The most impactful history is always personal.
It is this truth that informs the second act of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s life, although it’s misleading to suggest he took on a new identity simply because he stopped playing basketball 20 years ago. Almost since childhood he resisted being pigeon-holed solely by his ability as a player, as only a driven and intensely self-aware man who grew to stand 7-foot-2 can.
He’s one of the men who defined the game. Doesn’t mean the game defined him.
Which is not to say he’s tried to put any distance between himself and basketball, either. He still serves as a special assistant with the team he took to five NBA championships, the Los Angeles Lakers – tutoring center Andrew Bynum, who as of the events of last week has his own ring to show for it. He’s been a scout, toiled in the USBL and in a particularly impactful bit of personal history coached a high school team on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.
And come Friday, he’ll be here for Hoopfest, where they’re trying something a little different.
In a presentation at the Martin Woldson Theatre at the Fox, Abdul-Jabbar will delve into the pre-NBA roots of professional basketball and specifically the rise of the Harlem Rens, winners of the first world championship of pro hoops a mere 70 years ago. He’ll take some questions, so you can probably get his take on Kobe, too.
The Rens are central to Abdul-Jabbar’s 2007 book “On the Shoulders of Giants,” a journey through the Harlem Renaissance that is part history text, part memoir – his paean to his Harlem home and the cultural icons who shaped his life: Duke Ellington, Marcus Garvey, Jacob Lawrence and Langston Hughes, among dozens of others.
Though Abdul-Jabbar insists it was more than an artistic and intellectual movement.
“Sports is the one aspect of the Harlem Renaissance that people fail to recognize,” he said. “Black people’s aspirations were tied to sports and to the men who broke barriers.”
If the athletic component is overlooked, maybe it’s because it was at the tag end of the era. The Harlem Renaissance is generally thought to have spanned from the end of World War I to the mid-1930s. Baseball didn’t integrate until 1947, and the NBA not until 1950. The crossover impact of the time, then, was mostly borne on the shoulders of two true giants: Olympic champion Jesse Owens and heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
“You had two black men who were heroes to a nation and that had never happened,” said Abdul-Jabbar – knowing full well that there were pockets of racist resistance that couldn’t bring themselves to pull for either man, even against Hitler’s heroes.
“I remember talking with Jerry West – he was a big Joe Louis fan growing up. He talked about listening to Joe Louis’ fight with Billy Conn on the radio – Louis losing the fight going into the 11th or 12th round when a lightning storm hit the area where he lived and knocked out the broadcast. He had to go to bed that night not knowing what happened, and he remembered how despondent he was until he learned the next day that Louis had knocked him out in the 13th round.”
But the athletic embodiment of the movement to Abdul-Jabbar was the Renaissance Big Five – the basketball team known as the Rens, Harlem grown (unlike the rival Globetrotters) and who barnstormed less as entertainers than as competitors.
He didn’t even learn of their existence until he was 17, and it wasn’t until his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame that he began to grasp their greatness – entrepreneurial godfather Bob Douglas is in the Hall, as are players “Tarzan” Cooper and “Pop Gates.” But the history can be difficult to impart.
“There’s no footage of them,” he said, “and unless you saw them play you don’t really know. But when they would tour, college and high school coaches would go to see them play just to learn and see what their mastery of the game entailed. They changed the game, one town at a time.”
Forgotten history is becoming the skyhook of Abdul-Jabbar’s post-playing life. His previous book, Brothers in Arms, was about an all-black tank battalion in Patton’s Third Army. But this one was obviously personal.
“When I was a kid, I used to find musket balls and arrowheads in Inwood Hill Park,” he said. “In high school, it became important to me to find out why Harlem was there and my own people’s contribution to history. This was important to me – but it was important, period.”