Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has reprised one of his most iconic roles in an attempt to convince you to visit Wisconsin and forget just how desperate he was to get the heck out of there.
The legendary center appears alongside Airplane! costar Robert Hays in an epic new ad for Travel Wisconsin, urging tourists to visit in the summer. "I can't believe I ever left this place," Abdul-Jabbar laments as Hays touts the various outdoor activities ("Boating! Fishing! Biking!") the state has to offer. I don't doubt the Badger State's natural beauty in the warmer months (though my editor, a native Wisconsinite, paints a less rosy picture of humidity and mosquitoes), but let's just say this is a far cry from Abdul-Jabbar's sentiments toward the area nearly 40 years ago. He may have enjoyed the occasional hog ride through the sticks, but it wasn't enough to keep him around.
Flashback to 1975: The Milwaukee Bucks traded the most dominant center in the game to the Los Angeles Lakers, just four seasons after he led them to an NBA title. After six years and three MVP awards in Milwaukee, the 28-year-old Abdul-Jabbar wasn't being forced out of town -- he requested to leave. He was surprisingly vocal at the time of his motivations for wanting out, telling management that he and the city "aren't culturally compatible."
"The things I relate to don't happen to be in this city to any meaningful degree," Abdul-Jabbar told the Associated Press in March 1975, stressing that he didn't have any ill will toward the people of Wisconsin or the Bucks front office.
Despite current media's conflation of his trade request with similarly rumored "demands" by stars such as Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, Abdul-Jabbar appears to have been cordial and polite in transitioning from a city in which he felt out of place. He may have chosen his words carefully, taking pains not to slight his fans in Milwaukee, but his reasoning for leaving seemed a thinly veiled rejection of Wisconsin's relative racial and religious homogeneity. According to the 1970 U.S. Census, taken the year after the Bucks selected him with the first pick in the draft, 96.4 percent of the state's population was white, and only 2.9 percent black. Even in the Milwaukee metropolitan area the situation wasn't much more diverse, with a black population of 7.6 percent. It was a stark contrast to the virtual melting pot in New York City, where Abdul-Jabbar grew up, as well as Los Angeles, where he spent his college years at UCLA.
Compounding Abdul-Jabbar's feeling as an outsider was his lack of options for expressing his faith. In college, the man born Lew Alcindor converted to Sunni Islam. According to the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, the first organization for Muslims in the area was only established sometime between 1970 and 1972 -- a students' association chapter at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In that decade, the city's Muslim population had to rent the basement at nearby Kenwood United Methodist Church for Friday prayer services; the community wouldn't lay claim to its own Islamic center until purchasing an abandoned school in 1982.
It's easy to see why Abdul-Jabbar felt he was, in his own words, "a minority of one," even after he fled to broader pastures in Los Angeles. Now, it seems, he's ready to embrace his years in Wisconsin, promoting tourism and increasingly making public appearances for his former team. There's even talk about him potentially rejoining the Bucks organization; the team is seeking minority investors and Abdul-Jabbar has expressed interest of owning an NBA franchise. Unfortunately, while Milwaukee has grown more diverse, the region continues to show plenty of intolerance and fear of people and religions it doesn't understand, and Islamophobia may even skew the way some people choose to view one of the greatest careers in sports history. That doesn't prevent Abdul-Jabbar from remembering his years in Milwaukee fondly.
"I had a good stay here," he says of his time in Wisconsin. He hopes others will, too, come summertime.
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