Lakers legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and James Worthy talk sports, activism and health
Trio of basketball greats held a Zoom chat for an audience of about 1,000 in honor of Black History Month.
More than three decades after playing together on the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers championship teams, Michael Cooper and James Worthy still call Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “Cap” — short for “Captain” – a sign of respect and admiration for one of the NBA’s best on and off the basketball court.
Cooper’s and Worthy’s admiration for Abdul-Jabbar was evident throughout “Lakers Legends: Basketball, Activism and Health,” a UCLA Health webinar held Feb. 23 for an audience of about 1,000, to celebrate Black History Month.
“I never told Cap this … but Kareem has been a big-time role model for me and still continues to be,” Cooper said.
“Kareem’s body of work … without question, the best player that’s ever played,” said Worthy, who like Abdul-Jabbar is a member of the NBA Hall of Fame. “For what he did academically at UCLA, what he did on the basketball court and what he’s continued to do as an activist and as a spokesperson.”
Worthy said when he first joined the Lakers in 1982, he was still about 18 units short of his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Carolina and Abdul-Jabbar tutored him.
“I looked at the back of the bus and I saw this walking encyclopedia there,” Worthy said. “And I leaned on him for a lot of advice.”
Here are some highlights from the teammates’ hour-long conversation, moderated by UCLA Athletic Director Martin Jarmond.
On activism in sports:
Abdul-Jabbar said he realized as a young person that “we all had an obligation to get rid of this burden called racism.”
He was 8 years old, he said, when Emmett Till was killed. Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was lynched in 1955 after allegedly interacting with a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store.
“It just made me feel like I was a target in the country that I lived in,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I couldn’t understand it and I wanted somebody to explain it to me.”
At age 13, he read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” “That changed everything for me,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It told me what I had to do. From that point on, I wasn’t going to be afraid and I (was) going to take every opportunity to fight this.”
As a freshman at UCLA, he was further inspired by meeting boxer Muhammad Ali: “He was a mentor. He was a friend.”
For Cooper and Worthy, Abdul-Jabbar was that galvanizing mentor and friend. Both spoke, Tuesday, of being moved by his decision not to join the U.S. men’s basketball team for the 1968 Olympic Games as a means of protesting racial inequality.
“I remember my older brothers being really mad that a young man, at the time named Lew Alcindor, wouldn’t play in the 1968 Olympics,” Worthy said. “He refused because of the civil rights (fight) in our country, and he stood for something.”
“That makes you proud,” Cooper added. “Like James, I admire Kareem so much for the things that he stood for before he stepped on the court and then the things that he did while he was on the court that made life easier for all of us, at that time, young African Americans playing in the NBA.”
Abdul-Jabbar said activism among athletes goes from one generation to the next.
“Now, LeBron and these guys, they got the bit in their teeth, and they’re making the kind of money that can be used to make real change,” he said. “You see how LeBron is educating all the kids in the school district (in Akron, Ohio) that he grew up in. He knows what he’s doing.”
On physical and mental health:
Despite facing some challenges, Worthy, 59, Cooper, 64 and Abdul-Jabbar, 73, have continued to prioritize their health since retiring from professional basketball. They advocate for knowing your family health history, paying attention to your body and taking preventive care seriously.
Cooper said he had a hip replacement six months ago and overcame tongue cancer — which is more prevalent in the Black community — six years ago. “I have tennis elbow, and I’ve never played tennis in my life,” he said.
His health advice? Sleep eight to 10 hours a night, exercise and drink a lot of water.
It’s also critical to listen to your body, he said: “You know your body better than anybody else, and your body is always sending you signals. What it is, is you have to listen to them.”
Worthy said he didn’t grow up seeing a doctor regularly or eating right, but he does both now. Becoming an athlete made him more conscious of his health.
After retiring, though, he said it was learning about his family’s history of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes that inspired him to keep healthy. “Black men, in particular, have a hard time going to the doctor,” he said. “They almost have to be dead before they go get a colonoscopy.”
The nation’s history of medical racism, including forced sterilizations and the Tuskegee syphilis study, has bred distrust in doctors, he said, but it’s worth getting past the fear to care for your health.
Abdul-Jabbar, who said he has survived colon cancer, leukemia and a heart condition, emphasized the importance of keeping accurate health records. He also practiced yoga for many years, which he said allowed him to play in the NBA into his 40s.
“A yoga program is a wonder,” he said. “It really works.”
To maintain mental and emotional health, particularly during the pandemic, it’s important to keep close ties with family and loved ones, Abdul-Jabbar said. Worthy’s strategy is to practice gratitude, connect with friends and exercise often.
“A simple walk helps me reboot,” he said. “Do what you can do to breathe.”
On the COVID-19 vaccine:
All three Lakers legends said the COVID-19 vaccines are essential. Abdul-Jabbar has received both doses, Cooper received his first and Worthy is set to get his first shot next week.
“It is the most critical thing in our lifetime right now to get this vaccine,” Worthy said. “It is critical to trust the medical world right now. … We need this vaccine, especially in the Black community, because we’ve suffered the most.”
Cooper said he got the vaccine because he wants to “get back to normal living.”
“I just want to be an example for my kids and for people of color in my community,” he said. “The biggest fear I had as far as taking the vaccine was the needle. I’m afraid of needles. But I just turned my head and I got it and I’m so glad I did.”
Abdul-Jabbar said the Tuskegee experiment is the source of medical wariness among African Americans, “but if the Black community is going to get through this and survive, they’re going to have to get over that distrust. Because these vaccines do work.”
“I urge everyone, no matter what your ethnicity is, to get vaccinated,” he said. “It’s the wise thing to do.”
On advice for young activists:
The players also had advice for young people who want to make a difference in the world.
Get involved in community organizations, such as a neighborhood church or local chapter of the NAACP, Cooper said, and keep learning long after you graduate from college.
Worthy called for continuing and supplementing your education. “Learn about your community and who your representatives are,” he said.
It’s also important to recognize your platform — we all have influence over someone — and make good use of it. “Don’t be afraid to sacrifice something for a bigger cause,” he said.
Abdul-Jabbar said it is key to follow your passions and what naturally stirs your sense of justice and righteousness. “That’s always a good motivation,” he said. “Find out where you connect to the issues, to the problems, and do what you can to change them. … Once you start making those connections, things start getting done.”
He added that best way to overcome racism is to “make a friend that doesn’t look like you.”
“If we have that attitude, we’re going to get to know all of our fellow Americans, and we’re going to get more things done than we can imagine,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “That’s how that works.”
“See?” Cooper said with a smile. “I’m 64 years old and I’m still learning things from Cap.”
Find out more about UCLA Health's advancements in Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion