Column: Why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asking LeBron James to ‘be careful’ is a reasonable request

NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, left, and Lakers star LeBron James shown in photos side by side.
NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, left, criticized Lakers star LeBron James on Sunday for the public stances he has made on COVID-19 vaccinations.
(Richard Shotwell / Invision/AP; Ashley Landis / AP)

Bizarrely chaotic to the last drop, the Lakers’ cursed season took another sour turn Sunday afternoon as they stumbled closer to an inevitably unhappy ending with a 129-118 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Arena.

A pregame ceremony that featured NBA regular-season career scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presenting a social justice trophy named in his honor to Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony turned into a distinctly different kind of social justice discussion. It unexpectedly became an occasion for Abdul-Jabbar, who has been critical of social media posts by LeBron James that appeared to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus and support vaccine hesitancy at the potential expense to people of color, to double down on his criticism of the man who is destined to pass him on the all-time scoring list.

Abdul-Jabbar, who has written op-ed columns for The Times and this season wrote essays on saying James’ COVID-19 skepticism could increase already inequitable coronavirus-related issues in Black communities, said Sunday his disapproval of some of James’ actions “just comes from some of the things that he’s done and said are really beneath him, as far as I can see, with some of the great things that he’s done. He’s standing on both sides of the fence almost, you know. It makes it hard for me to accept that when he’s committed himself to a different take on everything. It’s hard to figure out where he’s standing. You’ve got to check him out every time.”


Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar elaborates on the comments he made about LeBron James on Sunday, when he praised and criticized him.

April 3, 2022

Abdul-Jabbar also criticized the obscene gesture James made after hitting a shot in a game at Indianapolis on Nov. 24. James was fined $15,000 by the NBA for that gesture and for using profane language while discussing the sanction during a news conference. In a 2020 essay in Sports Illustrated, Abdul-Jabbar said this generation “couldn’t do any better in the hero department than LeBron James,” but Abdul-Jabbar emphasized Sunday he expected better from James on and off the court. And when Abdul-Jabbar speaks, people still listen.

“Absolutely a higher expectation because he understands the issues and has spoken to them quite forcefully and eloquently and I was hoping he would continue in that vein,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I think he has so much going for him in terms of respect and accomplishment, he shouldn’t stoop to those moments.”

Abdul-Jabbar said he briefly met James and would be willing to speak to him at length, “if he would want to take the time. I’ve definitely got the time.

Speaking at the unveiling of a social justice trophy in his name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said LeBron James’ actions are ‘beneath him’ sometimes.

April 3, 2022

“I admire the things that he’s done that have gotten all of our attention. Sending a whole school to college, wow. That’s amazing,” Abdul-Jabbar said, referring to James’ foundation vowing to pay for nearly 200 students at James’ I PROMISE school in Akron, Ohio, to attend Kent State University.

“His thoughtfulness and willingness to back it up with his wallet, you’ve got to give him credit for that. I’m not throwing stones. I just wish, some of the things he’s done he should be embarrassed about.”

Abdul-Jabbar could have mentioned James’ selfishness in blasting former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s social media support of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019 while the Lakers were visiting China. The Chinese government, which has a lamentable human rights record, canceled events tied to NBA games and advertisers removed their names from the court; James said Morey had been “misinformed or not really educated on the situation,” but the real issue was lost revenue.

Lakers star LeBron James stands on the court during a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

James didn’t play Sunday because of a sore ankle, leaving him with 37,062 points in 1,366 regular-season games. Abdul-Jabbar, who played on five championship teams with the Lakers and one with Milwaukee, scored 38,387 points in 1,560 regular-season games. James is averaging a league-leading 30.3 points this season but must play at least two of the Lakers’ remaining four games to qualify for the scoring title.

James, who declined to respond to Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism of him earlier this season, watched the Lakers’ sixth consecutive loss from the bench. They’re two games behind San Antonio for the last play-in berth as they lurch toward the end of a disjointed mess of a season. Tenth-place San Antonio holds the tiebreaker over them. So does ninth-place New Orleans. Stick a fork in ‘em. They’re done.

Solomon Hughes, who plays Abdul-Jabbar in ‘Winning Time,’ helps us tell the true story of the star center, civil rights activist and possible GOAT.

April 3, 2022

Abdul-Jabbar later tried to reduce the sting of his words by issuing a statement through a representative, saying that he chided James on Sunday and on past occasions “in the spirit of a loving older brother,” and he still believes James is a hero.

“I believe LeBron is strong enough and gracious enough to understand that I have only love for him in my heart,” Abdul-Jabbar said. That love, he said earlier, includes wishing James well in becoming the regular-season scoring leader. “There’s no envy there,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “With the issues that I was talking about, things that really affect the Black community, he should be careful. That’s all I’m asking.”

A reasonable ask, at that.