Abdul-Jabbar tangles with Trump: Who's got game?

Donald Trump reacts to a newspaper opinion piece by former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who replies with a chess analogy.

Photo courtesy of Iconomy LLC
In this courtesy photo, former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is pictured at the chess board.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s scathing response to criticisms by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has set pundits and strategists back on their heels wondering if anyone can checkmate him in the polls.

Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, former cultural ambassador for the United States, chess aficionado, and author, penned a criticism of Mr. Trump’s lack of “grace under pressure” in The Washington Post.

In the op-ed, Abdul-Jabbar posited that “how each man responded [to pressure] revealed the type of person he is and the type of president he would make.”

The conclusion he reached is that Bernie Sanders “opened immense new possibilities as a compassionate person and serious candidate for president,” while Mr. Trump, “authored his own doom.”

In a hand-written note over a copy of Abdul-Jabbar’s piece, Trump stated, “Kareem – Now I know why the press always treated you so badly – they couldn’t stand you. The fact is that you don’t have a clue about life and what has to be done to make America great again!”

Abdul-Jabbar responded to the Monitor in an email Friday, likening Trump to a trash-talking chess player with no game.

"Trump is that chess player who likes to make every move with an aggressive slam of his piece on the board while shouting, 'Bam!' This will intimidate the novice and rattle his game,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “But it's ineffective against the more experienced player who welcomes such players because they are usually weak on strategy and therefore easily defeated. It's the same in basketball. The guy trash-talking all the time is usually the most insecure about his abilities."       

The question for pundits is why Abdul-Jabbar’s pronouncement isn’t happening to Trump.

New York University professor and pundit Fraser Seitel says in an interview, “He [Trump] calls it like it is. So if he thinks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is wrong, he doesn’t duck the question as politicians are taught to do. People like me tell politicians, ‘Look, don’t badmouth anybody, particularly your competition’ and he does it all the time. He defies every rule in the public relations book because he only listens to one person and that’s himself.”

Political activist and chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov says in an interview, “Trump’s childish response to Abdul-Jabbar might say something about how dangerous he would be with the power of the presidency, but we already knew that. It is getting him more media attention and that’s all he cares about.”

However, William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., says in an interview that, “…what I think people are responding to, quite frankly, is that it’s going to take a really imperious person to break through the really frustrating gridlock in Washington. I think in that sense Donald Trump is the wrong solution to the right problem.”

Mr. Seitel adds, “Trump fights back and doesn’t take it lying down when people take a swipe at you. I think that’s as American as John Wayne or any patriot.”

“Sure he doesn’t appeal right now to African-Americans, or Latinos or moderates, or poor people or middle class Democrats [or women], but the polls are unbelievable,” Seitel says. “He has 30 percent popularity over 17 candidates and that’s unheard of.”

In his op-ed, Abdul-Jabbar wrote: “It’s easy to buy into the Trump mirage because his rising poll numbers indicate he’s actually doing well. But polls are historically misleading, and his supporters will eventually desert him.”

However, if Trump wants to go the distance, “the challenge for Trump is to see how much he will moderate; How much he will apologize for some of these things; how much he will bend in order to ultimately take the brass ring," Seitel says. "It’s a real phenomenon in politics. I wouldn’t compare him to anybody. He’s a new brand in electoral politics.”

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