Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “Britain would benefit from a frank look at its history”

Basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the legacy of slavery, fighting Bruce Lee - and taking on Sherlock’s sibling

You still hold the high scoring record in the NBA – 38,387 points during your career. Can that be broken?

I imagine it could be beaten. It’s going to be tough though, because the guys make so much money now that they don’t have the incentive to play for very long.

You also fought Bruce Lee in Game of Death. Who would have won in a real fight?

I wouldn’t want to test that. I gave Bruce a lot of problems because my arms were so long. My height and reach were a problem for him. But we were friends, we never got to the point where we thought about seeing who could beat the other guy up.

You appeared in another iconic film, Airplane!, then became a columnist for Time magazine, writing about politics. Why didn’t you become a politician?

Well, I had a pretty nice career going there with basketball! To be a politician you really have to be ready to sacrifice to achieve your goals, and a lot of the time you don’t even achieve them.

You’ve said Obama’s election gave a false sense of achievement.

The election of President Obama made a lot of people think we had reached a goal but it was a milepost. The legacy of slavery has devastated a lot of people in the black community and the effects are still being felt. The Civil Rights movement was a great start but we have to follow through.

Obama and Hillary Clinton made you a Global Cultural Ambassador, so how do you think next year’s election will go? We hear a lot about Donald Trump.

It must be very amusing to people. Up until now he’s won a lot of people over because of his style but at a certain point he’s going to have to come up with some substance. Then we’ll see if he will last.

You have written a novel set in the world of Sherlock Holmes. Have you always been a fan?

Yes. When I was a boy I watched Basil Rathbone and I first read Arthur Conan Doyle when I started playing professional basketball.

How did Sherlock improve your game?

I picked up titbits of information that helped me have an advantage over opponents. There was a guy who liked to smoke cigarettes at half-time. I knew if I could get him to run intensely in the second half he would be in pain.

Your book focuses on Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft.

Mycroft is someone who’s in the background in the original stories but Mr Doyle says that Mycroft sometimes is the British government. To have someone in the halls of power is fascinating at a time Great Britain was the premiere superpower in the world.

Your book explores the fact a lot of what Britain did building its empire was pretty horrible. Should we be more aware of this legacy?

A frank and honest look at your history will enable you to be better. Britain has tried to change the template – it outlawed slavery 30-odd years prior to America – and that’s all we can expect at this point. We try to do things better, to treat people better, and we move forward.

What happened in the past is important but it should not stop people being able to move forward?

It’s an absolute necessity to keep that perspective. Very few societies evolve from anything perfect. We all have stains on our past. That’s one of the sad facts of the human experience.

Mycroft Holmes, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse, is out now

Latest Big Issue: Out Now

This week’s edition of the award-winning Big Issue magazine is on the streets now, priced at £2.50, with 50% of the cover price going directly to the vendor.

Find out more