First and foremost, this blog owes an H/T to a youthful reader in the Valley of the Sun for the head's up about the essay that appears in today's post. Kareem Abdul Jabbar is a complex man and has been all of his life. As he nears his septuagenary, he remains complex, but closer to self-understanding. If this is a (fair & balanced) view of a complex life, so be it.
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What The World Got Wrong About Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
By Jay Caspian Kang
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
In the sleek, cold lobby of the Langham Place hotel in Midtown Manhattan, one of those thoroughly designed spaces in which one cannot find a right angle, much less a comfortable chair, the 68-year-old, 7-foot-2 former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was sitting on a leather bench with his arms draped around his protruding knees. It was a melancholy pose, best suited for the solitude of a beach at night or a rocky summit after a long hike. A U.C.L.A. T-shirt and a pair of jeans hung loosely off his narrow frame. Despite having had quadruple-bypass surgery just a few months earlier, Abdul-Jabbar didn’t look all that different than he did during his last days on the Los Angeles Lakers in the late 1980s. The only evidence, really, that he had passed retirement age was a dash of white in his goatee.
‘‘Hi, I’m the reporter who is going to follow you around today,’’ I said, sticking out my hand.
‘‘O.K.,’’ he said. It was clear there would be no handshake.
I sat down next to him. He made no effort to start a conversation, so neither did I. We sat in silence.
Abdul-Jabbar has been in the public spotlight for 50 years, and for almost all of that time, he has drawn the ire of most reporters who have dealt with him. For a black athlete to be accepted by the sports media, especially during the early years of Abdul-Jabbar’s career, he had to appear humble and deferential and continually thankful to the white world for giving him a chance to become rich and famous. Abdul-Jabbar, who, like many shy, intelligent people, channeled his innate awkwardness through a hardened mask of superiority, didn’t fit the model. And while many of the black athletes who were similarly demonized during Abdul-Jabbar’s time — Curt Flood, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali — have turned into celebrated figures, Abdul-Jabbar, despite his tremendous accomplishments, has never been widely embraced by fans.
Abdul-Jabbar had agreed to meet with me on the occasion of his new book, a lively if somewhat dutiful reimagining of the life of Mycroft Holmes, the brother of Sherlock, that is due out this month. Mycroft Holmes (2015), written with a co-author, Anna Waterhouse, is Abdul-Jabbar’s first novel, but it will be his 10th published book. His collected works go well beyond the usual jockish hagiographies that litter the sports section of every Barnes & Noble. He has written two unusually candid autobiographies about his playing days, a comprehensive history of African-American intellectual accomplishment, a memoir about growing up in the cultural shadow of the Harlem Renaissance and an admirably researched history of a black tank battalion that fought in World War II. But if he wanted to discuss his writing, his book, his influences or anything at all, he gave no sign. Instead, for the next 15 minutes, he intently studied his fingernails with a mild look of disappointment on his face.
‘‘We are going to have a great time today!’’
Our mutual silent treatment was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Deborah Morales, a bustling dynamo who has been Abdul-Jabbar’s manager for over a decade. Abdul-Jabbar stood up, walked wordlessly to the hotel’s entrance and peered at the sidewalk.
Morales handles all of Abdul-Jabbar’s public engagements with enormous, slightly delusional enthusiasm, as if he were still winning championships with the Lakers. But her hustle has paid off: Over the past several years, Abdul-Jabbar has emerged as a prolific columnist, writing in Time, Esquire and The Huffington Post, while also maintaining a steady presence as a pundit on political talk shows on MSNBC and CNN. In front of a camera, Abdul-Jabbar comes across as a learned rationalist. He quotes liberally from literature, and he tries to wrestle ideas back into their historical contexts; he rarely, if ever, talks about basketball or his playing career.
After scanning the sidewalk for gawkers, Morales ushered us into a waiting car. The radio was on, tuned to talk news. Morales asked the driver to change the channel to jazz.
The day’s itinerary, enthusiastically set by Morales, called for a trip to the Bronx Zoo followed by lunch at the Empire State Building. Why Abdul-Jabbar, who grew up in New York City and is famously uncomfortable in crowds, would have wanted to visit two of the most touristy, clogged spots in the city was never explained.
By 10 a.m., as Abdul-Jabbar moved briskly among the exhibits, the asphalt walkways of the zoo had started to fill up with schoolchildren walking hand in hand in neon T-shirts. The kids stared at the tallest man they had ever seen, and one of their chaperones turned to a colleague and whispered, ‘‘That’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.’’ Abdul-Jabbar strode on, determined to ignore them.
We saw tigers and silverback gorillas, as well as baby goats at the petting zoo. Abdul-Jabbar, looking impassively at the animals, would occasionally recite a fact about their mating habits or natural habitat. ‘‘Sea lions and wolves share a common ancestor,’’ he said dryly. He struck me as a man whose preferred mode of communication is a stack of random, verifiable statements.
In the zoo’s play area, Abdul-Jabbar, at Morales’s urging, lay down on a giant spider web made of ropes for one of dozens of photo ops for his Facebook page. ‘‘Look scared!’’ Morales ordered while pointing her iPad’s camera at Abdul-Jabbar.
‘‘But I’m not scared,’’ Abdul-Jabbar said. After some more coaxing from Morales, he opened his mouth, held his hands up by his face and gave a halfhearted look of faux terror.
As we approached the otter exhibit, a man with his young son in tow looked up at Abdul-Jabbar and said, ‘‘Hey, that’s one of the greatest basketball players of all time!’’ The father extended his hand toward Abdul-Jabbar and said, ‘‘Wow, man.... Kareem.’’
Abdul-Jabbar dropped into a hunch and stared miserably off into the space above the man’s head. After it became clear that the man and his child were not going to step aside, Abdul-Jabbar offered up a curt nod, turned and stalked off. Morales jogged up to the child and handed him a playing card autographed by Abdul-Jabbar. Gazing after his bowed, retreating figure, the father reached down, grabbed his confused son by the shoulders and slowly walked him toward the next exhibit.
By any measure of accomplishment, whether individual statistics or overall team success, Abdul-Jabbar was an undeniable superstar. His high-school team at Power Memorial, near Lincoln Center, won 71 straight games. At UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar, one of the best players in the history of college basketball, won three national championships and three NCAA tournament most outstanding player awards. During a 20-year career in the NBA, he won the same number of championships as Michael Jordan (six), and bested him by one MVP award (also six). He is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. And yet discussions of his greatness are usually tinged with annoyance, as if his dominance must be nodded at but not dwelled upon.
He has tried, repeatedly, to register his side of the story by writing. In high school, Abdul-Jabbar took a summer job with a Harlem-based black newspaper and covered the 1964 Harlem riots. His literary ambitions never abated. In the mid-1970s, the writer Gay Talese, while doing research for his book Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1980), ran into Abdul-Jabbar at the Playboy Mansion. Abdul-Jabbar told Talese that when he retired, he wanted to become a sportswriter. ‘‘It seemed like such a strange thing to admit,’’ Talese told me. ‘‘It almost felt like he wanted to be anyone else. He was caught in this huge body, but his aspiration was to be diminished in terms of ambition: He wanted to be the man in the press box. You don’t expect a person with stardom in every muscle to want to become a writer.’’
Much later, on a trip back to New York City, Abdul-Jabbar accompanied Talese to Elaine’s, an Upper East Side restaurant that catered to the city’s literary elite. ‘‘He wanted to go be with writers,’’ Talese said. ‘‘He wanted to see Styron and Mailer. Again, I found it very unusual. It just seemed like there was a part of him that didn’t want to be a man of the body.’’
In 1983, Abdul-Jabbar published Giant Steps, the first of two engrossing autobiographies. He writes about growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in the Inwood neighborhood of Upper Manhattan, the only child of a Juilliard-trained trombone player turned transit cop and a stylish woman from North Carolina who demanded that her son receive a proper education. As a boy, Abdul-Jabbar — whose birth name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. — ran around with a diverse, middle-class crew. This innocence was shattered when his best friend, a white boy named Johnny, ultimately betrayed him in the seventh grade by calling him a ‘‘jungle bunny’’ and a ‘‘nigger.’’ ‘‘I just laughed at him,’’ Abdul-Jabbar writes. ‘‘ ‘[Expletive] you, you ... milk bottle.’ It was the only white thing I could think of.’’
When he started at Power Memorial, Abdul-Jabbar was already known around the city as an up-and-coming basketball star. He was written up in sports dailies and accosted on the subway. A few weeks after his 16th birthday, Richard Avedon shot his portrait. His coach, with whom he became very close and who shielded him from reporters, was an irascible Irishman named Jack Donohue. The older man would talk to his star about the racism he saw while stationed at Fort Knox in Kentucky. On a trip to North Carolina in 1962, his first time alone in the South, Abdul-Jabbar got to see Jim Crow for himself. ‘‘So I knew a little of what Mr. Donohue was talking about,’’ he writes. ‘‘He was certain that racism wouldn’t die until the racists did, and so was I. What I didn’t tell him was that I hoped it would be soon and that if I could help them along, I would be delighted. I wasn’t quite ready to pick up the gun, but I was intimate with the impulse.’’ (His close relationship with Donohue was damaged when the coach told his protégé that he was behaving like a “nigger” during a halftime rant.)
The next year, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, was bombed, killing four young black girls and partially blinding another. Abdul-Jabbar’s impulse hardened into something stronger. ‘‘As I watched the ineffectual moral outrage of the black southern preachers,’’ he writes, ‘‘the cold coverage of the white media and the posturings of the John F. Kennedy White House, my whole view of the world fell into place. My faith was exploded like church rubble, my anger was shrapnel. I would gladly have killed whoever killed those girls by myself.’’
After being recruited by nearly all the major college basketball programs in the country, Abdul-Jabbar landed at UCLA, where he studied history and English, dropped acid and became entranced by The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). After his first season on the court, the N.C.A.A. rules committee outlawed dunking when Abdul-Jabbar netted an average of 29.5 points a game and a 67 percent field-goal percentage. Other players dunked, but none as frequently and as ferociously as he did. The rule change, as a result, was informally known as ‘‘the Alcindor rule.’’ ‘‘Clearly, they did it to undermine my dominance in the game,’’ Abdul-Jabbar writes in Giant Steps. ‘‘Equally clearly, if I’d been white they never would have done it. The dunk is one of basketball’s great crowd pleasers, and there was no good reason to give it up except that this and other niggers were running away with the sport.’’ Abdul-Jabbar’s U.C.L.A. team won the national championship again when he was a junior.
That year, Abdul-Jabbar refused to play in the 1968 Olympics because he did not want to represent a country that did not treat him as an equal. The press pilloried him for it. In a much-publicized spot on the ‘‘Today’’ show, Joe Garagiola, a baseball player turned TV personality, asked Abdul-Jabbar why he wouldn’t play for his country.
‘‘Yeah, I live here,’’ Abdul-Jabbar said. ‘‘But it’s not really my country.’’
‘‘Well, then there’s only one solution,’’ Garagiola said. ‘‘Maybe you should move.’’
His relationship with the press only worsened.
In 1969, Abdul-Jabbar was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, where he would perfect his signature sky hook — a balletic feat that involves an explosive one-legged leap before flinging the ball into the hoop with one hand — and win three of his eventual six MVP awards. Before games, Abdul-Jabbar read books in front of his locker to avoid engaging with reporters. (On his reading list that year: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who reignited his childhood interest in Sherlock Holmes. He admired the detective’s ability to synthesize huge amounts of information.) He became notorious for berating reporters who he thought were trying to bait him into a controversial answer.
Basketball, because it is played in shorts and without a helmet or cap, invites a peculiar intimacy that puts each facial expression, each bodily tic, into heightened focus. Michael Jordan, and then Kobe Bryant, were celebrated for the way they set their jaws in determination. Abdul-Jabbar was judged, and is still judged, on his grim game face and the apparently joyless way he ran up and down the court. He was traded to the Lakers before the 1975-76 season, and won two more MVP awards in his first two years. But the team floundered. When Magic Johnson came to the Lakers in 1979, the press regarded him as the team’s savior. They loved his radiant smile and cast him as the exuberant, warm foil to Abdul-Jabbar’s supposedly arrogant, selfish loner.
Despite being painfully aware of his role in the Magic-Kareem binary, Abdul-Jabbar found himself drawn to the rookie’s enthusiasm. He began to open up, in his own peculiar way. He chose to explain himself to the public by writing a book in which he discussed, in grim detail, the anger he felt toward white people and how it informed the choices he made in his youth. He did not apologize.
This is the Abdul-Jabbar paradox: He’s a man who cares enough about his legacy to write two memoirs and eight other books, but he refuses to engage in the usual smoothing, sanding and editing that is required of a public persona. He instead asks you to accept his version of his truth, even if the truth is that at 68, he sometimes has a hard time being civil to children and still refuses to shake the hand of a reporter.
Abdul-Jabbar rarely stretches out to his full height. Instead, he hunches: His shoulders close on their hinges, and he tucks his chin into his neck. It’s a necessary adjustment to a world that is not designed for a man as tall as he is. In the car on the way to lunch, though, he stretched back in his seat, stared out at the passing skyline and tapped his knee to the jazz on the radio. He said that he once hoped to spend some of his retirement in a brownstone in Harlem, but the crowds and the constant attention had forced a retreat back to a suburb of Los Angeles, where he could get around without the hazards of busy sidewalks. He is divorced and has five grown children: three with his former wife, Habiba, and two by other women. He lives alone. He talked about his recent emergency quadruple-bypass surgery but insisted that the epiphanies of a life-threatening illness had eluded him.
On Fifth Avenue, we were shepherded into a restaurant on the first floor of the Empire State Building. Abdul-Jabbar folded himself into a corner booth — a process that required him to stick his legs out from underneath the table at a 45-degree angle — and ordered a cheeseburger. When the food arrived, Abdul-Jabbar ate like a bird, all pecks and careful dissections. But his mood had brightened. He chuckled at Morales’s giddy stream of non sequiturs, praised her business acumen, even smiled.
He spoke enthusiastically about his admiration for John le Carré and for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue and about his own writing, which he works on for about three hours each morning before, as he put it, ‘‘my head gets contaminated with other concerns.’’ When he’s writing fiction, he told me, he reads Elmore Leonard and Ross Thomas for dialogue. When he turns his attention to style, he reads writers as diverse as Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl, and the offbeat experimentalist Miranda July.
All of Abdul-Jabbar’s books have been written with a co-author. He worked with the poet Anthony Walton on the history of the black tank battalion. The process of writing a book with Abdul-Jabbar, Walton told me, involved breaking down boxes of Abdul-Jabbar’s research — videotapes, old photographs, contact lists and bibliographies — into a narrative. ‘‘I remember when I realized that the story was going to be the story of one platoon,’’ Walton said. ‘‘That’s one of the oldest stories of all time. It goes back to the Iliad. I remember how excited Kareem was when we talked about that.
‘‘Just imagine what it was like to be him,’’ Walton added. ‘‘It was 50 years of him being 18 inches taller than everyone and having the brain that he had. Imagine being this jazz head coming up during black power. This is just a dude who has a different head.’’
In recent years, Abdul-Jabbar has turned his attention toward the Internet, where he has found an unexpected role among the online commentariat. He has written on Lena Dunham, Ferguson, the body-shaming Serena Williams has endured, the Charleston shootings and Donald Trump. (Trump recently responded to one of Abdul-Jabbar’s columns by printing it out and writing across the text with a marker: ‘‘Kareem: Now I know why the press always treated you so badly.... You don’t have a clue about life and what has to be done to make America great again! Best wishes.’’) A bit stiff and laden with quotations from Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway, the columns demonstrate a change in Abdul-Jabbar’s politics: He has become a pragmatist who sees the path toward ‘‘racial harmony’’ as a continuum along which one is either moving forward or moving backward. His column on Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP chapter president who deceived people into thinking she was a black woman, struck a conciliatory tone. ‘‘She has been fighting the fight for several years and seemingly doing a first-rate job,’’ Abdul-Jabbar wrote. ‘‘Bottom line: The black community is better off because of her efforts.’’
I found myself wondering what Abdul-Jabbar’s career might have been like if it had happened 30 years later. Social media has given athletes a direct avenue to their fans that has cut the sports reporter out of his job as translator, and it has emboldened professional athletes to make political statements they might not have made five years ago. During the Ferguson protests last fall, players for the St. Louis Rams walked out onto the field with their hands raised in protest. In December, during the Eric Garner protests in New York, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and several other NBA players wore ‘‘I Can’t Breathe’’ T-shirts during pregame warm-ups.
These protests were meaningful, but they pale in comparison to the risks Abdul-Jabbar took during his playing career. His refusal to play in the Olympics and his pride in the face of reporters may not be replayed in every Lakers retrospective, but they still linger in the public’s memory. By throwing himself straight into the muck of online opinion-making, where his name can be tweeted, shared and liked, Abdul-Jabbar has dusted off his legacy. The odd man with the discomforting, unrelenting opinions seems finally to have found an audience.
Abdul-Jabbar is a thoughtful and deliberate dresser. Nearly every piece of clothing he owns must be custom-ordered or tailored. In 1967, Life magazine photographed him being measured at a men’s wear shop. The tailor, whose arms are wrapped around Abdul-Jabbar’s waist, is standing on a chair. When I met him again at the Langham, about a month after our trip to the zoo, he was dressed for the night in a simple, impeccably pressed white shirt and a pair of narrow-legged black slacks, stomping around the room in search of his blazer. We were about to head to the Village Vanguard, where he was scheduled to meet a film crew that was finishing up a biographical documentary titled, appropriately enough, ‘‘Kareem: A Minority of One.’’ Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball player, is from Los Angeles, but Lew Alcindor, the kid who hopped around jazz clubs, played pickup games at the famed Rucker Park in Harlem and hung out at parties with Wilt Chamberlain, is a cosmopolitan New Yorker.
I asked Abdul-Jabbar if he sometimes wished he had played in the era of social media, if Twitter and Instagram might have given him a more ideal way to communicate with fans.
‘‘That would have been great,’’ he said. ‘‘It would’ve been nice to really be able to explain myself in the way I wanted to explain myself.’’
He began to talk about Magic Johnson, who, despite the years and their divergent paths, is still cast as Abdul-Jabbar’s opposite. Where Kareem was dour, Magic was outgoing and friendly. Where Abdul-Jabbar was mechanical, Magic was creative. For better or worse, Abdul-Jabbar, basketball’s scarecrow, was uprooted and stored away, forever defined by how much like Magic he wasn’t.
‘‘I understood why people liked him,’’ Abdul-Jabbar told me. ‘‘He had that great smile, so white people thought his life was OK. They thought that racism had not affected him. They were wrong, of course. But that’s what they saw when they saw him. Magic made white people feel comfortable. With themselves.’’
I asked Abdul-Jabbar if he regretted the way he had treated the press, if he ever wished that he had humored them a bit more in the hope that they might help the public get to know him.
‘‘Oh, yes,’’ he said. ‘‘I just didn’t realize back then how much it was hurting me.’’ He turned away. ‘‘But it cost me dearly.’’ Ω
[Jay Caspian Kang is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. His debut novel was The Dead Do Not Improve (2012). Kang was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Boston and Chapel Hill. He received a BA (English) from Bowdoin College and an MFA (writing) from Columbia University.]
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