Unlikely Teammates: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and His Jewish Manager (INTERVIEW)
Standing behind the podium of the 2013 NAACP Image Awards is a man in a tux with a red tie whose smooth, dark skin is stretched over a frame so long that it cannot fit through a standard doorway.
Behind the same podium, a woman comes up to maybe the bottom of that man’s ribcage. She is fair skinned, black haired, ruby lipped, and sheathed in black lace. She looks like a Jewish Snow White. He is the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) all-time leading scorer, an actor, New York Times best-selling author, and official U.S. Cultural Ambassador. She is a New England-bred “iconomist”—a term she coined that combines the duties of an agent, manager, lawyer, and marketing and public relations expert—and an award-winning film producer and director.
He is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and she is his Jewish manager, Deborah Morales. Together, this unlikely pair shares a unique passion for Jewish-black partnerships.
“The individual natures of those relationships is less important than the pattern: people of different backgrounds coming together to bring about a different world,” Abdul-Jabbar says in an interview with JNS.org. “Today’s fractured world makes it easier for groups to isolate themselves from others. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media allows those with similar beliefs to confirm each other’s beliefs 24 hours a day rather than interact with those who might have different opinions. That’s why it’s more important than ever that people can see how such relationships from people of different backgrounds can overcome those differences in the service of something greater.”
Abdul-Jabbar took home two honors at the NAACP Image Awards this February—Best Children’s Book for What Color is My World?: The Lost History of African American Inventors, and Best Documentary for On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Team You’ve Never Heard Of, which he produced with Morales.
Unexpected Jewish-black partnerships run deep through recent history. Nelson Mandela gave the funeral address for his beloved friend and anti-apartheid champion, Joseph Slovo. Stanley Levison helped Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. plan the 1963 March on Washington. Famed sports broadcaster Howard Cosell rose to prominence by covering Muhammad Ali. Mannie Jackson, born on a train car, was recognized by Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein for his prowess on the basketball court. Jackson later went on to buy the Globetrotters organization, dust it off, and resuscitate it.
“These eight men might not have agreed on which day to worship, but they all agreed that all humans should have the same opportunity to better their lives,” Abdul-Jabbar says of the abovementioned Jewish-black relationships.
Why have Jews and blacks have partnered successfully? What makes them synergistic? Or, is Jewish-black closeness simply an illusion or coincidence? Morales believes those relationships are not only quite real, but quite natural.
“Our shared history of discrimination, enslavement and persecution makes us natural allies,” she tells JNS.org. “We [Morales and Abdul-Jabbar] both know that no matter how much we mainstream, we are always at risk as part of a religious, ethnic or cultural minority.”
“Both cultures know what it’s like to face hostile societies in many countries,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “This bond of compassion encourages us to work toward our similar goal of eradicating ethnic bias.”
Morales, fittingly, began her partnership with the cinematic co-pilot from “Airplane!” at LAX airport in Los Angeles.
“I was on my way to my gate,” says Morales, who at the time owned and operated a promotional merchandise company. “And [Abdul-Jabbar] was on his way to his. As he passed, he smiled.” She pauses. “That’s the power of a smile. His smile can light up a room.”
Moments later, while Morales waited for her flight to Las Vegas, Abdul-Jabbar came and tapped her on the shoulder. “I think he thought I needed help,” says Morales, who was in fact struggling with some deep issues at the time. “Somehow he could tell. He definitely intervened and saved me from some very distressing things going on in my life. He’s very spiritual and sensitive.”
“Being that tall,” she laughs, “is like being a giraffe in the jungle warning the other animals of oncoming danger. Because they can see and hear more than the other animals.”
Abdul-Jabbar can’t remember where he was headed that day. In a seemingly random and fairy godfather sort of way, he became Morales’s “knight in rusty armor.” The term comes from a book, with the same title, about a knight who cares so much about the plights of those he protects that he neglects his own armor till it rusts. That is Abdul-Jabbar in a nutshell, Morales says. The giant cares more about the people around him than himself, she says, which is likely what brought him to center court in the social justice arena.
The hoops legend has experienced a fair share of unkindness over the years
“Being black, a Muslim, and 7’2″ tall is the hat trick of prejudice,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “My decision to become a political activist at the height of my basketball career created another prejudice among sports fans who prefer their players to just grin and play.”
Morales and Abdul-Jabbar spent the next few years developing their friendship. Fibromyalgia left Morales bedridden for two years.
“I wanted to die. But Kareem wouldn’t let me,” she says.
Abdul-Jabbar brought her books like Man’s Search for Meaning and The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People to read, and films like Sea Biscuit to watch. He surrounded her with positive imagery to help her deal with her struggle. Then one day, with no heralding, an idea came to Morales, riding atop a malapropism. Watching Alan Greenspan on TV, searching for purpose, she said, “Why can’t I be like Alan Greenspan? Why can’t I be an iconomist?”
The word she had been searching for was, of course, economist. But the misspeak changed her life. She went to Abdul-Jabbar with the idea that she, with a background in motivational speaking and sales and an inherent desire to help people, would help him achieve his goals. She would take him, as her slogan promises, from success to significance. Morales became Abdul-Jabbar’s greatest ally.
Which is not to say life suddenly became easy for Morales—a Jewish woman daring to step into a man’s role in the talent management industry.
“Because I had to be a strong-minded woman in an uphill battle in a male-dominated environment, it was like being against a wall in the most vicious game of dodge ball ever,” she says. “Assertiveness is called bitchiness. Reasonable negotiation is called stubbornness. And so forth. So the success of our partnership has been very fulfilling.”
Abdul-Jabbar says his friendship and business partnership with Morales “is kind of a bubble that is impervious” to external influences such as concern within the Jewish community about the relationship between Barack Obama, the first black president, and Israel.
“External events do not have any effect on our working relationship, but what it does have an effect on is our ability to accept certain engagements at certain times,” Morales says. “For example, Kareem is Muslim and therefore we cannot accept any liquor endorsements because of religious beliefs. We argue over other small things, like the time I introduced him to the owner of a large pretzel chain and the first thing he said upon meeting the gentleman was, ‘I really hate pretzels.’ Of course the man was taken back. Not knowing what to do, he offered Kareem a free card to go and try one of his world-class pretzels.”
“Small dislikes that are unknown to each other play into our business relationship and sometimes cause conflicts,” she added. “We differ in our political and religious beliefs, but overall we get along and look for the common ground.”
Abdul-Jabbar says that he “had a lot of confidence in Deborah” when she approached him about a business relationship, but he was initially concerned about leaving his prior talent representation because “she did not have a lot of experience in this industry.” But now, he says, he sees clearly how “this relationship has been extremely successful in my post-playing career.”
The success of that relationship can be attributed to “our ability to overcome the typical relationship dynamics” between blacks and whites, Muslims and Jews, and celebrities and businesswomen, according to Morales.
“These aren’t blockades but rather building blocks that make our foundation stronger,” she says. “The person scoring the most points in a game can’t do it unless someone passes him the ball and someone else sets a pick and someone else rebounds. People on the outside may think the scorer is the most valuable player, but that scorer knows he can’t do it without the others.”