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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar slams Quentin Tarantino for ‘uppity’ depiction of Bruce Lee in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’


NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (left) and his friend and mentor Bruce Lee. (ABC/ Everett Collection)

Just because NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hasn’t balled in 30 years doesn’t mean he still can’t dunk.

The 72-year-old athlete-activist penned a recent essay criticizing filmmaker Quentin Tarantino for his depiction of his former friend and martial arts teacher Bruce Lee in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

“This controversy has left me torn. Tarantino is one of my favorite filmmakers because he is so bold, uncompromising and unpredictable,” states Abdul-Jabbar in the Hollywood Reporter essay. “There’s a giddy energy in his movies of someone who loves movies and wants you to love them, too. . . . That’s what makes the Bruce Lee scenes so disappointing, not so much on a factual basis, but as a lapse of cultural awareness.”

Abdul-Jabbar isn’t the first person to slam the representation of Lee, portrayed by Mike Moh in the film. Lee’s own daughter, Shannon Lee, sniped that Moh’s arrogant portrayal was inaccurate.

The six-time title NBA champ claims he first met Lee while studying martial arts at UCLA. The basketball great credits the action hero for teaching him discipline and spirituality — which Abdul-Jabbar credits for allowing him to play a 20-year NBA career relatively injury-free.

He also noted that Lee was annoyed by the stereotypical representation of Asians on TV and film, in which they seemingly only portrayed servants and villains.

“That’s why it disturbs me that Tarantino chose to portray Bruce in such a one-dimensional way," explains Abdul-Jabbar. "The John Wayne machismo attitude of (Brad Pitt’s ‘Hollywood’ character), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle.”

Abdul-Jabbar speaks of Lee in glowing terms, a man who always declined to fight fans ready to take him on. He and Lee starred in the unfinished martial arts film “Game of Death,” which was released in 1978, five years after Lee’s sudden death from a cerebral edema.

“He felt no need to prove himself. He knew who he was and that the real fight wasn’t on the mat, it was on the screen in creating opportunities for Asians to be seen as more than grinning stereotypes,” recalled Abdul-Jabbar.

Lee, who got his showbiz break playing Kato, the dutiful sidekick on TV’s “The Green Hornet,” starred in a series of popular martial arts flicks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including “Fist of Fury," The Big Boss" and “Way of the Dragon.”