By Brady Rhoades
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — NBA Hall of Famer, best-selling author, renowned columnist, historian, philanthropist— is laser-focused on underprivileged kids.
The key to empowering them?
Through his Skyhook Foundation and Camp Skyhook, he’s on a mission to give inner city kids a “shot that can’t be blocked” at careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math; many educators have added arts to the concept and use the acronym STEAM).
“The feedback from the kids is always a highlight for me,” he said, in an interview with STEAM Magazine. “They are enthusiastic, grateful, and excited about the experience. Horace Mann once said that ‘a house without books is like a room without windows.’ Before attending Camp Skyhook, many of our students couldn’t see themselves pursuing a STEM-related career. We’re building windows so they can see more possibilities for their future.
“Our students often come from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Abdul-Jabbar continued. “They’re used to running the race of life with weights attached to them. Their shot at equal opportunities — whether in education, jobs, health care, etc. — is blocked by systemic social inequalities. We try to create a path where their shot at life can’t be blocked because of those disadvantages. We’re trying to even the playing field.”
Abdul-Jabbar is so committed to this venture that he’s sold personal memorabilia, such as championship rings and MVP plaques, in order to raise $2.8 million – a portion of which was donated to Camp Skyhook.
“Looking back on what I have done with my life, instead of gazing at the sparkle of jewels or gold plating celebrating something I did a long time ago, I’d rather look into the delighted face of a child holding their first caterpillar and think about what I might be doing for their future,” he said. “That’s a history that has no price.”
So what exactly are the Skyhook Foundation and Camp Skyhook?
The Los Angeles non-profit helps public school students in the city access a free, fun, weeklong STEM education camp in the Angeles National Forest. Every week throughout the year, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Unified School District, groups of fourth and fifth graders attend Camp Skyhook at the Clear Creek Outdoor Education Center. The hands-on science curriculum encourages students to study nature up close. They also get to hike, swim and sing songs around campfires.
Currently, there’s a six-year waiting list for students to get into the camp.
“I’m happy we’re doing what we are, but I’m frustrated because we want to do even more,” said the six-time NBA champion and six-time MVP. “This program gives students STEM-based activities in an environment they rarely experience: the natural world. It also inspires their curiosity and sense of wonder.”
Abdul-Jabbar said it’s paramount to increase opportunities in STEM, especially for minorities.
“African-American men make up only 3 percent of science and engineering occupations versus 49 percent white men,” he said. “Black women have only 2 percent versus 18 percent for white women. Part of the reason is that a STEM education doesn’t seem like a real possibility to many minority children educated in inferior schools. We can turn that around. We have to turn it around.”
A native of Harlem, Abdul-Jabbar was a three-time NCAA champion and three-time Player of the Year at UCLA, where he played under legendary coach John Wooden.
He played 20 seasons in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. During his career as a center, Abdul-Jabbar was a record 19-time NBA All-Star.
For Lakers fans, he is, perhaps, most beloved for his dominating performance in the 1985 finals against the Boston Celtics. The Lakers broke a decades-long losing streak to the Celtics and Abdul-Jabbar was named finals MVP.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995 and named one of the 50 greatest players in league history in 1996. A statue showing him wielding the greatest weapon in basketball annals – the skyhook – was unveiled outside of Staples Center in 2012.
Since his stellar professional career, he has gone on to become a celebrated New York Times-bestselling author, a filmmaker, and a columnist for The Guardian and the Hollywood Reporter. He writes insightful and in-depth columns about pop culture and social justice.
His curiosity is nothing less than feral.
Did you know he’s huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, and his latest writing project — co-authored by Anna Waterhouse — is a mystery novel? It’s called Mycroft and Sherlock, The Empty Birdcage.
On top of all that, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal
of Freedom in 2016.
“I can do more than stuff a ball through a hoop,” he said. “My mind is my greatest asset.”
The same can be said of the children he’s helping, even if they don’t know it yet.
The Skyhook Foundation — the website for information and donations at https://skyhookfoundation.org/ — is demonstrably effective. Did you think for a second Abdul-Jabbar wouldn’t track the results?
“We know it’s effective because our follow-up research shows that students have increased interest in science, engineering and the environment,” he said. “In practical terms, it means they take more science classes and feel more confident in the classroom asking and answering questions. Former participants who are now adults tell us this was their most memorable elementary school experience.”
It’s widely agreed-upon that Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook was unstoppable—virtually unblockable. He shot thousands upon thousands of them, and tallied 38,387 points in his career. He is the greatest scorer in the history of professional basketball. Nobody’s ever re-created that magnificent hook shot.
Abdul-Jabbar’s message to kids: Develop a shot that can’t be blocked.
The game of life is played on a surface supremely larger than the 94-x-50-foot chunk of wood hoops players play on.
The winning play? Give yourself a shot to be an all-star in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.