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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hard-line stance on NBA players and vaccinations

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The NBA's new season starts this month, and all eyes are on how the league is handling COVID vaccinations. Now, right now most players are vaccinated, but a vocal minority of players are refusing, saying it's their choice. The NBA says they won't pay unvaccinated players if local vaccine mandates force them to miss games. Some, however, want the league to go further.

Yesterday morning, we spoke to NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who says players and staff should simply be removed from the team if they won't get vaccinated. He also told me that it's about more than just the vaccine.

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: I think speaking up for vaccination is an extension of speaking up for Black Lives Matter because - who's suffering the most in the bad economy that is caused by COVID-19? Who suffers the most deaths in the pandemic? Black people. You can see the direct correlation between saving lives through vaccination, and we can't slack at any point and take another path (ph). There's none that works.

MARTINEZ: So do you think there's a bit of hypocrisy from a player, say, that openly supported Black Lives Matter, that maybe kneeled for the national anthem and that won't get a vaccine? Do you think that those two things can exist together?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Yeah. And I think that the person who won't get vaccinated, if they're concerned at all, they obviously haven't taken the time to educate themselves on the subject.

MARTINEZ: Now, to be clear, about 90% of NBA players are indeed vaccinated. Should that 90%, Kareem, be doing more to get the remaining 10% on board? LeBron James just came out and said that he is vaccinated, but he will not urge others to do the same.

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, you know, everybody has their own choice to make. But if you want to play professional basketball with a lot of other people who would be endangered by close contact with people who aren't vaccinated, everybody's got to slow down and say, hey, we can't allow that situation to happen. That's not fair.

MARTINEZ: LeBron's quote was, "I don't feel like, for me personally, that I should get involved in what other people should do with their bodies and livelihood." Considering his reach, his impact that he has and who he is, his stature, not just in the NBA, but also in sports, is that quote irresponsible?

ABDUL-JABBAR: I don't think it's irresponsible. LeBron got vaccinated. His family got vaccinated. That's responsible. And they let people know that without trying to get on a bandwagon and say - tell, you know, the whole world, well, do it because I did it. He's not saying that. But he did it (laughter). So people who are going to take their cue from LeBron - you know, the example is there.

MARTINEZ: Athletes in team sports talk a lot about how important it is to trust that everyone is on the same page toward achieving the team's goals. If some players do indeed wind up holding firm on not getting vaccinated, Kareem, what do you think that could do to a team's sense of unity and trust in a locker room and on the court?

ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, it's hard to know how the team is going to react. If they have a player who is convinced that the vaccines don't work, then they have to protect themselves against that person. The NBA has protocols to deal with people who aren't vaccinated. I think they made - last year in the bubble, they made everybody test every day. So there are ways to accommodate that. But the safest way for everybody is for masks and vaccinations to be taken up by everybody.

MARTINEZ: That's six-time champ, six-time MVP and all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem, thank you very much.

ABDUL-JABBAR: It was nice talking with you. Stay healthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.