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The enduring humanity of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been a thought leader on American social issues since the 1960s. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As a teenager, I was recruited by Jack Donohue, the coach at Power Memorial High School in New York, and went to his summer camp in the Catskill Mountains. There were five other white guys and a black guy. One of the white guys was dropping the N-word on the black guy until I challenged him. He knocked me out.

The black guy was Lew Alcindor, and a lifelong friendship began with the player who'd become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It has given me joy to watch how much positive public exposure Kareem has been getting in recent years -- for his mind, which is what I always valued most.

While it was great to see his unparalleled accomplishments as a player, I was always more proud of him for speaking out on social justice issues. Now he can regularly share his voice in Time magazine and Huffington Post, and have a presence on TV about important issues. He was recently profiled in a New York Times Magazine story by Jay Caspian Kang headlined "What the world got wrong about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar."

I didn't agree with most of Kang's conclusions, but it is clear that Kareem continues to be an important presence today, many years after his Hall of Fame playing career.

And people are listening.

Filmmaker, actor, author, ambassador, maybe the most dominant player in the history of the NBA. Renaissance man. I think of all those things when I think of Kareem.

Kareem is as shy as most people over 7 feet tall with the celebrity status that he has had might be. Kareem recently visited me in Orlando, Florida, and we tried to always make reservations in places that would give him space from the public. Each time he chose to sit in the restaurant like all the other customers. Of the athletes I have known, most wish they could walk, eat and talk in private. With his size, Kareem will always be noticed. He has no way of hiding his frame.

Yet I have seen him grow far easier with the public. My dad, Joe Lapchick, was the first great big man in basketball. He related to me how awkward he felt being so tall when he was in public. So I knew about this before I met Kareem, which made his shyness easy to grasp. I introduced my dad to Kareem when he was a high school freshman. As the head coach at St. John's, my dad hoped to be able to coach Kareem, as any smart coach did. My dad related to him as he was the biggest man of his time. He also related to him as a human being.

So many people want to know Kareem's view of the game and how he played it. However, I always found that one of the most endearing things about Kareem is that he is so intelligent and wants to talk about things that matter to the world and not about the game he played so brilliantly.

Kareem has always loved to read and to write, as his 10 books and recent contributions to Time and Huffington Post show. He not only loved to read and write, he loved good writers.

Kareem, then known as Lew, met with a group of black athletes who were prominent in sport but even more prominent because of their involvement in social justice issues. They were gathering to discuss both a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games and action to isolate apartheid South Africa. That meeting was intense and powerful and made a huge impression on me. I was proud that Kareem had the courage to join this group. He did sit out the Games because the basketball tryouts were held before the boycott was called off. When he joined the boycott movement, there were dozens of black athletes in line to join.

The media, of course, went on the attack against all these athletes, including Kareem, John Carlos and Tommie Smith. To some, their acts were anti-American. To me, they were more patriotic than many Americans espousing equality but either not implementing it or blocking its path. According to a statistic cited by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, the wealth gap between blacks and whites is greater today in America than the gap between Africans and whites in South Africa was during apartheid.

Many people now look at the black athletes who demonstrated in Mexico as heroes. Statues of Carlos and Smith have been erected in their honor. That was when Kareem went from being a good friend to being a hero, in my mind.

I did not see Kareem much during his UCLA years or early years in the pros but caught up quickly after reading his autobiography, "Giant Steps," written more than 30 years ago. After the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when four little girls died, Kareem wrote "my whole view of the world fell into place. My faith was exploded like church rubble, my anger was shrapnel. I would gladly have killed whoever killed those girls by myself."

I remember that day as if it was yesterday. Although I knew what the scourge of racism had done to my country, I had never been so outraged that racists could think of killing four little girls. There were many people so incensed by the bombing that they were capable, at least in their minds, of seeking vengeance against the perpetrators of one of the most awful acts of the 20th century. Many years later, I went to a service in that 16th Street Baptist Church to help free me of that anger. "Giant Steps" reunited Kareem and me in spirit.

He has spent his life as a bridge builder. He has written children's books to reach out to kids. He speaks about the role Jewish people played in the civil rights movement at a time when there was a chasm between black and Jews in parts of America. He talks about the Holocaust. He talks about Islam being a religion of peace as anti-Muslim feelings surge across the nation in the wake of ISIS and its hate and horror.

I define a leader as someone who stands up for justice and doesn't block its path. That is the Kareem I know and treasure. My dad treasured him, and my children treasure him. That is three generations of Lapchicks. And while others may have their opinions, our family knows him as a national treasure.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.