Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s life has been a case study in the art of the possible, from his humble Harlem roots to N.B.A. fame and through his life after basketball as a historian and scholar. His next endeavor will draw on all of it.
Abdul-Jabbar was named a United States cultural ambassador Wednesday, with a mission of promoting education, racial tolerance and cultural understanding among young people around the world. He leaves Sunday for a six-day assignment in Brazil and will visit at least four more countries this year.
“It’s a great opportunity for me, just to connect with them on these issues and present some insights into what is possible and what has happened here in America,” Abdul-Jabbar, 64, said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon.
Abdul-Jabbar’s appointment was announced by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a brief ceremony earlier in the day. He is the first sports figure to be named a cultural ambassador during the Obama administration.
“He has the experience and the knowledge to talk to a young generation of people,” Ann Stock, the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, said in a telephone interview. “He is an icon, and he commands a lot of attention as an icon. And because of the success of his story, he’s the perfect person to be a cultural ambassador.”
The assignment dovetails with the release of Abdul-Jabbar’s first children’s book, “What Color is My World?” which illuminates the stories of African-American inventors whose contributions have been historically overlooked.
“I was motivated by the fact that the history books I had when I was in grade school, especially if blacks were mentioned, it was only in relation to aspects of slavery and the civil rights movement,” he said. “There’s so much more to the story. It’ s my attempt to fill in some of the blanks.”