I'm not sure how to describe my feelings except to say they're a mixture of concern, pride, and gratitude. I recently mentioned my experience as a 10- or 11-year-old in Chicago when I shook hands with Jackie Robinson after greeting him in the players' tunnel in Wrigley Field.
But what I didn't say was that he's one of the icons I think of when I consider UCLA's past and future. And so are you (along with Coach). I don't have the words to describe what you have always meant to me, but the memories abound. There are so many photos of you with UCLA on your chest, and the hearts of Bruins everywhere beat faster when they see them.
The remarkable thing, however, is the photo that will live with me forever is one in which you're not in uniform. You are leading a frail, old man into Pauley Pavilion. He is stooping and walking with a cane, leaning on your arm, and hearing the cheers of thousands. He is the greatest coach in the history of any sport; he is a teacher of morality; and he is leaning on your arm. It is a deeply symbolic moment because it signifies the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. And that is what you have always been at UCLA, a torch bearer.
I am glad to hear that the surgeon, Dr. Richard Shemin, says, "The surgery was successful, and he expects (you) to make a full recovery." I am glad not only because you have lived your life the way Coach thought a life should be lived — a journey marked by concern for other people — but because UCLA (and Bruins Nation, for that matter) needs you.
We need you because of your courage and persistence; we need you because of your commitment to others; and we need you because of what the great Spanish philosopher George Santayana said. If Santayana was right in saying, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it," the opposite, by inference, must also hold true: Those who DO remember the past can LEARN from it.
As I said earlier, memories abound, but I want to mention two games in connection with what I see as gratitude. I'm thinking, first, of the game in which you, as a freshman named Lew Alcindor, led your team to a victory over the defending NCAA champions. Why do I feel gratitude for that game, which was also the grand opening of Pauley Pavilion in 1965? The answer is that it was a game that provided proof, if proof were needed, that the future can be bright and promising if only we have the wisdom to see its opportunities.
The second game came in your junior year. The story is familiar to most basketball fans. You were limited by an eye injury when the Bruins lost to Houston, 71-69, in the "Game of the Century" on Jan. 28, 1968. But time runs its course, and often there are second chances. On March 22, 1968, UCLA met Houston in a rematch at the L.A. Sports Arena. This time you were healthy; this time you were ready; this time the final score was UCLA, 101, Houston, 69. Why do I feel such gratitude for this game? The answer is that I'm grateful because it shows that determination to achieve excellence should always be our North Star. And who is more qualified to set this example than you, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
And yet memories of basketball alone do an injustice. Let's start with part of the message that you asked UCLA to convey: "... cherish and live each day to its fullest.... support those in your own community who may be suffering from various health issues." You could have focused on your achievements at UCLA — there are so many — but you chose instead to ask those who care about you to help others. And in doing so, you aligned yourself with the essential quality that makes UCLA so notable: concern for others.
Where to begin in honoring your many accomplishments? Should it be the time you spent coaching high school students on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona? Or the time you supported Muhammad Ali's right to say no to serving in Vietnam? What about your role in producing a documentary, On the Shoulders of Giants, the story of the all-black Harlem Rens basketball team?
They are just chapters in a larger story. The story of someone who is not satisfied with material success. The story of someone who wants to make the human condition better. And finally, the story of someone who will always inspire our pride and gratitude.