From Hoops to Ink: A Profile of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

By Leonard Kniffel

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

“Going to the library helped me understand how big the world was and the incredible amount of possibilities that you had for your life,” says basketball legend turned author Kareeem Abdul-Jabbar. During an interview at the American Library Association’s 2008 Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told me, “I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and spent a lot of time in the library when I was a kid. It’s nice to be associated with an organization like ALA.”

The master of the sky hook, 7-foot-2-inches-tall Abdul-Jabbar led the University of California at Los Angles to three consecutive NCAA titles and the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers to six NBA championships.

Retired from sports, Abdul-Jabbar has authored or coauthored seven books—four of which made bestseller lists— including: Giant Steps; Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement; A Season on a Reservation: My Sojourn with the White Mountain Apache; and Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes.

Abdul-Jabbar said he hoped that people who heard him speak and read his books would “get an idea that not all athletes who gain prominence are uneducated. I hope to show them that it does work in the other way too; that people can go through college and play athletics and get a first-rate education.”

He described his role models, Jackie Robinson and Oscar Robertson, as two “great student athletes who went on to do great things as professionals,” adding that “the whole idea of your education making you more of a man and more capable to give to society is something that all young people need to learn about.”

Born Lew Alcindor in Harlem in 1947, the basketball legend turned author visited the American Library Association’s headquarters in Chicago in December 2007, the day after being one of eight athletes inducted into the National Collegiate Hall of Fame established in 2006. Abdul-Jabbar talked with American Libraries associate editor Pamela A. Goodes and me about his latest honor, and about libraries and reading.

“When I was in grade school I had no idea that I would become a professional athlete and college was about as high as you could aspire to. It was really neat to get the opportunity that I did at UCLA, and to even go further than that,” he said.

We asked how he selected his book topics and if he used a library for his research.

“I certainly use the library for my research, but I select my topics based on my own gut feeling on what needs to be addressed and in what particular way it needs to be addressed. Everything that I’ve written has to do with my own personal life and experiences, so three of my books have been more or less autobiographical. I’ve also written three history books. My latest book on the Harlem Renaissance (On the shoulders of giants : my journey through the Harlem Renaissance) is both autobiography and historical. For too many people, history is just dry facts, and a lot of people don’t relate to it personally. If I can give my own personal connection to history, it makes it more accessible to people and enables them to relate better.

“James Baldwin’s essays I found to be really fascinating and informative. They gave me a good perspective on what was going on in the Civil Rights Movement while I was growing up. Seeing something like that unfold while you’re in high school can affect you in a lot of different ways, some of which could be very traumatic. The anger that was created by all the violence against black Americans trying to secure their civil rights was appalling. Having someone explain it to you and enable you to deal with it without becoming filled with hate and a need to retaliate really helped me a lot personally. I have to give credit to some of the people who were around—my high school coach Jack Donahue and other mentors who gave me a realistic perspective on it. I also read W. E. B. DuBois and others who were in the Harlem Renaissance.

“When people take an active interest in what’s going on now, they automatically will start looking at what happened, and you don’t even have to go back as far as the Harlem Renaissance. The 1950s were a time of great turmoil in this country, if you look at what happened with the murder of Emmett Till. A lot can also be learned from Dr. King’s efforts.

“Libraries are very important in helping young people get an understanding of how important it is to read. A lot of people don’t have the money to buy books, and having a place where you can go and get a book, read it, and return it really enables you to broaden your perspective on life. Going to the library helped me understand how big the world was and the incredible amount of possibilities that you had for your life. Without the library, it wouldn’t have been that obvious to me.”

Abdul-Jabbar once taught basketball and history to American Indian children on a reservation. “I went to the White Mountain Apache Reservation in White River, Arizona, to do some research on the buffalo soldiers who were stationed at Fort Apache,” he recalled. “I met members of the tribal council as well as the tribal historian, with whom I established a friendship. When they realized that I was interested in coaching, they asked if I could help with the boys basketball team and talk to some of them about going to college. Getting kids to go to college off the reservation is very difficult. There are a lot of cultural and socioeconomic pressures on them to never leave but they really need to do that to expand their world and to get the needed knowledge to do things for their tribe.

“Since I retired from professional basketball, I’ve tried to be involved with programs that promote literacy and learning. That’s something that I feel is a key to advancement. No matter where you want to advance, no matter what field, literacy and learning really are part of it. Knowledge is power and if you’re looking for the power to change, you have to make yourself knowledgeable. This is a message I try to continually share with children and hope that it takes hold and they go out and learn how to change the world in a positive way.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s conference program in Philadelphia was a smash hit, focused largely on the giants of his latest book and topped off by an introduction to library legend and civil rights champion the late E. J. Josey.

Kicking off the question-and-answer session that followed, he said, “Please don’t be shy. I’ll talk to you about anything—even basketball,” prompting laughter from the packed house.

Asked why he changed his name, he said, “My birth name was not good. I took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when I accepted Islam—my family name was Alcindor, from the West Indies—and it all had to do with my spiritual conversion. Muhammed Ali took a lot of heat for all of us when he made the choice to change his name and I was very fortunate to come behind him and not have to deal with as much of it because of his sacrifice.”

“How have tensions with Muslims in the United States changed since the Harlem Renaissance?” he was asked. He replied, “I certainly did not ever see any tension between Islam and American culture like we’ve had since 9/11.

What’s happened since 9/11 is unique in my mind. Muslims in America were a small minority and really were a blip on the map, in terms of the number of Muslims and their impact on American society—minimal. Then we have fanatics who come and do what they did and cause the pain and fear that’s been part of the situation since 9/11. A lot of people don’t know that a number of Muslims fought and died during the American Revolution. The French contingent under Lafayette had cavalry and infantry soldiers that fought during the last weeks of the American Revolutionary War; people aren’t very much aware of that. The first country to recognize America as a sovereign nation was the kingdom of Morocco.”

Asked what he would have done if he had been around during the Harlem Renaissance, Abdul-Jabbar replied, “Actually, it’s very personal for me because my grandfather emigrated from the island of Trinidad and went to New York in 1917. He was part of the Great Migration to New York that created the Harlem Renaissance. So I can just imagine myself as my grandfather, walking the streets and being able to hear all this great music—the music of Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. And I guess for me, personally, I would have paid a lot more attention to my piano lessons,” he said, chuckling.

“How can we get reluctant young people to read?” someone asked. He answered, “In trying to get young people to read, you have to be able to show them it’s something that they need—it’s something that will enhance them and make them more of what they want to be. A lot of young people don’t understand that. They think whatever it is that they’re focused on is all they need to do. I’m coaching now for the Los Angeles Lakers and I deal with young men who are making millions of dollars a year, yet they are challenged to read a written page. And it hurts me. I don’t want to see that they’re not fully developed.”

Asked what his greatest basketball moment was, Abdul-Jabbar said, “I’ve been so blessed to have so many great basketball moments. As a professional athlete, for me, beating the Boston Celtics in 1985 was my greatest moment.” Thunderous applause followed.

The audience at that program was filled with proud and grateful African-American librarians who believed that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leadership and activism is unparalleled in the history of race relations in the United States.

“You have always embodied the truest spirit of athletes,” said E.J. Josey’s son-in-law at the end of program, “and you have done it with grace and dignity.”

This article is adapted from his book Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries by Leonard Kniffel, co-published in 2011 by ALA Editions and Skyhorse Publishing. Photo by John Russo for the American Library Association.

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