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Bruce Lee and Me: Apparel that Honors the Past While Making a Better Future

Guest Column by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Aristotle said that a friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies. Bruce Lee and I were friends like that but, man, our two bodies couldn’t have been more different. Bruce was a 5’8” Chinese-American martial artist and I was a 7’2” African-American basketball player. There were other differences: he was raised in Hong Kong, I was raised in New York City. He was outgoing, charismatic, a born performer. I was shy, quiet, bookish. Our contact point was a shared love of martial arts, but we soon found more common ground in our mutual interest in music, books, movies, history, and philosophy. Our many late-night discussions revealed another, more fundamental similarity: we both came from marginalized people and shared a passion to do everything we could to bring about equality for our people—and for all people.

I am often asked what the average person can do to make the world better and I say, “Make a friend that doesn’t look like you.” This simple philosophy was inspired by the profound impact my friendship with Bruce had on me. I know it doesn’t solve our deeply embedded problems of systemic racism, but motivating people to recognize that there is a problem starts with creating empathy for others. Sometimes that empathetic process can begin through the arts: we watch a TV show or movie about the daily-life struggles of people with different ethnic, regional, or religious backgrounds than our own and we suddenly are aware of their unique struggles. The problem is, many people prefer to watch shows about people like them. It’s not a deliberate shunning of others, just the desire for the familiar, like eating comfort food rather than an exotic meal they’ve never tasted.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is working with the estate of his late friend and martial arts instructor Bruce Lee to bring out a line of apparel with a social justice message.

The political, social, and health turmoil of the past year made people more eager for the soothing comfort of the familiar and less tolerant of the unfamiliar. Which makes the need to make a friend that doesn’t look like you even more important than ever. For our country to not just survive, but to thrive after the full frontal assaults we’ve endured, we need to remember that the country was started by and built by a bunch of people from different backgrounds, many of whom came here to escape those persecuting them for their differences. We became such a powerful and successful country because of those differences and because our reputation for tolerance brought people from all over the world to want to start a new life here. Their enthusiasm and talents made us great. And, while we may have a dark history of exploiting such people, we also have an uplifting history of dedicating ourselves to justice, to righting past wrongs. That is the better angel in our heads that guides us. 

Bruce single-handedly made martial arts an international phenomenon and in doing so made millions of friends who didn’t look like him. Martial arts studios sprang up all over the world resulting in a greater appreciation for Asian culture in general. But the kind of “making a friend” that brings about lasting understanding and respect requires more than just nodding at someone in passing or asking about the family. That’s making an acquaintance, a colleague, an associate. That’s just being polite and politeness can be a barrier more than a bridge because it lets us off the hook of trying harder to connect with people. 

In his famous poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” That was another idea that Bruce and I agreed upon. We didn’t like the walls, either literally or metaphorically, that people built to keep others out. Especially if that wall was to prevent others from sharing in the same opportunities as those walling themselves in. One of the most important things I learned from Bruce was that real change is only possible if all marginalized groups join together to tear down those walls, to fight for everyone’s rights, not just their own. We understood that if we accepted the justification for excluding one group, we’d have to accept that same reasoning for excluding any group. 

All this explains why I decided to team up with Bruce’s daughter Shannon through Iconomy Apparel to create a line of t-shirts and face masks that memorializes what my relationship with Bruce meant to me. For 50 years I’ve worked to promote civil rights for everyone. For me, this is just an extension of that work because it’s an opportunity to share with others the message we both believed in: “Make a Friend That Doesn’t Look Like You…You Might Just Change the World.”

There’s an old song Perry Como recorded in the Fifties called “One Little Candle” with the lyric, “If everyone lit just one little candle, What a bright world this would be!” Sure, it’s corny, but I like to think that every piece of clothing we put out into the world with that message is another candle making the world just a little brighter.  

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a global icon that changed the game of professional basketball. Since his stellar professional career as the league’s highest scoring player, he has gone on to become a celebrated New York Times-bestselling author, filmmaker, ambassador of education, and Time Magazine columnist. A sought-after speaker, Abdul-Jabbar recounts in riveting and humorous detail his exciting evolution from street ball player to successful athlete, author, producer, and community activist.

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