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Ex-Cal Basketball Player Solomon Hughes Plays Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in TV Series

Former Golden Bears center has a vital role in HBO's 'Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers’ Dynasty'

Solomon Hughes, an important role player on the Cal basketball team 20 years ago, is now on display in a more challenging role, portraying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in an HBO series about the Los Angeles Lakers' dynasty.

It’s the latest in a series of impressive roles for the 43-year-old, 6-foot-11 Hughes.

Dr. Solomon Hughes has been a lecturer at Stanford and a visiting instructor at Duke. He got his undergraduate and Masters degrees at Cal and his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, and he was a member of the seven-person selection panel that chose Jim Knowlton to be Cal’s athletic director in 2018.

To long-time Cal sports fans Hughes was a member of the Golden Bears’ basketball teams from 1998 to 2002, starting 52 games for Cal, which won 20 games three times in his four-year career under head coach Ben Braun, reached the NCAA tournament twice and won the 1999 NIT. He led the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage in 2001 (62.9%), ranks third alltime in Cal career field-goal percentage (57.9%), and was captain of the team. Hughes helped the Bears win a first-round NCAA tournament game against Penn in 2002 when he scored eight points and blocked three shots and played professionally, including a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters.

But today the 43-year-old Hughes is known as an actor, currently playing the nuanced role of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers’ Dynasty.” (It should be called “Showtime,” but the name of HBO’s rival presumably made that impossible.) 

An interview with Solomon Hughes:

It is Solomon’s first acting gig, but he is believable as Abdul-Jabbar, even in his  portrayal of the former Lakers’ star as co-pilot Roger Murdock in “Airplane!” and his crustier side off camera in the first episode.

An Esquire article on Hughes posted on April 4 carries this headline: "Solomon Hughes Is the Year's Most Unlikely Star."

A month ago, Newsweek reported on Hughes' acting debut with the headline, "Who Is Solomon Hughes? 'Winning Time' Actor Playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar."

Hughes is one of two former Cal athletes featured in the series, as Aaron Austin, who was a reserve Bears wide receiver briefly, plays Lakers forward Mark Landsberger. But Hughes has the more important role.

Four of the 10-episode series have been televised and are available for streaming, and it is this week’s fourth episode titled “Who the F--- Is Jack McKinney?” in which Hughes plays a vital role in the portrayal of the Hall of Fame center vis-à-vis Magic Johnson. Solomon, as Abdul-Jabbar, requires the Lakers rookie to get him orange juice and the morning newspaper every day. Apparently that really happened, according to Whattowatch.com, although parts of the series are dramatized for entertainment value. (You wonder how accurate the portrayal of Jerry West as a foul-mouthed sourpuss is.)

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Trailer episode 4

A fan of Abdul-Jabbar growing up, Hughes was unable to talk to the former Laker center to prepare for the part, and he had to master two important aspects – Abdul-Jabbar’s stoic, sullen personality and the sky-hook.

He reportedly watched a number of Abdul-Jabbar interviews, including his 2015 documentary “Minority of One,” to learn Abdul-Jabbar's voice, and he worked countless hours to perfect the sky-hook, a shot that is different from the jump hook Hughes used to good effect at Cal.

“One of the most elegant, graceful, beautiful, unstoppable basketball moves in the history of the game,” Hughes said of Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook, according to a San Francisco Chronicle story. “I had so much fun going to the local 24 Hour Fitness, finding my own little basket and just shooting sky hooks for an hour.”

Adrien Brody, Sally Field and John C. Reilly are the big names in the cast of “Winning Time,” but Hughes holds his own in the vital role. And this might not be the last time Hughes performs in front of cameras.

“In terms of work, it is definitely the most fulfilling thing that I’ve done professionally,” Hughes said in another Chronicle interview. “It’s incredibly humbling. It’s incredibly terrifying.”

Lakers sked

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Cover photo of Solomon Hughes courtesy of Cal Athletics

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Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53

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