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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's New 'Skyhook' Is All About The Kids (INTERVIEW)

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Basketball fans know Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his signature skyhook shot that he used to bring his teams to victory in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

But these days the sports legend is more concerned with his Skyhook Foundation, which he says he founded to help "a much bigger team -- underserved youth -- become academic champions. My goal now is to excite students about the potential of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers so they have more opportunities to pursue fulfilling futures."

Recently, HuffPost Science asked Abdul-Jabbar a series of questions about his foundation and his promotion of STEM. He gave his answers via email:

Why have you picked STEM as your focus?

Two reasons. First, all fields of study are valuable to a balanced society. But STEM has the most potential right now for providing successful careers for the kind of students who might otherwise give up on themselves. One of the most rewarding aspects of going around to talk about STEM to schools is how many children come up to me afterward and say, "I never thought of myself as a scientist. But now I'm thinking maybe I could be one." STEM can open a lot of new horizons for kids to see themselves in a better light.

The second reason is that I think the future of the U.S.'s economy is at stake. Our country has been slowly but systematically slipping in world rankings as leaders in science and technology. Since this is one of our main exports, that can directly damage our future economy, which will weaken our ability to promote democracy around the world.

Why is there so little diversity in STEM fields?

Historically, people of color were discouraged from studying the sciences because the white status quo didn't want the competition for jobs and because they didn't think people of color were intellectually capable. Even though that situation technically is no longer the case, the cultural fallout from those days has produced a collateral damage of kids who lack the self-confidence to pursue these courses and careers. That's what we're trying to change.

What is your ultimate goal regarding STEM education?

My first goal is that every child -- regardless of ethnic origin, gender, or economic status -- has the opportunity to pursue the career of his or her choice. But first we have to instill desire and self-confidence. We hope to accomplish this by showing students how much fun and adventure they can have with STEM.

My second goal is to help bring the U.S. back to the forefront of scientific and technological research and development. New discoveries can make the people healthier and happier as well as economically more prosperous.

Are you personally interested in science?

Medicine interests me because I see it as the most direct way to end suffering. My own experience with ailments has given me a new appreciation for all that has been done -- and still needs to be done. Plus, my son is a medical doctor. However, I read a lot about all branches of science, including new discoveries about how the brain works, how memories are stored, our recent discoveries of new planets similar to Earth, last year's discoveries of a new animal species.

Are you good at math?

Good enough to figure out a proper tip. Just don't ask me about that train leaving from Cleveland going 50 miles an hour while the train leaving Chicago is heading toward it at 65 miles an hour.

Did you study science in college?

I took a few science classes and thoroughly enjoyed them. But my focus was on history and English. I especially liked studying science within the context of history. I was fascinated with how a scientist made a discovery and then the ramifications of that discovery on that era and its ripple effect on the rest of the era.

Did you ever think about becoming a scientist?

Once. When I saw the original "Time Machine" movie with Rod Taylor I toyed with inventing a time machine. I haven't yet given up on that dream. There are a couple games against the Celtics I might go back in time for and play differently.

Do you keep up with new developments in science and technology?

I read Discover magazine and watch Mythbusters. When I fly, which is often (and usually in a plane), I'll buy a Scientific American in the airport.

Who is your favorite scientist?

The inventors I wrote about in "What Color Is My World" made me feel inspired and humbled. Most of them had so much to overcome just to get an education and to be taken seriously in the scientific community. But they then went on to change the world. That's impressive. I'm also a big fan of the books of Stephen Jay Gould. They are thoughtful, humorous, and always surprising.

Most recently, I was impressed by the American biologist Randy Schekman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine last year. What impressed me wasn't just his scientific achievement, but his moral stance in declaring that his lab wasn't going to submit research to the most prestigious science journals. He believes that pressure to publish in these journals makes scientists less diligent in their research and also encourages them to pursue fields of study that are more likely to be popular rather than necessary. I appreciate scientists who use their status to promote ethics as well as science.

What's your favorite sci-fi movie?

Impossible to name one. Here are a few, in no particular order: "The Matrix," "Aliens," "The Thing" (the 1982 version), "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956 and 1978), "A Clockwork Orange," "Terminator," "Road Warrior," and "Blade Runner." Tonight I'll think of 20 more.

What's one piece of technology you can't do without?

As much as I love how much technology has improved our world on every level, I'm not that dependent on any particular device. I do love my high-definition flat screen TV, though, because I can watch sports with such clarity.

What's your favorite app?

I know you want me to say "Flappy Bird," but I'm not going to. I can't really point to any one app that I use that much. I like "Flixster" because it gives me movie times and Rotten Tomato ratings. For news, I use HuffPost, Flipboard, and The Week.

You've expressed admiration for George Crumb, who invented potato chips. Is he your favorite scientist?

I admire his tenacity in the face of one of the world's richest men. I like that he took his accidental innovation and had the business savvy to turn it into a successful business. But there are many others that I admire more, such as Garrett Morgan, who used his invention of a safety hood to enter a mine filled with poisonous gas and save 29 trapped men.

Ever want to go into space?

Depends on the leg room in the spaceship.

Any interest in becoming a Mars colonist?

Yes, on those days when I forget how old I am.

Do you think extraterrestrial life exists? Ever see a UFO?

I've never seen a UFO, but it makes sense that, given the vastness of the universe and the number of planets similar to Earth, there would be forms of life out there. It seems like the height of self-importance to think we're the only planet with life.

What scientific fact do you find especially awe-inspiring?
Every single day reveals a hundred awe-inspiring scientific facts: from gravity holding us on the planet to the smell of pheromones on a lover's neck to the ability of the clown anemonefish to completely change gender from male to female.

Do you think that science and religion are compatible?

Of course. Although it's true that religions throughout history have persecuted some scientists, they have also sometimes been great supporters of science. Despite what some people think, many Catholic Church writings on evolution found it compatible with a belief in God. For the thousands of religious scientists around the world today, discovering the science behind how the universe works is merely a testament to God's ingenuity, not a refutation. Faith, by definition, is a belief in something for which there is no conclusive evidence. To reject science out of fear of what might be discovered is actually to demonstrate a lack of faith.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Abdul-Jabbar is scheduled to speak at the USA Science & Engineering Festival at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 27 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

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