone with a lot of athletic talent to go from high school straight to the professional ranks is really detrimental because, in the professional ranks, they do not have the time to learn what they need to learn slowly and completely. They try to rush to get it done, and in that rush, they miss out on things, and their progress actually slows up. LeBron James came into the league when he was 18 years old, but he did not start dominating play until he was 23 years old. There was a three- or four-year gap where he had to learn things through trial and error. College is a much better environment for that to happen. Of course, they do not pay you $30 million to go to college, and I understand that it is a hard choice, but college is a much better place to learn the game.

What advice would you give to aspiring NBA players?
I would tell aspiring NBA players that they have to learn the fundamentals of the game. Do all the things that you need to do to be fundamentally sound. There are certain physical attributes that you have to have to play in the NBA, but learning the game and the fundamental skills is a lot of the battle.

What part of your basketball career are you most proud of?

I am most proud of being able to be part of five world championship teams during the ‘80s with the Lakers. I thought that was a great accomplishment for me as a professional, and I am very happy with what happened during that time.

How important is it for players to have role models like you that help in the community?

I think players should have role models from their family and from the people that do things that they admire. We just had an unfortunate instance in which an NFL player [Donte Stallworth] was driving drunk [Stallworth has been charged with driving under the influence], and we need to do something to counteract that. I was very happy that Charles Barkley owned up to the fact that DUI is not good, and looked at the bad things that can happen. He was pretty forthcoming with everything that went wrong and dealing with the issue. There’s a lot of ways that things can go, and the whole idea is for people to be responsible both personally and in groups.

What’s it like for you working with Andrew Bynum?
I think it’s really been a wonderful thing for me to be able to work with Andrew Bynum because he understood that he had things to learn, and he was willing to listen. That’s the hardest thing for any coach working in the game today, getting players to listen. They all think that they know everything now, that their skills are just perfect, and there’s nothing left for them to learn.

Is Kobe Bryant the best player in the NBA today?
Kobe is one of the best players in the game today. There are a lot of different positions, and a lot of different ways to fill them, but Kobe is absolutely one of the best talents on the court today.

For more information on the Hoop IQ program go to