LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBA Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says NFL players and other professional athletes should continue their protests against police brutality in the United States and has rejected the notion that speaking out is in any way unpatriotic.
The six-time NBA champion said protests in the NFL, where players have sat, knelt or locked arms during the pre-game playing of the national anthem, were creating a useful dialogue around long-neglected issue of race.
"I think it's going in a good direction," said Abdul-Jabbar, who has been a political activist since his college days and is currently raising awareness about the fight against cancer.
"They should continue to speak about the issues that are of concern to them and use their power peacefully and effectively to change this situation.
"This is a real issue for black Americans. The protests against it have a legitimate place in what the traditions of our country are all about."
Abdul-Jabbar is as well known for his political activism as for the unstoppable 'skyhook' which led him to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer in a career spent mostly with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Pro athletes protesting during the national anthem
Pro athletes protesting during the national anthem
Sep 10, 2017; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett (80) holds his fist in the air during the national anthem prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 10: Michael Bennett #72 of the Seattle Seahawks sits on the bench during the national anthem prior to the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on September 10, 2017 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Bennett was controversially detained by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department on August 27, after the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor UFC fight. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 26: Offensive tackle Cameron Jefferson #60 of the Buffalo Bills raises his arm and makes a fist during the national anthem before playing against the Baltimore Ravens during a preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium on August 26, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 27: Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels dugout the National Anthem before the preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on August 27, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 21: A group of Cleveland Browns players kneel in a circle in protest during the national anthem prior to a preseason game against the New York Giants at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 21, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Aug 21, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Members of the Cleveland Browns kneel during the national anthem before a game against the New York Giants at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 17: Malcolm Jenkins #27 of the Philadelphia Eagles holds his fist in the air while Chris Long #56 of the Philadelphia Eagles puts his arm around him during the national anthem prior to the preseason game against the Buffalo Bills at Lincoln Financial Field on August 17, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 02: (L-R) Rashard Robinson #33, Antoine Bethea #41, and Jaquiski Tartt #29 of the San Francisco 49ers raise their fists in protest during the national anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 25: Brandon Marshall #54 of the Denver Broncos takes a knee in protest during the National Anthem before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 25, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.The Broncos defeated the Bengals 29-17. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 22: Duane Brown #76 of the Houston Texans raises his fist during the national anthem before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 22, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 18: Kenny Stills #10 of the Miami Dolphins (C) kneels during the national anthem before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on September 18, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Philadelphia Eagles players Steven Means (51), Malcolm Jenkins (27) and Ron Brooks (33) raise their fists in the air during the national anthem for a game against the Chicago Bears on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall (54) kneels during the national anthem next to defensive end Jared Crick (93) and defensive tackle Billy Winn (97) and defensive tackle Adam Gotsis (99) before the game against the Carolina Panthers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 12: Kenny Britt #18 and Robert Quinn #94 of the Los Angeles Rams raise their fists in protest prior to playing the San Francisco 49ers in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 06: Miami Dolphins Safety Michael Thomas (31) and Miami Dolphins Wide Receiver Kenny Stills (10) kneel in protest during signing of the National Anthem during the NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins on November 6, 2016, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 06: (L-R) Eli Harold #58, Colin Kaepernick #7, and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to their NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium on October 6, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 25: Hayes Pullard #52 of the Jacksonville aJaguars nd Dante Fowler #56 raise their fists in protest during the singing of the national anthem before the game against the Baltimore Ravens at EverBank Field on September 25, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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He boycotted the Olympics to protest against racial inequality as a student athlete in 1968, the same year he changed his name from Lew Alcindor after converting to Islam.
Now 70, he rejected the notion that today's protests were in any way disrespectful to the flag or the military, as U.S. President Donald Trump has said.
"These are peaceful protests that are raising awareness of something that is of grave concern," he said.
"People like the president of the United States don't want to admit there is an issue."
The NFL protests began last season when then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem amid a series of high-profile shootings of unarmed black men by police.
The key to solving the problem, Abdul-Jabbar believes, is to create dialogue between law enforcement and the low-income, minority communities where they work, which he said was starting to happen.
Abdul-Jabbar was particularly concerned by July comments by Trump in which he said police should not worry about being too "rough" when they are putting a suspect into a vehicle.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar through the years
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar through the years
25 MAR 1967: Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) (33) of UCLA takes a breather during the Division 1 basketball championship held in Louisville, KY. UCLA defeated Dayton 79-64 for the national title..ï¿½ Rich Clarkson
UCLA center Lew Alcindor, prior to his 1971 name change to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, acknowledges cheering teammates and fans following the Bruins' victory over the No. 1-ranked Houston Cougars (101-69), which advances them to the Final Four championship game against North Carolina. The 7-foot 2-inch junior center scored 19 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the semifinal game held at the Astrodome.
(Original Caption) 1974- Close up of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball player for the Milwaukee Bucks smiling in his uniform. Color slide.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, number 33 for the Milwaukee Bucks, holds the basketball during a game at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by mary delaney cooke/Corbis via Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE - 1970: Kareem Abdul Jabbar #33 of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots during the 1970 season at the MECCA Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1970 NBAE (Photo by Vernon Biever/NBAE via Getty Images)
INGLEWOOD, CA - 1985: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates the 1985 NBA Championship with owner Jerry Buss after the NBA Finals in1985 at the Forum in Inglewood, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at Sports Illustrated's 'Sportsman of the Year' award ceremony at the Beacon Theater, in New York City. 12/12/2000. Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Woody Harrelson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar arriving at the 2002 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at Lexington Avenue Armory in New York City. November 14, 2002. Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images.
LOS ANGELES - DECEMBER 9: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his son attend the Los Angeles Lakers against the New York Knicks game during the first half of action at Staples Center December 9, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - FEBRAURY 12: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal pose for photos during the American Express Celebrates the Rewarding Life of Earvin Johnson event on February 12, 2004 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 17: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar watches the Detroit Pistons versus the New York Knicks on February 17, 2004 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Former U.S. basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (C), wearing a black robe and white Moslem skull-cap, stands barefoot among Palestinian worshippers while praying in the al-Aqsa mosque July 11. Jabbar, who converted to Islam while in the NBA and who is in Israel for a streetball tournament, later visited the Wailing Wall, Judaism's holiest site.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar addresses a news conference at the Toyota Sports Center in Los Angeles, California September 6, 2005. Abdul-Jabbar announced that Los Angeles Lakers has hired him as special assistant coach. Abdul-Jabbar was a member of the Lakers from 1975 to 1989. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni MA/JJ
Fromer Milwaukee Bucks center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks to fans after his jersey number 33 was retired by the Bucks at halftime of an NBA basketball game between the Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin November 21, 2007. Jabbar played for the Bucks from 1969-75, then played for the Lakers. REUTERS/Allen Fredrickson (UNITED STATES)
NBA basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar watches a video during a news conference to introduce the friendly game between Regal FC Barcelona and the LA Lakers, which will be played on October 7, at the Palau Blaugrana in Barcelona June 1, 2010. REUTERS/Gustau Nacarino (SPAIN - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
Former NBA star and U.S. cultural ambassador Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (C) teaches children to play basketball during a visit to the basketball project at the Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro January 26, 2012. Abdul-Jabbar has been named global cultural ambassador by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, giving the NBA Hall of Famer and all-time scoring leader the chance to promote the importance of education, social and racial tolerance and cultural understanding. REUTERS/Ana Carolina Fernandes (BRAZIL - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL SOCIETY)
Former Los Angeles Lakers basketball player and NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar smiles as he is interviewed after a bronze statue of himself (rear) was unveiled in Star Plaza, outside Staples Center in Los Angeles November 16, 2012. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
Actor Harrison Ford (R) stands with Los Angeles Lakers legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar (L) before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the MLB National League baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres in Los Angeles, April 15, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SPORT BASEBALL BASKETBALL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
NBA basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabaar waves before speaking on the final night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (L) in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria TPX IMAGE OF THE DAY
Nov 20, 2017; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Kareem Abdul Jabbar acknowledges the crowd during a game between the UNLV Runnin' Rebels and the Rice Owls at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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A White House spokesperson later said Trump was making a joke, but Abdul-Jabbar said it was no laughing matter.
"He said it is okay to smack their head into the frame of the car," he said.
"That's no joke in the black community or in the Hispanic community. Those things are done often."
While he believes the protests by NFL players and community work by NBA players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were having an impact, he thought America's racial issues are a long way from being solved.
"It's hard to measure success while there is still a body count," he said.
"Maybe when the bodies stop falling?"
(Reporting by Rory Carroll, editing by Nick Mulvenney)