Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as comfortable as ever as a public intellectual
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar haunts the NCAA Final Four once more, his body folded into a mezzanine skybox, a UCLA cap pulled low over a very high brow. During a break in the national semifinal between Duke and Michigan State, the jumbotron at Indianapolis’s Lucas Oil Stadium displays a slide show of Final Four memories, and one image catches him by surprise—a shot from his days as a Bruin, wheeling into a skyhook.
“Well,” he says, “look what we have here.”
The photo popped up randomly, a message in a bottle from his past. But Abdul-Jabbar’s comment could just as easily serve as a caption to the life he has settled into during his 60s. Look, indeed, at what we have here: 11 books, including memoir, history, detective fiction and juvenile novels; magazine articles published in everything from the socialist Jacobin to the resolutely Main Street Rotarian; a gig commenting on current events for TIME following a run as a pop culture columnist for The Huffington Post; two films about his life, including HBO’s forthcoming Kareem: A Minority of One; and appearances on shows such as Meet the Press, where he’ll pose questions such as, Why must peaceful Muslims like myself answer for violent perversions of that religion while their counterparts in other faiths get a pass? After years of trying to break back into the NBA as a full-time assistant coach, Abdul-Jabbar, 68, has found both comfort and a calling as a man of letters and a public intellectual. “I’ve moved on,” he says. “At this point in my life I want to do things that are more important. I figure, I have a platform and a voice, so I might as well use it. And I’ve gone into it all the way. No half-step. Talk about ironies: I’m in this position now, the writer and not the target anymore.”
That journey has been a more challenging transition for the public to navigate than it has been for the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. As he put it in On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, the 2007 book on which his first film is based, “People don’t come up to me on the street and say, Hey, Kareem, got any suggestions about what I should read next? They don’t corner me at the airport and ask, What’s up with James Baldwin saying, ‘Artists are here to disturb the peace’?”
But someone who was once the very definition of the unapproachable athlete—whose humanity could be obscured by his seven feet, two inches, and what he admits was a cultivated aloofness—today shares the hope of most writers, that their words might find an audience and perhaps do the world some good. As he puts it, “Each story, novel, poem and play presents a vision of the world that illuminates the dark cave of life we stumble through. We can see better where we’re going, what sudden drop to avoid, where the cool water is running.”
On the way to becoming professional basketball’s most durably great center, Abdul-Jabbar traced a parallel journey as a reader and thinker that was easy to miss for all those inches and points. Through much of his career, he says, he resented that “the person the public was celebrating wasn’t the real me.” One of his many takeaways from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he read as a freshman at UCLA, was a resistance to being defined by others. “[Malcolm] was the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he landed in an actual prison,” Abdul-Jabbar has written. “That’s exactly how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be.”
Before he became comfortable going public with his thoughts, young Lew Alcindor learned to form them in private. When he was three, in 1950, his parents, Cora and Ferdinand (Al) Alcindor, moved with their only child from Harlem to a public housing project in the Inwood section of Manhattan. There Lew would constantly ask questions of his father, a New York City transit cop and Juilliard-trained trombonist. Distant and taciturn, Al usually responded with a terse “Look it up.” So even as he became known as a basketball prodigy, setting the city’s six major dailies abuzz and once posing for Richard Avedon, Lew learned to retreat with a book to his bedroom. With a view of the red-tile roof of the Cloisters, a museum built in the style of a medieval monastery, he felt like a monk with his texts.
At Power Memorial Academy, an all-boys Catholic high school, the basketball coach threw him into the varsity’s first game when Lew was a ninth-grader. In the locker room after Power was routed, a few of the older players laughed at the sight of their 6' 10", 14-year-old teammate in tears. “From that point on,” says Abdul-Jabbar, who changed his name in 1971, a few years after converting to Islam, “I never gave up any emotion or showed any vulnerability.”
But that didn’t mean he suddenly stopped having an emotional life. Beyond basketball he cultivated a dawning political consciousness, joining Power’s debate team and accessorizing his school blazer with buttons in support of civil rights groups like CORE and SNCC. As a 17-year-old he spent the summer of 1964 with the Harlem Youth Action Project (HARYOU-ACT), a city-funded program whose goal was to identify promising young African-Americans and develop them as leaders. While Lew was detailed to a weekly community newspaper, HARYOU staffers like historian John Henrik Clarke introduced him to the writings of activists such as W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. Steps from HARYOU’s basement office in the YMCA annex off Lenox Avenue, Lew lost himself in the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History and Prints, discovering writers of the Harlem Renaissance and microfilm of old copies of New York Amsterdam News. That June, at a press conference during a visit to HARYOU, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King fielded a question from a very tall apprentice journalist.
Several weeks later, on a muggy Sunday in July, Alcindor walked up the stairwell of a subway station off 125th Street and into the sound of gunfire and the smell of smoke. He had wandered into a riot, set off by the shooting two days earlier of a black teen by a white police officer. He and the HARYOU newspaper staff scrambled to publish a special issue on the unrest. Alcindor marks his emergence from that subway station as his baptism as a man of the world. “I was born in Harlem in the summer of 1947,” he wrote in On the Shoulders of Giants. “I was reborn in Harlem in the summer of ’64.”
His intellectual development continued at UCLA, where an English professor singled out one of his essays, about a night out with a friend at New York City’s Village Vanguard jazz club, as the best in the class. To hear the teacher read it aloud gave Alcindor even more confidence. “You know how a light can go on, a sense of what you might be able to do?” he says. “I thought, Maybe I could write.”
Even the Bruins’ straitlaced, Indiana-born basketball coach had a role to play. Alcindor would throw questions about grammar and usage at John Wooden, a former English teacher who loved poetry. One day Wooden recited the work of the great Harlem Renaissance figure Langston Hughes. “I knew he could recite Elizabeth Barrett Browning,” says Abdul-Jabbar, who recalls the tightening of their bond in that moment. “But Langston Hughes—I was shocked.” Later, in his farewell to Lakers fans at the Forum in April 1989, Abdul-Jabbar would call out Wooden as someone who “taught me a whole lot about becoming a man, which had nothing to do with basketball. It had to do with living your life as an intelligent human being.”
Just before his rookie season with the Bucks, in 1969, someone gave Alcindor a collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. He devoured it on the team’s first long road trip, and the experience turned him into a devotee of detective fiction. Inspired by how Holmes eavesdropped on the Baker Street irregulars, the urchins who picked up scraps of information on the streets, he would listen in on the NBA’s ball boys and locker-room attendants for anything that might give him an edge—say, that Pistons center Bob Lanier sneaked a cigarette at halftime, which led Abdul-Jabbar to run him hard late in games.
Pregame, once dressed, he would settle in front of his locker with his nose in a book, usually fiction, until warmups began, setting his material aside only for a chalk talk or a reporter’s question. When Dave Zinkoff, the persnickety Philadelphia P.A. man, used times out as the plural of timeout, Abdul-Jabbar took approving notice.
In January 1983, during his 14-year run with the Lakers, a fire incinerated his Bel-Air, Calif., home and all his possessions—books, jazz albums, exotic rugs and personal effects. He has described the event as “a test for me, a kind of invoice from the universe.” The fire took place just as he was finishing up his first book, the autobiographical Giant Steps, and he regards the two milestones as leading a naturally introverted man—even the skyhook began with his back turned—to take a more welcoming posture toward the world.
The way forward wasn’t easy. Fearing that he had revealed too much of himself in Giant Steps, he briefly panicked, phoning his publisher to see if he could call the whole thing off. It was too late: Books were printed, bound and nearly out the door. But readers embraced the honesty of his self-accounting, and he realized that opening himself up wouldn’t necessarily leave him vulnerable or full of regret. As he says, “Your life is your life.” And the support he received after the fire, which included gifts from strangers to help re-create his library and record collection, left him feeling, he says, like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Memories of that time still help him make peace with the “public” part of being a public intellectual. “Writing my book was really the final act of getting that all out,” he says. “Looking back on it now, the fire and its aftermath were like the final punctuation marks.”
The range of Abdul-Jabbar’s body of work since Giant Steps is astonishing. A 1992 encounter with an old transit-cop buddy of his father’s, Leonard Smith, led to Brothers in Arms, a historical study of the all-black 761st tank battalion, in which Smith served during World War II. A lifelong engagement with jazz and literature animates both the book and the film versions of On the Shoulders of Giants. Black Profiles in Courage and What Color Is My World? collect inspirational stories about African-American leaders and inventors, respectively. A fascination with the West and with Native American culture—he’s part Cherokee on his mother’s side and Carib on his father’s—led him to spend a season in White-river, Ariz., living among the White Mountain Apache and coaching boys’ high school basketball, which he chronicled in his 2000 memoir, A Season on the Reservation.
A Kareem project usually hits that sweet spot where history, the arts and the marginalized can be found, often with an appeal to African-American youth who, like the young Lew Alcindor, might not know that the world was shaped by people who looked like them. He posts his online commentaries with a newsman’s instinct, whether weighing in on unrest in Baltimore (“When you lump [protesters and looters] together and call them all ‘thugs,’ you don’t have to listen to the real issues”) or Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“Refusing service isn’t an example of Christian love, but an example of shaming”) or the massacre last week of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church (“The pundit’s and politician’s best trick is to persuade us that racism doesn’t exist so that it can continue to flourish”). He takes inspiration from Cornel West, the author and academic who weaves together threads of history, politics, religion and jazz. “He has a great eye for how all these things interact,” says Abdul-Jabbar of West, who joined him on rambles through Harlem in the film version of On the Shoulders of Giants.
West returns the admiration. “My dear brother Kareem,” he says, “is a giant of a man in morality and spirituality.”
Like a well-rounded post man, Abdul-Jabbar can play high or low. In his commentaries he often makes literary allusions to support his points. He called Starbucks’ recent, short-lived Race Together initiative naive but admirable, likening CEO Howard Schultz to the original Starbuck, the character in Moby-Dick who tries to mitigate Ahab’s worst instincts. But the man whose appearance in Airplane! helped turn that movie into a pop cultural touchstone can get down and dirty, too, and give as good as he gets: Programming on MTV, he wrote, resembles “an old man with a gray ponytail and fringed leather vest driving a red Corvette.”
Abdul-Jabbar is amused that people don’t expect him to be so conversant with the arts. As he once put it, “What do people expect when an ex-jock discusses pop culture? Hmmm. Magic light box have good shows. Me like some. Others make me puke Gatorade. Me give it three jock straps.”
In fact, his memoirs shine with erudition and graceful phrases. The embrace he received from fans toward the end of his career was “late-autumn sunshine.” That game program in Wooden’s hand, he writes, was “rolled not so much into a weapon as into a handle on the situation.” The Lakers’ chronic failures against the Celtics before Abdul-Jabbar’s arrival in Los Angeles made Jerry West “the tragic hero, like Hamlet, the fair prince of Denmark. Elgin [Baylor] was Falstaff. Wilt [Chamberlain] was Caliban. It was Lakers Agonistes.” As for being swept from the playoffs in his final NBA season, that abrupt elimination left him feeling like Cyrano de Bergerac, “an incomparable swordsman who would have been expected to go out in a sword fight with 50 men, but who instead died suddenly when a piece of timber fell from a roof gable and hit him on the head.
“Choosing our own fate is not an option open to us.”
On April 16, the day he turned 68, Abdul-Jabbar was scheduled to appear on a panel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s 75th anniversary gala in Philadelphia. But the previous weekend he had noticed warmth around his heart while working out in his Marina del Rey, Calif., home, where he lives alone. His doctor gave him a stress test, then an angiogram. Two days later Abdul-Jabbar celebrated his birthday at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center with quadruple-bypass surgery.
He has suffered through enough health concerns for one lifetime. Chronic migraines that dogged him since adolescence haven’t been a problem since he had his uvula removed in 1997. But a diagnosis of leukemia in 2008 sent him into a brief panic, for he had recently lost a high school friend, the actor Bruno Kirby (City Slickers), to the disease. Abdul-Jabbar took comfort from one of his five children, son Amir, then in medical school and now an orthopedic resident at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, who reassured him that thanks to advances in targeted therapies, many leukemias could be treated. A drug called Tasigna has allowed him to live a normal life, which helps explain why he turned up at the White House last January, joining President Obama to urge Congress to include $215 million in its next budget for the development of precision medicine. “Fifteen years ago they didn’t have any of these treatments,” Jabbar says. “Even three years earlier, that diagnosis would have killed me.” (Abdul-Jabbar is a spokesperson for Novartis, which manufactures Tasigna.)
For two years Abdul-Jabbar’s Skyhook Foundation has been supporting a hands-on learning program of the L.A. Unified School District devoted to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. At Camp Skyhook, fourth- and fifth-graders bivouac five days and nights in the Angeles National Forest. They might analyze water samples or explore a dove refuge or gaze at the stars. In late May, Abdul-Jabbar brought along as guests Richard Shemin and William Suh, the cardiologists who had just operated on his heart, to help get the students excited about careers in medicine. “Many of the kids come from areas where they can see the mountains, but they never get out of their neighborhoods,” he says. “And many come from places with different gang allegiances, but they end up making friends. We’re getting through to the kids at a time where they’re starting to think about what they want to do with their lives. It’s an experience like the one I had at HARYOU, and HARYOU changed my life.”
It’s early June, and Abdul-Jabbar is back where he was twice born—in Harlem, at the Schomburg (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). He talks about his first novel for adults, Mycroft Holmes, which comes out in September. With action that shifts from the halls of London’s Westminster to the Trinidad of Al Alcindor’s parents, Mycroft backfills the story of Sherlock’s older and smarter brother, imagining him as a young adventurer with the British foreign service before life turns him into the sedentary recluse of the Conan Doyle canon.
“A novel!” Abdul-Jabbar says. “It’s a pretty good story.” He says this without boastfulness, but rather with an air of satisfied realization. It’s a sentiment most writers will recognize—that, after a long slog, the end product was worth the toil.
“We talked it through,” he says of his relationship with collaborator Anna Waterhouse, an L.A. script consultant. “Anna is very good at dialogue. I can describe a room, but she’s really good at painting a room. And when Anna couldn’t move the story, she’d come to me. I’d have ideas about plot and historical context.”
To help explain the diffident Mycroft of later life, Abdul-Jabbar imagined him suffering from a heart condition. Which is to say that life imitated art. Even if Abdul-Jabbar is right—if choosing our own fate isn’t an option open to us—the activist artist can use forethought and imagination to nudge this way and that all sorts of destinies, real-world and fictional alike. Or at least he can do so when he deploys all the letters of the alphabet, and doesn’t limit himself to X’s and O’s.