I almost met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once.
Picture O’Hare airport’s gift shop, filled with trinkets that resemble every other tourist trap except with “Chicago” branded in nondescript, plastic letters.
The store was underpopulated and a 23-year-old version of myself was wasting time until my flight. My disinterest in the gimmicks left me wandering aimlessly around the shop, until I landed at the counter, head propped on one hand and spinning a rack of moniker key chains with the other.
I was daydreaming when I became subtly aware of a looming shadow next to me. I kept flipping the rack until I grasped the fact that the shadow wasn’t moving.
As I turned slightly, I found myself facing a man’s abdomen, startled by the proximity. It was a long journey up to his face, which ended in a quizzical look on my part, and an amused look on his.
Now, I come from a family of tall men. And my brother-in-law measures in at 6’8″. But at 7’2″, this man was a full 6 inches taller than that.
As I tilted my head, he said “hi” and smiled, giving me a look that was hard to read at the time. I didn’t know if I responded. I may have just stared at him, blankly, until he finally walked away.
As my brain slowly connected with my visual perspicuity, the most incurious internal dialogue ensued–a dialogue that would be both comical and offensive to NBA fans and Airplane! movie lovers alike: “I wonder if that guy ever played basketball.” I thought. “I should’ve asked him that…” At which point I experienced a milli-second of regret, shrugged, and went back to spinning keys in a methodical, clockwise motion.
Seconds later a wide-eyed cashier hurried towards me shrieking and gesturing with an absurdity that contrasted my understated thoughts. “That was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar standing next to you!” She shouted.” He just bought something and I saw the name on his credit card! But I knew it was him right away!!!” She had an air of self-referential pride.
She then asked me a question, the answer to which left her crestfallen. “What did you say to him?!” I looked at her, knowing I was bound to disappoint, and shrugged, “Dunno…I don’t think I said anything…” My voice wistfully dropped off at the end. Her condemnation was evident. And the truth is, I don’t really know, but I think I was completely silent.
Act II: The Encounter
If it’s possible in an interaction between two people for one to have an encounter while the other doesn’t, that’s exactly what happened, here. Kareem had more of an attuned interaction with me than I did with him (not that it mattered to him, I’m sure, other than to pique his amusement).
For me, however, it was a bit haunting. Not just because I do know who he is, but also because I was unnerved by my ability to be so detached from the present moment. For someone who was studying attunement and practicing it in real time in the office, I had hit a major blind spot.
What to do? Engage mindful awareness.
Act III: The Questions
To be mindful is to be open to what’s going on around us with a receptivity that allows for curiosity, exploration, and assimilation, ultimately leading to growth. In my disconnection from the moment, I lost out on the possibility to do what I do so well (ask copious amounts of annoying questions). And I lost out on that with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In this narrative, I celebrate Kareem as an example of the raconteur. He was a storyteller who translated valuable truths from my office couch to my kitchen table (or, in this case, the gift shop counter) with one knowing look.
Version 2.0 of my website is now titled The Raconteer. Raconteer is a made up word meant to describe one who celebrates pioneers of storytelling (raconteurs) who bridge the gap between the office couch and the kitchen table. —click here for explanation—
I’ll always remember that story as a lesson in mindfulness. Kareem, if I ever get a redo, I have two questions that I’ve often contemplated and are long overdue. How do you deal with the forced mindfulness that accompanies your towering height? And what’s it like to have a birds eye view to a world of oblivious people?