TIME Sports

Why LeBron Can’t Go Home Again

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks
LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on December 29, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia. Kevin C. Cox—Getty Images

LeBron can never go home to the Cleveland he once knew

In his essay in Sports Illustrated about his return to play for Cleveland, LeBron James announced, “I’m coming home.” While his very personal and emotional explanation will resonate with many, others will find it disingenuous and self-serving. Because the awful truth is, as Thomas Wolfe titled one of his best-known novels, “You can’t go home again.”

Wolfe, who took that title with permission from writer Ella Winter, used it to mean that after we leave home and are battered about by our adventures in life, we are changed. And in our disillusioned mind, “home” becomes a romanticized symbol of our innocence, in which we dreamed limitlessly and were loved unconditionally. But that home, too, has changed because of our absence. The residents are more wary.

So it is with LeBron and Cleveland.

To some skeptical residents, LeBron’s return to Cleveland is less that of the prodigal son’s triumphant return home than the straying husband who abandoned his longtime partner to chase a younger, hotter, firmer slice having second thoughts. After realizing he traded a deep love for a sweaty romp, he’s coming home with a bouquet of roses in one hand and a diamond bracelet in the other, begging forgiveness for his foolish mistake of lustful youth.

All that doesn’t make LeBron’s desire to return any less sincere. Who hasn’t at some time or other hurt those we loved? And it takes a lot of courage to return to what many Clevelanders might consider the scene of the crime. LeBron is one of the best players in the world. He could have gone anywhere, but he chose Cleveland knowing he would have to endure a firestorm of criticism. Had he stayed in Miami or gone elsewhere, he would have been hoisted on shoulders and paraded through the streets. That testifies to his sincerity.

I’ve had some experience with wanting to go home. After playing with the Milwaukee Bucks for a few years at the beginning of my career, I had a longing to return to New York City. Oscar “The Big O” Robertson had retired, and without him we came in last, with no significant draft picks and little hope of turning things around the next year. I didn’t go to the press to negotiate for more money or a better deal. I went to the owner, and we had an amiable chat. We shook hands and kept it between ourselves so the team could make the best deal for both parties, because we each felt loyalty to the other.

My attempt to return home failed because New York didn’t have any players whom Milwaukee wanted. Instead, I went to Los Angeles (a second home, since I attended UCLA) along with Walt Wesley, and the Bucks got four players in exchange: Dave Meyers, Brian Winters, Elmore Smith and Junior Bridgeman.

When LeBron left Cleveland, he celebrated the move as if it were the exodus from Egypt and enslavement, and that arrogance left a bitter taste in his fans’ mouths. It was like showing up at a party with a new girlfriend knowing an ex would be there. Tacky. Even his return to Cleveland might have been seen as more from the heart, as he states in his essay, if it had just been announced as a fait accompli instead of leaving the press and fans to wait in anticipation for the word to come down from the mountain inscribed on tablets.

LeBron’s return to the Cavaliers is good for basketball. Each game will now come with a movie narrative attached: underdogs, redemption, forgiveness. I certainly will be watching. But the “coming home” narrative has been a little too orchestrated to silence the critics and slighted fans. But I think this passage from Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again sums up LeBron’s dilemma: “He had learned that in spite of his strange body, so much off scale that it had often made him think himself a creature set apart, he was still the son and brother of all men living. He had learned that he could not devour the earth, that he must know and accept his limitations. He realized that much of his torment of the years past had been self-inflicted, and an inevitable part of growing up. And, most important of all for one who had taken so long to grow up, he thought he had learned not to be the slave of his emotions.” In that way, LeBron can go home because he has grown up and realizes that being away from home made it that much more valuable.

But in another way, LeBron can’t go home again. At least not to the home he once knew. The residents may be grateful and joyful, but they are also wiser. Like the betrayed spouse, they will have to wait and see, they will have to be wooed, they will have to be convinced that his sincerity, to quote Porgy and Bess, ain’t a sometime thing.

TIME Sports

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Soccer Will Never Be a Slam Dunk in America

Soccer doesn’t express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports: We are a country of pioneers, and we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded... with points.

+ READ ARTICLE

Has the time finally come to slap a Do Not Resuscitate bracelet on soccer’s prospects for popularity in America?

If it were up to me, the answer would be no, because soccer players are among the strongest, fittest, most strategic athletes in the world. But, for various reasons, the sport itself does not seem destined for the popularity that supporters have been predicting for the last decade. I’m reminded of the end of Man of La Mancha, when Don Quixote lies dying, but is suddenly inspired to rise once more and proclaim, “Onward to glory I go!” And then he drops dead. Soccer has been proclaiming this impending U.S. glory for years, and while there are signs of life in the body, the prognosis is not good.

Once the World Cup is over, soccer in the U.S. will return to its sick bed and dream of glory.This dire diagnosis probably seems crazy in the face of the current World Cup TV ratings success. Between Univision and ESPN, 25 million viewers tuned in to watch the U.S. play Portugal last Sunday. Compare that to 15.5 million viewers that the NBA finals averaged this year, or the 14.9 million averaged in last year’s baseball World Series. Worse, the NHL playoffs averaged only 5 million viewers. Only NFL football consistently beats soccer’s best rating.

The problem with those statistics is that it’s like using the ratings of bobsledding during the Winter Olympics to declare a new renaissance for bobsledding in America. The World Cup, like the Olympics, happens every four years, so the rarity factor alone will account for inflated ratings. For a more realistic view of its popularity as a professional sport, we need to look at how many people watch on a regular basis. Major League Soccer (MLS) averages a mere 174,000 viewers (compared to the NBA’s average of 2 million and NFL average of 17.6 million), while their equivalent to NBA Finals, the MLS Cup, averaged only 505,000 viewers.

The MLS points out that more people on average attend one of their games (18,807) than attend either NHL (17,455) or NBA (17,408) games. While that may be true, the reasons for that appear to be pretty simple: cheaper tickets and fewer teams playing fewer games. Add that to the fact that comparatively few people watch it on TV, and you have a sport that produces much less revenue than other major American sports. Like it or not, in the end that is the measure of a sport’s popularity.

The obvious question is why hasn’t soccer taken off in the U.S. as it has throughout most of the rest of the world? After all, youth soccer has exploded over the past few decades. In 1974, only 103,432 youth were registered players. In 2012, registered players amounted to over three million. In all, 13 million Americans play soccer (compared to 26.3 million who play basketball). When you look at those figures, you notice that twice as many people play basketball as play soccer, yet ten times as many people watch basketball on TV. This is important because the more people watching a sport translates into more people wanting to play that sport. That’s the money-making cycle. Watch. Play. Repeat.

Is there something fundamentally different about watching soccer that turns people away by the millions? Apparently so. For one thing, there’s a lot of movement but not much action. American audiences see people kicking the ball to a teammate, only to have it intercepted by the other team. A lot. To the average American used to the hustle of basketball, the clash of titans in football, the suspense of the curve ball in baseball, or the thrilling crack of the slapshot in hockey, the endless meandering back and forth across the soccer field looks less like strategy and more like random luck. It lacks drama. Of course, that’s not true at all, but that is certainly the perception.

Why aren’t those millions of youth soccer players since 1974 watching? Perhaps another perception is that it is a kid’s game. Kids get to run around, kick something, and generally wear themselves out to the gratitude of parents. Parents who dutifully and diligently attend their kids’ games don’t seem inclined to tune in to professionals on TV.

Soccer is counting on the growing U.S. Latino population to raise its popularity. Between 2002 and 2012, the Latino population increased from 13.3% of the U.S. population to 17%. I’m certain that will be a factor, but perhaps not a huge one — this ling of thinking doesn’t account for children seeking more traditional American sports in order to assimilate. As many parents will attest, some children refuse to follow in their parents’ sweaty sneakers.

Finally, soccer doesn’t fully express the American ethos as powerfully as our other popular sports. We are a country of pioneers, explorers, and contrarians who only need someone to say it can’t be done to fire us up to prove otherwise. As a result, we like to see extraordinary effort rewarded. The low scoring in soccer frustrates this American impulse. We also celebrate rugged individualism, the democratic ideal that anybody from any background can become a sports hero. We like to see heroes rise, buoyed by their teammates, but still expressing their own supreme individual skills. Certainly soccer has its celebrated stars, from Pele to Beckham, but those skills seem muted on TV where we’re often looking at small figures on a large field and therefore these feats appear less impressive than they really are. In football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, team effort is rewarded with points and individual greatness is as instant and immediate as a one-handed snagged football pass, a three-pointer from the corner, stealing home base, or a snap-shot of the puck into the goal.

Clearly, there are many dedicated soccer fans in the U.S. They play the sport, they watch the sport, they love the sport. But that group, though slowly growing, is not nearly enough to overcome the traditional favorites. To do that, it’s not enough that you’re as good as one of the popular sports, you have to bring something better. More excitement. More skill. More entertainment. For most Americans, soccer just doesn’t do that. And once the World Cup is over, soccer in the U.S. will return to its sick bed and dream of glory.

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). Abdul-Jabbar also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

TIME Sports

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: We Need to Stamp Out Misogyny in Sports

#YesAllWomen Live Rally in Seattle supports victims of violence
More than 100 community members came in support of the #YesAllWomen Live Rally in Seattle, May 30, 2014. Alex Garland—Demotix/Corbis

Sports plays a role in perpetuating sexism and misogyny—and it can play a role in ending it.

The most moving reading I’ve done in the past six months has come from the anguished tweets on #YesAllWomen that followed the Elliot Rodger shootings in Santa Barbara, Calif. Even more depressing than his horrific actions is the feeling that the national debates about cultural misogyny, mental-health care and gun control that followed have already lost momentum — shoved back into their dusty corner, awaiting the next bloody tragedy. Public outrage has a short half-life. Fist-shaking and finger-pointing quickly degenerates into helpless shrugging.

But we can’t let go of this question: Why in America do our mentally disturbed take out their anger so violently? In a Sept. 19, 2013, op-ed article in the New York Times, Stanford University psychological anthropology professor T.M. Luhrmann explained how when schizophrenics in the Indian city of Chennai (formerly Madras) hear voices, they are told to do domestic chores like cook, clean or bathe. But schizophrenics in San Mateo, Calif., hear voices that tell them to take very violent actions like cutting off a head and drinking the blood. In India they clean; in America they kill. America also has the highest gun-ownership rate in the world. And our number of multiple killings is nearly as high as that for the rest of the world combined.

Even more disturbing is why so much violence in America is directed at women. The answer to this question, at least in part, is that it’s a result of a lifetime of cultural influences. And while there are surely plenty of cultural influences to blame, one of the sources of this negative influence is amateur and professional sports.

Surprised to hear me say that? I’ve spent much of my life in sports and promoting sports as a positive influence on our youth and our culture. The benefits are obvious: building healthy bodies, practicing sportsmanship (should we call that sportspersonship?), learning teamwork, creating a supportive community and much more.

In fact, the image of girls and women in sports is much more culturally positive than that of mainstream society. In the sports world, women are praised for their athletic ability — not their physical appearance. We cheer the sweaty woman running down the field for her effort. Mainstream America tells her heels are required because she’s too short, makeup is required because her face isn’t attractive enough, cleavage is required to give men a reason to pay attention, hair coloring is required because aging is forbidden and blondes are sexier, Photoshopping is required because no woman (not even a model) can match the fantasy woman our culture promotes on the covers of almost every women’s magazine. (It’s not a coincidence that Rodger gave his object of hatred a hair color — “blonde slut.”) But in sports, women stand tall and proud in athletic shoes and uniforms because we’re more interested in what they do than how they look.

But — there’s a big but. Despite all the good in sports, there are many aspects of it that encourage our culture to look at women as less valuable than men.

The easiest way to determine women’s value to their culture is to look at how much we pay them in relation to men. Some studies suggest that in general women make less doing the same jobs as men (the Census Bureau concludes that women earn 77¢ for every dollar men earn). This national trend extends to professional sports. According to Forbes, the maximum salary for a player in the WNBA is $107,000, compared with the $30.5 million Kobe Bryant will make. Inbee Park, who won the 2013 U.S. Open in golf, received $585,000 for her victory. Justin Rose, the men’s winner, received $1.4 million. This disparity is seen less in tennis because Wimbledon, the French Open and the U.S. Open all pay male and female winners equally (which is why 7 of the 10 top-paid female athletes in the world are tennis players).

This discrepancy extends to coaching as well. For Division I college sports, men get paid significantly more. Male basketball head coaches averaged $71,511, while female coaches averaged $39,177. Even in gymnastics, which is predominantly female, male coaches are paid more. This doesn’t even address the fact that there are more opportunities for males than females to play sports, both as amateurs and as professionals.

Many will argue that the pay difference is the result of free-market supply and demand. More people want to see men play professional basketball than want to see women play, so the players are paid accordingly. You can’t argue with economics. There is truth to this. You can’t force people to attend a sporting event if they don’t want to.

However, this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can change things. First, we need to address why they don’t want to watch. This goes back to cultural biases. If we don’t value girls in sports in middle school and high school, then we don’t grow up to value them as professional athletes. And by value, I mean make athletic opportunities available, pay coaches equally and promote female sports with the same vigor with which we do male sports.

At the same time, the disrespectful and disparaging language used in sports furthers the gender gap. Male coaches often address their male athletes as ladies whenever they want to humiliate them. “Come on, ladies,” they’ll say, “lift your skirts.” Or, “You’re playing like a girl!” This is treated as a joke or good-humored tradition, but its long-term social effect is not funny. Even in movies and TV shows, we see tough women turning to men and saying, “Quit acting like a girl.” Cue audience chuckle at the reversal. But all that does is prove we’ve brainwashed women to be derogatory toward themselves.

We also need to address the culture of violence surrounding our athletes. When we see them resolving problems through violence, it can send a message to others to emulate them. Baltimore Ravens tackle Jah Reid was arrested for allegedly head butting, kicking and punching a man in a strip club (what attending strip clubs says about our culture of devaluing women is another matter). Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov was arrested on charges of kidnapping and assault of his girlfriend. Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones was arrested for stomping on the leg of a homeless man. Former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez was charged with murdering a friend. This year alone football players Chris Rainey, Robert Sands and Daryl Washington were arrested for domestic battery or assault. We can’t as a culture glorify violence and then be surprised when our members resort to it as our “heroes” do.

Which brings us back to #YesAllWomen. Despite more than a million responses, it probably won’t change anything. It should be a national wake-up call that such a forum even needs to exist. And we should celebrate the opportunity for women to express their frustration. But we need to remember that while misogyny may be perpetuated mostly by men, it is enabled by both men and women in society who embrace gender inequality — or simply let it go unnoticed.

It’s reminiscent of the 1947 film Gentlemen’s Agreement, in which Gregory Peck plays a journalist who pretends to be Jewish in order to write about anti-Semitism. His Waspish fiancée realizes that there’s a “gentlemen’s agreement” to ignore distasteful anti-Semitic comments (and by implication racist, homophobic and misogynist comments) as if they never happened. She also realizes that ignoring them is part of the problem because the silence encourages them and thereby taints our whole society.

We can change things. Small things. One at a time. We start by not remaining silent in the presence of misogyny, not tolerating violence as a form of communication, and demanding gender equality in education, sports and jobs. Right now, tennis is showing us the way. All athletes need to help finish the job.

Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). Abdul-Jabbar also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

TIME Sports

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Miami Fans, Stop Whining About The Fault in Our Air Conditioning

Lebron James Cramping
LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts after cramping up against the San Antonio Spurs during Game One of the 2014 NBA Finals at the AT&T Center on June 5, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. Andy Lyons—Getty Images

How does it feel to play in that heat? I know all too well from Boston in the 1980s.

Correction appended: June 7

If you attended any recent showing of The Fault in Our Stars, you would have heard open sobbing from much of the audience. You could probably have heard the same from Miami Heat fans after Thursday’s opening game of the Finals, which should be called The Fault in Our Air Conditioning.

Some people blame LeBron James, accusing him of wilting like a hothouse orchid. Detractors have pointed out that pro football players battle it out in heat, rain, snow, and sleet. They slosh through sticky mud, slip on icy turf, suffocate in oven-like helmets under a blistering sun. Those same people wonder how lame it is that the $19 Million Dollar Man pulls up, well, lame just because the air-conditioning falters.

Those people don’t know what they’re talking about.

The average pro football game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes. But, according to a Wall Street Journal study, only 11 of the minutes are actual play. The rest is commercials, huddling, standing around, calling out plays, and jock adjusting. An NBA game is 48 minutes and, while they also spend some time huddling and adjusting, most of those 48 minutes are spent running up and down a 94-foot court. Again and again. Believe me, under those conditions, the heat can be a significant factor.

Why should you believe me? Because I played a Championship Finals game in 100-degree heat against the Celtics on June 8, 1984 (before LeBron was even born). The Boston Garden didn’t have air-conditioning at the time and Boston was in the middle of a hellish heat wave. I was 37 at the time (eight years older than LeBron is now), so the heat might have affected me a little more than the younger players. At one point during the game I was given oxygen as a precaution.

How does it feel to play in that heat? Here’s what I said at the time, with my typical charm: “I suggest that you go to your local steam bath, do 100 pushups with all your clothes on, then try to run back and forth for 48 minutes. The game was in slow motion. It was like we were running in mud.”

The Celtics won that series in the seventh game. We didn’t sit around blaming the heat. (We blamed Larry Bird for playing so phenomenally.) In fact, that loss in the Boston Oven, I mean Garden, only fueled us to come back the next year and beat the Celtics in the Finals, for the first time in Laker history.

Maybe Miami would have won if the air-conditioning hadn’t broken. But why even ask that question? Injuries are part of every sport. LeBron could have twisted his ankle, torn his ACL, or any of a dozen other common injuries. His particular kryptonite was heat.

The real winner here is the NBA. They couldn’t have asked for more—except a guaranteed seventh game—to add drama to the Finals. And, of course, bigger drama usually equals bigger ratings.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time National Basketball Association champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). Mr. Abdul-Jabbar also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated LeBron James’ birthday. He was born Dec. 30, 1984.

TIME Education

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Let Motown Be Your Commencement Speaker

Graduation advice
Getty Images

Forget all the controversies. Let Marvin Gaye and the other greats be your true guide to life with Kareem's commencement mix tape.

So, you’re graduating this month and school administrators feel a sudden desperate need to hire someone famous to toss advice at you like over-engorged water balloons of wisdom. When it’s over, you will be soaked with insight and inspiration. After four years of intense studying, what new understanding can be offered in 20 minutes under a hot sun in a stifling rented gown worn by a thousand other sweaty grads with itches of unknown origin? Or is parading some celebrity speaker merely an eleventh-hour attempt to convince your parents that you got their money’s worth?

Harvard, Yale, Stanford, let me save you some money on speaker fees. I’ve put together a mix-tape of four Motown songs that will tell graduates everything they need to know to march forward happily and successfully through life. Get the party started by playing these songs at graduation, maybe with the Dean of Students holding a boom box over his head like John Cusack in Say Anything.

1. “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

The first song is “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, which came out in 1971 and quickly sold more than 2 million copies. Rolling Stone ranked it as the fourth greatest song of all time. Inspired by one of its composers witnessing an incident of police brutality, the gentle song evolved into a national anthem calling for people of differing viewpoints to put aside their biases about race, age, and politics, and talk things over in a civilized and compassionate way.

Sample Lyrics: “You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some understandin’ here today.”

Life Lesson To Be Learned: When it comes to important social and political issues, much of the media seems to focus on roid-rage rhetoric rather than respectful discourse. Unfortunately, this only builds the walls higher. An Emory University study centered on the 2004 election, using brain scans of people with opposing political candidates, concluded that when the subjects were told that their candidates had reversed a stance on a key issue, they ignored it. The part of their brain that used reasoning wasn’t activated. Worse, by embracing their biases, their brains’ reward centers lit up similar to what was seen when addicts got a fix. Basically, our brain rewards us when we ignore facts and wrap our selves in the blankie of our prejudices.

That means we have to fight the inclination toward biased thinking and be more open-minded. Let’s give Marvin’s way a chance: “Picket lines and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality/Talk to me.”

2. “Shop Around” by The Miracles (featuring Bill “Smokey” Robinson)

This 1960 song was Motown’s first record to sell 1 million copies. In 2006, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” While the lyrics feature a mother’s advice to her son not to marry too soon, but to “shop around” for the right woman, we can all read between the lines to see that this is just a metaphor for embracing life by trying new experiences.

Sample Lyrics: “Just because you’ve become a young man now/There’s still some things that you don’t understand now/Before you ask some girl for her hand now/Oh yeah, you better shop around.”

Life Lesson To Be Learned: According to a 2013 Harris Poll, only one in three Americans say they are very happy. And that’s fewer than reported feeling that way in 2011. Smokey isn’t just saying shop around for a spouse, he’s saying don’t be too quick to jump into a long-term relationship with a career, with a mortgage, with overwhelming responsibilities. Take some time to find out what’s important to you, not just what’s expected of you.

3. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye

This song was first recorded by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles in 1966, but it was Marvin’s 1968 version that became the biggest Motown hit of the time. The song is included in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” On the surface, it’s about some poor guy agonizing about a rumor he heard that his girlfriend is going to dump him. But, really, it’s a subtle meditation on both the advantages and dangers of the inter-connectedness of contemporary society — even more relevant today in a world of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Sample Lyrics: “People say believe half of what you see/son, and none of what you hear./I can’t help bein’ confused.”

Life Lesson To Be Learned: The “grapevine” is now a vast network of Facebook “friends,” web trolls, and other random individuals that create a virtual life that may be interfering with us living actual life. A University of Michigan study of college-aged adults concluded that the more they used Facebook the sadder they felt. They also found that using Facebook led to less moment-to-moment happiness and less overall life satisfaction. Part of the reason for this is that it creates a competitive social situation in which the user compares his or her life with what seems like the rich, active, happy lives of those posting their every kiss and knish.

The subtext of Marvin’s song is that we need to tend our grapevine the way a loving gardener tends his plants. Pull the weeds (the “friends” that don’t matter) and nurture the roses (those friends that do matter). Be selective, avoid the trolls of despair, and develop a grapevine that can support your weight.

4. “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & the Pips

Although Gladys and the Pips actually recorded this song after they left Motown, this 1973 release was their first number one recording and was #432 on Rolling Stone’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” In 1999 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The song tells the story of a Georgia man who comes to L.A. to become a star, fails, and returns back home “to a simpler place and time.” His girlfriend decides to give up her life in L.A. to follow him because she’d rather “live in his world than live without him” in her world. To the untrained eye, this is a simple song of love conquering all. But fellow college graduates know that everything is a metaphor for something else that only English majors can understand.

Sample Lyrics: “He kept dreaming (Dreaming)/Ooh, that some day he’d be a star (A superstar, but he didn’t get far)/But he sure found out the hard way/That dreams don’t always come true, oh no, uh uh.”

Life Lesson To Be Learned: American children have been encouraged to dream big and follow those dreams — because there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished with determination and grit. Probably a couple hundred commencement speakers are saying the same thing across America this spring. Whether or not that’s true you’ll have to figure out on your own. What definitely is true is that even those who succeed usually stumble along the way and have to face failure. Fortunately, Gladys and her Pips have belted out some soulful guidance on how to cope: Go back to Georgia, they say, back to that simpler place and time. What they mean is that, following an epic fail, we should go back and re-examine who we are, what we want, and what our values are. Maybe the original goal isn’t what we really want or need. Maybe we need a new plan to accomplish our original goal. But don’t keep charging head-first into the brick wall. Take a step back — back to Georgia.

Now you are prepared to stagger out into a world that wants to both swaddle and swallow you. But when that confusing world has you muttering Marvin Gaye’s words: “Mercy, mercy me/Ah, things ain’t what they used to be,” then it’s time to jam the earbuds in your ears and crank up these four songs. If nothing else, you’ll be able to dance into your future.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time National Basketball Association champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). Mr. Abdul-Jabbar also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

TIME Racism

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: How to Tell if You’re a Racist Like Donald Sterling

Here's a hint: If you've ever said, “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple," you might be a racist

Polls show that more whites believe in ghosts than believe racism is a problem in America. I guess that’s why Ghost Hunters is so popular but my show, Racist Wranglers, never got picked up. Maybe the reason is how we define racism.

Donald Sterling is not a racist.

In his own mind.

Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, Don Imus. Not racists.

To their family, closest friends and adoring pets, they’re just plain-speaking Americans who have probably said the phrase, “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple.” (FYI: You might be a racist if you’ve used that phrase.)

That’s why their faces have that shocked “Who me?” expression at the public outrage over their statements.

All of them could probably name several people of color among their friends, close acquaintances and business associates. All could probably cite minority folk they’ve personally helped through their generosity. Sterling was about to receive a second NAACP award (since canceled) for his work with minority children. He had a mixed-race girlfriend. What more proof can the public want of his “I don’t see color” purity!

What’s that? You say you need further proof that he can’t be a racist?

Commentator Bill O’Reilly informed us that discrimination is “all in the past.” Fox News’ Eric Bolling seconded that by saying, “Is there racism? I don’t believe there’s racism.” A Republican National Committee tweet on the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest confirmed the body of racism had been buried: “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” Bam! Done! Mic drop!

Still not convinced?

How about the U.S. Supreme Court, you skeptical naysayers. The Justices (all wearing black gospel robes in support of racial equality) confirm Sterling and Pals’ assertion that they are not racists by proclaiming, “Racism is dead!” Well, if not dead, at least suffering from debilitating acid reflux. Several of their recent decisions, invalidating key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and striking down affirmative action, were based on the court’s assessment that “We’ve come a long way, baby” since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I’m surprised they didn’t close their decision with a wink and a “Can you dig it?”

Well, go tell it on the mountain, Justices, because down here in the flatlands of daily living, racism isn’t just alive, but it’s cloning faster than Sean Hannity can backpedal his support of Cliven Bundy.

Racism today isn’t like the racism pre–Martin Luther King Jr. Today we are faced with “situational racism.” This is similar to situational ethics, a philosophical and theological movement that argues that rather than having fixed, one-size-fits-all ethical rules of behavior, the context of each situation must be considered before determining the correct moral choice. Situational racism applies this flexible principle by declaring we must act according to a realistic analysis of race as it is in our society right now, not as we wish it were.

The clichéd example: You’re walking down a dark, deserted street and a bunch of black teens adorned with dagger tattoos and carrying bongs made from human skulls are walking toward you. If you cross the street, are you being a racist or a realist?

That’s what Sterling meant when he said on the tape, “It’s the world! … We don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture … I don’t want to change the culture because I can’t. It’s too big …” He didn’t see his attitude as racist, just a practical reaction to a racist world.

Basically, he’s saying, “It’s not me. It’s Society! It’s the Man! I’m just a helpless pawn, a clump of toilet paper caught in the swirling toilet bowl of history.” The housing discrimination he was convicted of wasn’t racism, it was just practical business sense. After all, he’s in business to make money, not history.

Maybe the worst racism of all is denying that racism exists, because that keeps us from repairing the damage. This country needs a social colonoscopy to look for the hidden racist polyps. And we aren’t doing ourselves any good by saying, “I feel fine. Everything’s fine. Nothing to see here.”

The truth is, everyone has racism in his or her heart. We feel more comfortable around people of similar appearance, backgrounds and experiences. But, as intelligent, educated and civilized humans, we fight our knee-jerk reactions because we recognize that those reactions are often wrong and ultimately harmful.

One symptom of the malady is the many apologists using the election of President Obama as proof that racism doesn’t exist in the U.S. Yes, his position truly is a sign of the distance we’ve all covered in the last few decades. But, as recent events have proved, this race is a marathon and President Obama is merely a milestone, not the finish line.

The finish line is when racism no longer exists, not when people claim it doesn’t exist because they personally don’t notice it. Why is it that the people who are declaring racism dead are mostly white? Because if you’re not a targeted group, you don’t notice it. A 2006 CNN poll showed 49% of blacks saying racism is a “very serious” problem, while only 18% of whites agreed. A 2012 Associated Press poll showed that 51% of Americans expressed anti-black attitudes, up from 48% in a 2008 survey. Also, 52% displayed anti-Hispanic biases.

Every time the media call attention to racism, it raises the awareness of those who otherwise might not have noticed it around them. It’s a variation of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, in which someone learns a new bit of information and suddenly sees the information being used in multiple places in a short period of time. The reason for this is that the brain is constantly inundated with so much information that it rejects what it considers uninteresting (“uninteresting” being things that don’t affect you personally). This process is known as “selective attention.”

That’s why the best way to combat racism in the face of selective attention and situational racism is to seek it out every minute of every day and expose every instance we find. And not just racism, but also sexism, homophobia and every other kind of injustice that lessens the principles of inclusion that define this country.

We can’t let others control the perception or the message. We’ve got to go tell it on the mountain ourselves.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time National Basketball Association champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ). Mr. Abdul-Jabbar also writes a weekly column for the L.A. Register.

TIME Sports

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Welcome to the Finger-Wagging Olympics

Kareem Abdul Jabbar Clippers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the Sears Shooting Stars Competition 2014. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

It's time to look at ourselves — and our collective moral outrage — in the mirror, says former NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Moral outrage is exhausting. And dangerous. The whole country has gotten a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome from the newest popular sport of Extreme Finger Wagging. Not to mention the neck strain from Olympic tryouts for Morally Superior Head Shaking. All over the latest in a long line of rich white celebrities to come out of the racist closet. (Was it only a couple days ago that Cliven Bundy said blacks would be better off picking cotton as slaves? And only last June Paula Deen admitted using the “N” word?)

Yes, I’m angry, too, but not just about the sins of Donald Sterling. I’ve got a list. But let’s start with Sterling. I used to work for him, back in 2000 when I coached for the Clippers for three months. He was congenial, even inviting me to his daughter’s wedding. Nothing happened or was said to indicate he suffered from IPMS (Irritable Plantation Master Syndrome). Since then, a lot has been revealed about Sterling’s business practices:

  • 2006: U.S. Dept. of Justice sued Sterling for housing discrimination. Allegedly, he said, “Black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
  • 2009: He reportedly paid $2.73 million in a Justice Dept. suit alleging he discriminated against blacks, Hispanics, and families with children in his rentals. (He also had to pay an additional nearly $5 million in attorneys fees and costs due to his counsel’s “sometimes outrageous conduct.”)
  • 2009: Clippers executive (and one of the greatest NBA players in history) sued for employment discrimination based on age and race.

And now the poor guy’s girlfriend (undoubtedly ex-girlfriend now) is on tape cajoling him into revealing his racism. Man, what a winding road she led him down to get all of that out. She was like a sexy nanny playing “pin the fried chicken on the Sambo.” She blindfolded him and spun him around until he was just blathering all sorts of incoherent racist sound bites that had the news media peeing themselves with glee.

They caught big game on a slow news day, so they put his head on a pike, dubbed him Lord of the Flies, and danced around him whooping.

I don’t blame them. I’m doing some whooping right now. Racists deserve to be paraded around the modern town square of the television screen so that the rest of us who believe in the American ideals of equality can be reminded that racism is still a disease that we haven’t yet licked.

What bothers me about this whole Donald Sterling affair isn’t just his racism. I’m bothered that everyone acts as if it’s a huge surprise. Now there’s all this dramatic and very public rending of clothing about whether they should keep their expensive Clippers season tickets. Really? All this other stuff I listed above has been going on for years and this ridiculous conversation with his girlfriend is what puts you over the edge? That’s the smoking gun?

He was discriminating against black and Hispanic families for years, preventing them from getting housing. It was public record. We did nothing. Suddenly he says he doesn’t want his girlfriend posing with Magic Johnson on Instagram and we bring out the torches and rope. Shouldn’t we have all called for his resignation back then?

Shouldn’t we be equally angered by the fact that his private, intimate conversation was taped and then leaked to the media? Didn’t we just call to task the NSA for intruding into American citizen’s privacy in such an un-American way? Although the impact is similar to Mitt Romney’s comments that were secretly taped, the difference is that Romney was giving a public speech. The making and release of this tape is so sleazy that just listening to it makes me feel like an accomplice to the crime. We didn’t steal the cake but we’re all gorging ourselves on it.

Make no mistake: Donald Sterling is the villain of this story. But he’s just a handmaiden to the bigger evil. In our quest for social justice, we shouldn’t lose sight that racism is the true enemy. He’s just another jerk with more money than brains.

So, if we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when his racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played. Let’s be outraged that whoever did the betraying will probably get a book deal, a sitcom, trade recipes with Hoda and Kathie Lee, and soon appear on Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars.

The big question is “What should be done next?” I hope Sterling loses his franchise. I hope whoever made this illegal tape is sent to prison. I hope the Clippers continue to be unconditionally supported by their fans. I hope the Clippers realize that the ramblings of an 80-year-old man jealous of his young girlfriend don’t define who they are as individual players or as a team. They aren’t playing for Sterling—they’re playing for themselves, for the fans, for showing the world that neither basketball, nor our American ideals, are defined by a few pathetic men or women.

Let’s use this tawdry incident to remind ourselves of the old saying: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Instead of being content to punish Sterling and go back to sleep, we need to be inspired to vigilantly seek out, expose, and eliminate racism at its first signs.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time National Basketball Association champion and league Most Valuable Player. Follow him on Twitter (@KAJ33) and Facebook (facebook.com/KAJ).

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