By Sam Rubinroit, Senior writer, 14, Malibu HS
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the elite basketball centers of all time. Here in L.A., he is known best for his stunning Lakers career, during which he helped win five championships, as well as having been one of UCLA’s greatest players, leading the Bruins to an 88-2 record and two NCAA championships. Standing 7’ 2’’, he was the first overall pick in the 1969 NBA draft, and later that year won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Over his career, he racked up  six Most Valuable Player awards, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. He is currently an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, and has served as an inspiration for many of today’s top centers.

Not only is Abdul-Jabbar a basketball player, but he’s also a historian and author. His newest book, On The Shoulders of Giants, is his sixth. Most of his writings tap into the expansive history of some of the most influential African-Americans, and many of the unsung heroes of the past.

In On the Shoulders of Giants, Abdul-Jabbar connects today’s hip-hop generation with its roots in Harlem and the music’s jazz forefathers. He leads us through his childhood where he encountered the giants of the Harlem Renaissance, a period when blacks in the art and music world demonstrated that they are just as competent as whites, and paved the way for much of today’s writing, music and lifestyles.

Each chapter of the book is divided into two parts. First, Abdul-Jabbar discusses a historical aspect of the Harlem Renaissance. Then he shows how it influenced him and the world today. He describes how the accomplishments of some of Harlem’s musicians and authors helped blacks flourish in sports, music, literature and business. He explains the immense struggles that those before him endured to provide him and other blacks with opportunities many take for granted today.

Along with discussing the history of Harlem, Abdul-Jabbar talks about how he developed a love for sports, and also who influenced him most. He speaks of how his first love was truly baseball, and how he only used basketball to escape bullies who tormented him. He describes the origination of the “sky hook:” he was surrounded by defenders, and using his height, he put the ball above his head and let it fly. The shot didn’t go in the first time he tried, but it eventually became his most popular move.

This book really affected me. I am a rabid basketball fan, and being from L.A., naturally I’m a Laker fan. Since I was never able to see Abdul-Jabbar play, this book gave me insight into his life. He discusses in depth how he was affected by the early basketball team the Renaissance Big Five, and how they fought as blacks to break through in a white sport.

He also talks about how many see him as aloof, but he feels the press should judge him on how he played on the court, not after the game. He explains that he became like this because at the time when he played, blacks were supposed to be grateful that whites allowed them to play, and gush thankfulness, but he wasn’t going to stoop to their level.

Even someone who isn’t a big basketball fan will enjoy this book for the insight it gives into black history and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s first-hand account of how it made him the man and author he is today.

Along with my brother Seth, I spoke with Abdul-Jabbar about his new book, and his life on and off the court. 

In your newest book, On the Shoulders of Giants, you say, “Basketball never defined me, it gave me an opportunity to define myself.” How would you define yourself?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I’m attempting to be a Renaissance man. That would be my easiest definition.

You discussed a lot about how jazz influenced you growing up. What do you think of the effect of rap today and the violence behind it?
Well, rap hasn’t always had a good record because of the people that have been involved with it. Some of the people involved with it have great reputations; I think Mos Def is someone who has used that format to encourage people. But other people have glorified violence, misogyny [hatred of women] and criminal enterprise, so it all depends on who’s talking.

How much do you think the Harlem Renaissance did to show that blacks are as talented and as capable as everyone else?
The Harlem Renaissance enabled black people to show America and the world that they had unlimited potential. It did a great job of getting that message out to people. In those years there was a burst of production that has been unparalleled in American history in terms of one ethnic group.

Do you think there is any significant racism in America today?

What kind?
The traditional kind. The racism that was here when the founding fathers were still here. There are still traces of it and people have work to do to eliminate it, but I think we’ve made a lot of progress in America, and that’s very important. Sometimes, people lose sight of the fact that we have been able to change and make it a better place.

In your book you talk about how you would see your favorite jazz musicians in town and getting groceries just like everyone else. Do you think that athletes and musicians have a responsibility to be role models for kids?
Well, I think there is no way you can escape being a role model … People are going to look at you that way whether you want that to be the case or not. You don’t really have any choice.

Do you think players should be judged more on how they play on the court or how they play out in public?
I think it should all come into the picture. Sometimes great players are a little nutty, and you need to understand that that’s the way they are.

How do think you would have fared if you had gone in the direction of baseball rather than basketball?
Well, I think I could have been the early Randy Johnson. When I was in the eighth grade the scouts knew who I was and they put the gun on me and I pitched like 95 miles per hour.

This book establishes you as a historical writer. Do you want to be remembered more as an author/historian or a basketball player?

I’m proud and happy that I’ve been able to distinguish myself as both. I can’t be the athlete that I want anymore but I’m still able to be a writer, and I’m glad to have that opportunity.

Your shared love of poetry bonded you with Coach John Wooden. How much did John Wooden and your UCLA experience help prepare you for life?

I think my experience at UCLA really helped me to round out my education. I think UCLA was a great academic institution when I went there.

If you were playing today, how different do you think your career would have been?

Who knows? There aren’t very many good centers left, so when I played, there were some really good centers. But that’s not the case anymore. People just don’t play the game like that.

Do you think that can change in the future?
Yeah, I think it will probably end up being a cyclical thing. When people realize that that’s an effective way to play the game, people might get into it.

You’re working with one of those centers in Laker Andrew Bynum. How are you enjoying working with him?
I’m having a good time working with Andrew. He has a good attitude, he works hard, and he has the physical talent so it’s about him learning and developing.

If someone like Shaq had a work ethic like yours, how great do you think he could have been?
Well, he would have made a lot more free throws (laughing). He wouldn’t have been hurt as much, because I don’t think Shaq trains to the point where he can run all season. That’s a difficult thing to do. He has such an overwhelming advantage in terms of size and strength, but he relies on that too much.

Do you think players today are losing the love of the game making millions of dollars?
There are a lot of players today that don’t understand the extraordinary opportunity they are being given, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t love the game. I see a lot of them who do love the game. But it is difficult to keep everything in perspective, it is very hard to be able to play the game, all the preparation you have to do in terms of training. It really takes a lot out of you.
      So I think over a long period of time a lot more of them will appreciate what they’ve been able to do. Sometimes you have to go through it and realize the opportunities that everyone else got that don’t compare, and you understand the opportunity you’ve been given.

What do you think the biggest lesson from your book should be?
That a whole lot went into making the NBA what it is today. If players from today had to play basketball in the 1920s or 1930s, they’d be very shocked. They don’t realize how good they have it.

Excerpt from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s On the Shoulders of Giants:

‘Harlem Renaissance leader Marcus Garvey said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” This has been my guiding principle in choosing what to write and how to approach the material. For some, history is a drab and dusty subject; for me it is a powerful stimulant, arousing our passions about past injustices and infusing us with strength to fight present ones. The only way I know how to share my passion about history and its power to affect our lives is to write these books.’

Other stories by this writer:

Movie review: The Astronaut Farmer. (Jan. – Feb. 2007)

A future in baseball. A special inner-city program helps teens pursue the sport. (March – April 2006)

Don’t pass this up! Get up close to NBA hopefuls at the Summer Pro League. (May – June 2005)

Crazy for the Simpsons. Sam, 12, got to see how one of his favorite shows is made. (March – April 2005)