WINTER PARK, Fla. -- Sitting before the 7-foot-2 giant that still draws crowds nearly three decades after ending his storied athletic career was a melting pot of people young and old, black and white, Christian, Muslim and everything in between.
It was the type of diversity Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of seeing, so it was fitting that it happened on the day marking 50 years since his assassination.
Yet more important than the physical diversity reflected in the audience that came to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at Rollins College in Winter Park was the mental diversity in what the basketball great had to say.
"The time to start talking about it is now," he said when asked about where the country stands on race relations. "If we don't attempt the dialogue, we'll never get there.
Abdul-Jabbar spoke for an hour about what led him to become vocal about race, class and culture throughout his career and how sports helped shape those views.
During the racial tumult of the 1960s, the angst and racial unrest gave a young Abdul-Jabbar little hope that anyone cared about black people other than black people.
Fifty years later, while he remains a vocal critic of racism and discrimination, he sees life a little differently.
He told the audience in sports, everyone is the same. All players are subject to the same penalties and share a common goal.
"Through sharing you communicate,” he said. “Through communication, you break down barriers."
Many of these views are outlined in his 2016 book, "Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White."
The book, published just before the presidential election, represented a major turning point in the country's handling of issues related to race and religion.
A Muslim himself, Abdul-Jabbar responded to questions about Islamophobia with this: "If you want people to understand, you have to engage. One gracious approach is usually met with another gracious response."
Abdul-Jabbar has been outspoken on issues of race, religion and culture for decades, so criticism that athletes should stick to sports and not politics does not sit well with him. After all, he has been an esteemed author and intellectual for nearly as long, if not longer, than he was an athlete.
He defended and validated Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, who have come under fire in recent months for their criticism of racism and police brutality.
"Too many young black kids get shot for no good reason," he said, speaking to police brutality and the violence that plagues many urban, minority communities. "James witnessed the killing of Tamir Rice [in Cleveland]. He has sons. He worried it could happen to them.”
Now, with the fight against gun violence taking on new life after 17 students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Valentine’s Day, Abdul-Jabbar says he sees the student advocates from Parkland as representatives of all of us.
"We all have to be a part of the solution,” he said.
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