Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: My 50-Year Friendship With Big Bird and 'Sesame Street'

Zach Hyman/Courtesy of Sesame Workshop
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Big Bird and friends on a 2013 episode.

The (very tall) Hollywood Reporter contributor first met the yellow character in 1969 — "It's nice to have someone I can look straight in the eyes” — and sees the show's influence on everything from his own kids' behavior to 'The Great British Bake Off.’

Big Bird has been my feathered friend for 50 years. Sure, we don't see each other as much as I'd like, but when we do get together, it's nice to have someone I can look straight in the eyes without bending my neck.

We first met in 1969, Sesame Street's inaugural year, when I was 22, and I dropped by a few times over the years. Once, Big Bird and I did a segment on subtraction. Another time I got to sing the theme song with Big Bird, Elmo and the Count. So, yeah, I do know how to get to Sesame Street. [Watch one of his appearances here.] More important than my personal friendship with Big Bird, Sesame Street has played an even bigger role in educating my children and in shaping the moral character of American culture. Thank goodness.

For 50 years, the cozy little neighborhood has taught us much more than numbers and words. While we can count on Count von Count to give us the good word on numbers, the other characters preach the gospel of compassion, kindness and fairness. They want us to be not only good counters and good spellers, but also good neighbors. I always knew that when my children watched the interactions of the humans and Muppets — my oldest daughter, Habiba, was able to turn on the television and change the channels to Sesame Street before she could even talk — whatever conflicts they had would be resolved from a place of respect and appreciation rather than arrogance or self-righteousness. The street and its residents are a brightly colored community that embodies the best teachings of most religions, but without the hard seats and guilt. And with a lot more laughter and silliness.

The influence of Sesame Street can be seen reflected in the most unlikely places — like, for instance, the popularity of the English TV show The Great British Bake Off. That modest series featuring a group of amateur bakers competing against one another shocked experts when it became one of the biggest ratings hits not only in England but also in the U.S. Even more surprising was that it brought in more younger viewers (16-to-34-year-olds) than any other show. No violence. No nudity. No sex. Just a bunch of sweet, supportive people passionate about baking. When they are eliminated from the show, they don't complain that the judges made a mistake. They nod agreement and say, "Oh, yes, I definitely deserve to go." Not because they are weak or lack confidence, but because they are kind and lack self-importance. They are the grown-up versions of the kids who skipped down Sesame Street, who tear up when Elmo is sad, who smile when Cookie Monster shares. They show a grace and maturity that is more addicting to us viewers than the sugary confections they are baking.

I am so glad that I was able to visit the Shangri-la that is Sesame Street. Being immortalized on that street is even better than having a star on Hollywood Boulevard because it means I've contributed in some small way to furthering the ideals that make kids happier adults.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a THR contributor and NBA Hall of Famer.

Read more about Sesame Street:

50 Years of Sunny Days on 'Sesame Street': Behind the Scenes of TV’s Most Influential Show Ever

Where 'Sesame Street' Gets Its Funding — and How It Nearly Went Broke

Childhood Heroes or Poor Role Models? Meet the Muppets Evicted From 'Sesame Street'

'Sesame Street' Movie's Writer-Director Reveals Plot Details

'Sesame Street': Meet the New Puppeteer Inside Big Bird

This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.