How Kareem Abdul-Jabbar transitioned from NBA player to writer
1:16 | NBA
How Kareem Abdul-Jabbar transitioned from NBA player to writer
Monday November 2nd, 2015

HBO’s “Kareem: Minority of One” is comprehensive, informative and engaging, but the 88-minute biographical documentary needed more from its title subject.

As a retelling of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball career, the film, which debuts at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, is an unqualified success and a definitive account. Although Abdul-Jabbar’s path to NBA greatness had many well-known chapters—early stardom as an NYC schoolboy, total collegiate dominance at UCLA, an NBA title in Milwaukee and then a dynasty in L.A.—the film manages to cover it all without racing through crucial moments or dragging on too long.

Every key plot point of Abdul-Jabbar’s career is included: his comical size advantage and immense fame at an early age, the cultivation of his signature “skyhook,” his introduction to Wilt Chamberlain at Harlem’s Rucker Park, his recruitment by legendary Bruins coach John Wooden, the NCAA’s decision to outlaw dunking in an apparent attempt to limit his dominance, the “Game of the Century” against Houston and Elvin Hayes, the coin flip between the Bucks and Suns to determine who would draft him in 1969, his title-winning partnership with Oscar Robertson, his name change from Lew Alcindor, his blockbuster trade to the Lakers, his punch of Kent Benson, his untimely ankle injury in the 1980 Finals, the storied Lakers/Celtics rivalry, his passing of Chamberlain at the top of the all-time scoring list, his father’s ride on the team bus during the 1985 Finals, and his warm welcome at the Boston Garden during his 1989 farewell tour.

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The details revealed in the archival footage and old photographs are extraordinary. There’s video of Abdul-Jabbar laying waste to his competition in junior high, towering over his fellow high school All-Americans on a nationally-televised talk show, and announcing his commitment to UCLA in front of a horde of radio reporters. There’s an old interview with Abdul-Jabbar wearing a patch over his injured eye before the “Game of the Century” and, more recently, an interview in which he reveals that he taped a Sports Illustrated cover trumpeting Hayes’s win to his locker for motivation. There’s a handwritten letter from Wooden in which he worries about Abdul-Jabbar—“I am truly afraid he will never find any peace of mind”—and a clip of a stunned and crestfallen Jerry Colangelo who has just been informed that his Suns lost the franchise-changing coin flip.

Depending on the age of the viewer, the film’s basketball story serves as a walk down memory lane or as an extended introduction to a Hall of Famer whose legend hasn’t quite endured like a Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. More than anything, “Kareem: Minority of One” is a convincing counterargument to revisionists who might conflate Abdul-Jabbar’s off-putting personality with his basketball game or attribute the Lakers’ “Showtime” success entirely to Johnson, at Abdul-Jabbar’s expense.

While none of Abdul-Jabbar’s colleagues seem to have a great sense for what made him tick, their respect for his skills is unanimous and forceful. Johnson argues that Abdul-Jabbar should have been named the 1980 Finals MVP, even though Johnson clinched the series, and he puts Abdul-Jabbar on his “Mount Rushmore” of NBA greats. Pat Riley refers to Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook as the NBA’s version of a “cruise missile,” Jerry West compares Abdul-Jabbar to the Hope Diamond and a precision watch, Bill Walton calls him a “superhero” who was the “focal point” of every game he played, and Hayes recalls how teams used “broomsticks and mops” during practice to simulate Abdul-Jabbar’s length.

In its careful beat-by-beat telling, the film fully captures Abdul-Jabbar’s longevity without selling short how dominant he was during his peak years. The highlights of Abdul-Jabbar dancing through defenses and spiking shots back into his opponents’ faces—replayed over and over again throughout the 1960s1970s and 1980s—reinforce the only possible conclusion: the 7’2” six-time MVP with 38,387 points to his name was a once-in-a-lifetime monster. 

The truest glimpses at Abdul-Jabbar also come from the archival footage. He looks and sounds determined when he preaches the importance of combating racism in the late 1960s. He looks and sounds overjoyed when he greets the triumphant 1980 Lakers on the team plane after missing the final game due to injury. He looks and sounds vindicated when he points out that reports of his basketball demise were premature following a bounceback game during the 1985 Finals.

But this film also reveals, intentionally at times and unintentionally at others, why Abdul-Jabbar isn’t as revered or as beloved as other NBA greats, and why he was, in his own words, “typecast as the brooding black guy” during his career. While he tries to establish a personal connection with the audience, he often can’t or won’t reveal enough of himself to fully break through. There are hints of genuine open-heartedness early in the film, as Abdul-Jabbar remembers going to a jazz club with his father, describes a tearful coming of age moment after a high school game, and recounts being the target of a racial slur from a high school coach. Unfortunately, those hints wane noticeably as the movie unfolds, and his modern-day interviews generally come off as stiffer and more scripted when compared to the older footage.

HBO does well to fill in the gaps, but there are many missed opportunities for Abdul-Jabbar to invite the outside world to better understand him. He offers no real explanation for his decision to break contact with his parents following his conversion to Islam, other than to blame his religious leader for isolating him. Even though he once penned a column called “How to Become a Man,” Abdul-Jabbar has little to offer about his failed marriage, saying only that he was too young at the time and overly influenced by his religious ideology. As for his children, Abdul-Jabbar settles for a brief admission: “I didn’t have nearly enough [time] with them that I should have. That’s something that you regret.”

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

The supporting views of Abdul-Jabbar, the father, aren’t particularly flattering or full. One of Abdul-Jabbar’s sons remembers watching samurai movies and listening to music with Abdul-Jabbar, while another refers to him like an “uncle” because he saw him so “sporadically.” His ex-wife Habiba and his daughters are shown only in photographs and old video. There are no recent scenes of Abdul-Jabbar with his children or the mothers of his children and, as the film ends, Abdul-Jabbar walks alone on a beach.

In one telling scene, the film recounts a fire at his Bel Air home that destroyed his prized Jazz record collection but left his young son unharmed. His friends and family testify to how heartbroken Abdul-Jabbar was over the loss of his music because it was a passion that he shared with his father. Cheryl Pistono, his former partner, assures the audience that the safety of his child meant more to him than the records. The audience has no choice but to take her word for it, as the film moves on without Abdul-Jabbar opening up about the loss of his prized records or the near loss of his son.

There were other chances for insight that didn’t come to fruition. For example, HBO presents photographs of Abdul-Jabbar with Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Jim Brown, but little reflection from Abdul-Jabbar as to the historical implications of those relationships and his own role in the national conversation about race.

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 Also noticeably absent: Abdul-Jabbar’s thoughts on his mortality and his legacy. His battle with Leukemia and his recent heart surgery are only mentioned in passing during the film’s final minute, and he leaves the discussion regarding his place among the game’s greatest players to Johnson and Riley.  

“Kareem: Minority of One” regularly acknowledges Abdul-Jabbar’s elusiveness and aloofness, and it concludes on that theme. “A lot of times I turn people off with my reticence about personal engagement,” Abdul-Jabbar says in a voiceover. “I’ve been shy all my life. But it had nothing to do with any disrespect or lack of appreciation of events. I’ve gone through some of the trials of middle age … and all the fans who send their best wishes and prayers, it’s awesome. I really appreciate it and I’m thankful for it.” 

Those words, no small gesture, help the film end on a humanizing note. But they’re still not quite enough, leaving the viewer with one final reminder of how much Abdul-Jabbar left unsaid and how he preferred it that way. 

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