As a nineteen-time All Star who won six NBA championships, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is certainly used to being recognized for his extraordinary achievements. Recently though, the 64 year-old retired basketball great was honored for his work fighting a significant battle off the court – the battle against cancer.
In 2008 Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia – or CML – a cancer of the white blood cells. Having always been a private person, the former athlete’s first inclination was to limit discussions of his condition to family and close friends, but in 2009 he had a change of heart.
“I figured I could possibly do some good by letting people know,” says Abdul-Jabbar, who was in New York in November to receive the Double Helix Medal, a prestigious honor for the work he has contributed to raising awareness for cancer research. “I’ve been able to align myself with people who help raise money for research and raise awareness.”
During the past three years the basketball legend has become an outspoken advocate for cancer patients, raised over 1 million dollars for research and even maintains a Facebook page providing resources and information to help others learn more about the disease. “This type of thing is something we all need to fight,” he says.
While in New York, Abdul-Jabbar attended the annual 2K Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer in Madison Square Garden. “It was a perfect fit,” Abdul-Jabbar says about his involvement during this year’s games. “These are two things [coaching and cancer] that have been big issues in my life.”
A special video acknowledging his efforts aired during half-time, endorsing the joint efforts of the American Cancer Society & National Association of Basketball Coaches in the fight against cancer.
Next month nearly 1000 coaches are expected to participate in the annual Suits & Sneakers awareness weekend (Jan. 27-29, 2012), trading their loafers for sneakers to demonstrate support for the American Cancer Society’s vision of a world with less cancer and more birthdays.
Before attending the tournament, the basketball giant, standing over 7 feet in height, was down to earth as he sat to speak one-on-one with a small crowd of cancer patients and their caregivers at the Manhattan Hope Lodge, a facility which provides room and board to patients who have travel out of town for cancer treatment. During the visit he answered questions about his condition and treatment, and posed for an endless number of photographs, bringing smiles and inspiration to those facing the challenges of the disease.
Abdul-Jabbar told the group he spent his entire life taking care of himself and trying to stay in shape, so the 2008 diagnosis was a shock. “I thought that I had a pass on [cancer], but you find out it’s not the case,” he said. “It is very scary to hear the word leukemia in connection with your own health.”
He encourages cancer patients everywhere to be proactive about their health, keep a positive attitude and never give up hope. He also had a message for caregivers, about how to be a coach for loved ones battling the disease.
“A kind word and some support at a crucial time can really help somebody to get the strength together to do what they need to do,” he says. “Just being there means so much.”