Correction Appended: Feb. 22, 2012
Your new book, What Color Is My World?, is about inventors. Why inventors?
I wanted to pick a subject that would really surprise people. Most people in the world, including black Americans, don't think of black Americans as inventors of anything.
Was there a particular inventor you found really interesting?
Lewis Latimer. He did Alexander Graham Bell's patent-application drawings, and then he went on to invent the filament for the lightbulb.
... I was hoping you'd go with Lonnie Johnson, the inventor of the Super Soaker.
I've never had the opportunity to use one. Too late in my life, you know?
The book seems to suggest that you think African-American kids have lost touch with the struggles of their forebears. Do you?
Absolutely. They came into a world where, after these battles had been fought, they have a lot more opportunities and the ability to see themselves as being able to go anywhere and do anything. We have to maintain continuity by giving them the history of what the struggle was all about.
You've just been named a cultural ambassador for the Department of State, even though your reputation as a player was for being sullen and aloof. How did that come about?
I have some friends who are close with Mrs. Clinton [philanthropists] Catherine and Wayne Reynolds. They thought I would be good at that job, and people at the State Department decided maybe they were right. And I wasn't really sullen, but I wanted to focus on being the best player for my employers and fans. I neglected the public relations aspect of professional sports. I missed understanding how important it was.
It's Black History Month. How do you think black history will judge Barack Obama's presidency?
I think when you become President of the U.S., you can't be a black politician. You have to govern for the nation. That would include black people, but it has to include everybody.
Is the U.S. in a postracial era in professional sports?
I don't think we'll ever be postracial, because of the fear and anxiety of dealing with the other people who aren't like you. But the ability of racism to distort and corrode our society has become a lot less.
Have you faced any Islamophobia?
After 9/11, all of a sudden you have this suspicious spotlight on you just because you're Muslim. It was a radical change, and it really bothered me. People understand that the Ku Klux Klan, even though they take a Christian identity, are not practicing what Jesus was all about. It's the same thing with the radical Islamic people. They're about hatred and trying to impose their will on people. I guess that was put in our laps, as American Muslims, to explain that.
You hold the NBA record for the most points scored in a career. How much does it mean to you?
Well, it's nice, but if it gets broken, it gets broken. It should stay intact for a while because players get paid so much these days, none of them stay around. I played until I was 42.
Do you think if you were in your prime now, you'd still be an All-Star?
Players today are tremendously gifted, but they don't understand the game as well as players from my generation who got to play in college and learn the nuances, when situations arise that lead to victory or defeat. They think it's about being on Play of the Day.
I was looking at old photos of you with your glasses. Did Bono steal your look?
I think he needs glasses to see. I needed glasses so I could keep people's fingers out of my eyes.
To see Abdul-Jabbar and other interviewees on video, go to time.com/10questions
This story has been updated to correct the misspelling of Lewis Latimer's name.