A few years ago I got the opportunity to interview college and pro basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in advance of his giving a talk in Omaha. He was every bit the thoughtful man he projects to be. Before doing this short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) I vaguely knew he had turned author and amateur historian with an eye towards highlighting African American achievements but I learned that he’s done much more in this area than I ever imagined and I got the sense he’s at least as proud of his work in this arena as he is of what he did on the hardwood.
Hoops Legend Abdul-Jabbar Talks History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the man who made the sky hook and goggles signature parts of hoopsiconography, headlines the May 12 B’nai B’rith Charity Sports Banquet at the Qwest Center Omaha. Now an author, he is the rare ex-sports superstar who’s applied a social conscience after balling.
The Naismith and NBA Hall of Famer was a legend before playing his first collegiate basketball game in 1967. His schoolboy dominance at Powers Memorial in New York City made him the most prized recruit since Wilt Chamberlain. He was so unstoppable at UCLA, when still known as Lew Alcindor, that dunking was outlawed after his sophomore season. He led the Bruins to three national championships.
In only his second NBA season his expansion Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 title. Omaha native Bob Boozer was the team’s 6th man. Abdul-Jabbar competed several times against the Kansas City-Omaha Kings at the Civic Auditorium.
The inscrutable big man added five more titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Six times he earned the league’s MVP award. Upon retirement he was the NBA’s all-time points scorer and arguably the greatest player ever. He continues as a Lakers special assistant today.
Like the late tennis star Arthur Ashe, he’s transcended athletics to write and talk about black history. The two were student-athletes together for a year at UCLA. In a phone interview Abdul-Jabbar said Ashe asked for his help researching the book, A Hard Road to Glory. Each came out of the civil rights struggle and endured criticism for being aloof. Abdul-Jabbar’s conversion to Islam alienated some. He said his passion for chronicling the stories of African-American achievers can be traced to a high school program he took that cultivated an interest in writing and history and introduced him to unknown facets of his childhood neighborhood, Harlem.
“Very loud echoes of the Harlem Renaissance were still there to be heard. I was just instilled with a lot of pride when I read about what Harlem had meant to Black America. It was just totally inspiring,” he said. “It made me want to share that as a very natural extension for how I felt about what was going on in America and what I wanted to do about it.”
His 2007 book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance describes Harlem’s legacy as “the capital of Black America and a place where a lot of things happened that made black Americans proud,” he said.
A story from those halcyon days is the subject of a documentary he’s producing, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of. Featuring on-camera comments by such hoop and pop culture stars as Charles Barkley and Spike Lee, it profiles the New York Renaissance or Harlem Rens, America’s first all-black pro basketball team. Owner Bob Douglas, often called the Father of Black Basketball, created the team in the early 1920s when segregation still ruled sports and society-at-large. The Rens delivered a powerful message by routinely trouncing all comers, including white squads before white audiences, over the next three decades.
Abdul-Jabbar is delighted to have several connections to the Rens. A well-known New York high school hoops official who called some of his games, Dolly King, played for the Rens. Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary UCLA coach John Wooden played a 1930s exhibition against the Rens as a Purdue All-American.
For the 7’2 basketball great, the Rens represent the struggle “for equality that consumed black Americans in all phases of life.” He hopes the film, scheduled for a 2011 release, educates young people that today’s opportunities have been hard-earned and nothing good comes easily.
Meanwhile, he’s coping with a rare form of leukemia that an oral medication treats. He’s not had to curtail his activities.
In Omaha he’ll speak about the World War II all-black 761st tank battalion, the subject of his 2004 book, Brothers in Arms. Some dispute battalion veterans’ claims they helped liberate Dachau concentration camp. There’s no disputing their heroic, unheralded role in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Allies’ final push across France and Germany.
- Q+A: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (slamonline.com)
- Abdul-Jabbar: More Opportunities to Turn Pro in Science Than in the NBA (usnews.com)
- Basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has CML (pharmastrategyblog.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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