What a young Ronnie Lester learned from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Basketball laureate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar visited Iowa City on March 25 to talk about activism in America. He spoke of the need to teach critical thinking skills in order to separate facts from opinions and encouraged all of us to grow by making friends with people different from us.
Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa was packed to hear Abdul-Jabbar, who is considered by some to be the greatest basketball player of all time. He was a six-time NBA most valuable player and is the league's career scoring leader. His UCLA teams (he was known as Lew Alcindor in those days) won three straight national championships, 1967-69. The NCAA outlawed dunks from 1967-76, and many people interpreted the rule change as a response to his dominance.
These days, he writes books and serves as a cultural ambassador. He's a regular contributor to discussions about issues of race, religion and more.
Inspired by Kareem’s talk, I reached out to Ronnie Lester, my former Hawkeye teammate and an all-America guard and captain of the 1980 Iowa Final Four basketball team. Lester was Abdul-Jabbar's teammate for two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Lester enjoyed a 24-year career with the Lakers organization, which included seven NBA championships. He spent two seasons as a player, 14 as a scout, then nearly a decade as the Lakers assistant general manager.
Lester has known Abdul-Jabbar for more than 30 years and considers him a friend. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:
You became a Laker in 1984, primarily as a backup guard. You were 25 and Kareem was 37. What do you remember about him as a teammate?
Kareem is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. When I joined the Lakers in 1984, the team still flew commercial flights. For the next two seasons, we were seat mates and I sat next to Kareem on every single flight.
Wow. What was that like?
He was unlike anyone I’d ever met. He was quiet and always reading. He read more books than I thought humanly possible. Most of the time he said nothing but on occasion we’d board a flight and he wouldn’t stop talking, often about topics I knew nothing about and he’d patiently explain them to me. If there’d been some way not to know he was a basketball player, you would never detect it from a conversation with him. It makes sense today that he is writing books and speaking out. He was always into educating himself and he was an activist way back to the 1960s.
I remember getting tickets from you for a Lakers-Celtics game in the mid-1980s. I exited the Boston Garden near the team bus. There was always this circus atmosphere around the “Showtime” Lakers, but for all the craziness outside, the bus was completely dark inside save for one illuminated window where Kareem sat, his head in a book, completely absorbed, seemingly oblivious to all else.
That was Kareem. You wouldn’t even know he was in the locker room. Magic Johnson would be motivating, directing and encouraging everyone, but Kareem wouldn’t say a word. I’d come to the locker room two hours before a game, which is a pretty chaotic scene. The guys going through their pregame routines, getting treatment, people everywhere. But Kareem would already be fully dressed for the game, sitting in front of his locker, reading. Just as you saw him on the bus, Kareem was in his own world.
What kind of lasting impression did he leave on you?
As a player, it was his consummate professionalism. In those days we sometimes played back to back to back – three games in three nights. We flew commercial, which means in bad weather, we had grueling schedules because somehow you had to get to the next arena. Kareem was never late, always on time or early … with a book in his hand.
In 2005, we hired Kareem to help a young center we had drafted out of high school named Andrew Bynum. Andrew would go on to help us win a couple of championships. Kareem worked with him every day for an hour on Andrew’s post moves. I noticed that Kareem would hang around another hour, just talking with Andrew after their workout, teaching and mentoring him. He didn’t have to do that. I have a ton of respect for Kareem.
I found it ironic that Kareem is on a speaking tour considering he has always seemed such an introvert.
Kareem hated to speak to the press and rarely did so.
I wonder if perhaps after authoring 11 books and gaining literary recognition and tremendous respect – including receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, that he has finally come into his own? Perhaps writing and activism are his real calling?
Well, it’s hard to consider basketball not Kareem’s calling when he was one of the very best players to ever play the game! He played into his 40s, they made rules changes because of him, and he developed the most dominant shot, the sky hook, in the history of the game. But having said that, it was clear that he had many other interests and it sort of felt like he wanted to be somewhere else at times. I don’t think we really knew him. He is a very curious guy and I think education was his first love, starting before basketball. So in that sense, I think you may be right. He’s probably more comfortable in his skin today than he’s ever been. Kareem is a fascinating man.
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Abdul-Jabbar’s message to the Hancher audience was about sacrifice, courage and empathy. It was also remarkably hopeful. He demonstrated a thoughtfulness born out of great knowledge and remarkable experience. Ronnie Lester is one of many people grateful to have walked in the giant shadow of a man like Kareem.
A frequent contributor to the Register and Hawk Central, Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa’s 1980 Final Four basketball team. A former executive at iRhythm Technologies, he is a digital health, reimbursement and leadership consultant who recently returned home to help promote innovation at the University of Iowa.