A few minutes after the credits have rolled and the house lights have come up at the conclusion of a screening of HBO Sports’ film, Kareem: Minority of One, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walked up on stage in front of a still-cheering audience.
After politely thanking everyone involved, he answered the question that was hanging in the air: Why would a player as media-averse, and deeply protective of his privacy as any star in the history of sports, subject his entire life to the probing eye of a documentary?
Abdul-Jabbar stared out at the crowd (or perhaps just slightly over it) and though he started out with the same calm, measured tone that had marked every public statement he’d ever made, he slowly grew visibly emotional as he explained, “When my father died in 2005, I realized how little I knew about him.”
He couldn’t bear the thought that his own children might look back with the same regret, and more than anything, he hoped this movie would allow them and everyone else to “see past the armor that I’ve worn for so long,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
That kind of naked honesty and vulnerability represents a quantum leap from his playing days, a time in his life that was marked by an often contentious and fraught relationship with both fans and the press.
Despite an unreal 20-year NBA career in which he scored an NBA record 38,387 points, won six NBA titles and six Most Valuable Player awards, Abdul-Jabbar’s inherent shyness led many to “typecast him as the brooding black guy. I had to toe a certain line and not be too controversial or too much my own man,” Abdul-Jabbar says in the film, a lesson he learned from his father.
“Dad never displayed any emotion,” he says. “It affected me my whole life, because I thought that was why people respected my dad.”
At age 14, Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, was starting on Power Memorial High’s varsity team and was already such a colossal star that he’d made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
They dropped their opening game and Abdul-Jabbar was crushed, bawling his eyes out in the locker room.
“All the other guys on the team were looking at me like I just stepped off a spaceship,” he says. “From that point on, I always had my game face on. I never, ever gave away any emotional vulnerability to anybody from that point on until I retired.”
As Lakers forward James Worthy says in the film, “Kareem was just a different piece of toast, man.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s public conversion to Islam only served to further set him apart from his peers, in particular the controlling relationship he had with Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, the leader of the Hanafi sect and a former member of the Nation of Islam. Khaalis led Abdul-Jabbar through his study of Islam when he was starring at UCLA, gave him his name, and actually went so far as to choose his wife for him.
Abdul-Jabbar bought a home in Washington, D.C., that became the Hanafi headquarters. Then, in 1973, tragedy struck.
“Some members of the Black Muslims had seen Hamaas as a threat to their organization and eight or nine men had been sent to kill him,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his 1983 autobiography, Giant Steps. “The gang had stormed the house that afternoon, but when they found that Hamaas, his wife, and one of his daughters had gone out shopping, they had tied everybody up and waited for him.”
“When Hamaas hadn’t returned they’d grown impatient. They’d ransacked the rooms and then, one by one, attacked everybody there. They killed Hamaas’ three sons: Daud, who was my age, Abdullah, and Rahman Uddein, his 10-year-old. They put bullets in the head of his daughter Amina and his second wife Bibi. They drowned three infants in the bathtub and the sink.”
“The fact that I converted to Islam scared some in the press because they didn’t understand why I would do it nor what the religion was about,” Abdul-Jabbar told me via email. “To them it seemed like a rejection of America rather than an expression of my own beliefs.”
While Abdul-Jabbar’s activism was always a key component in his life, of late he’s found an audience that’s actually able to hear him in a way that wasn’t possible in the hurly-burly of the ’60s.
“It’s important to remember the social climate of the time,” he wrote. “I was vocal about a lot of social issues, which many in the press didn’t like because they thought athletes should play ball and keep their political and social opinions to themselves.”
To wit, though Abdul-Jabbar has been honing his literary skills for years, writing two autobiographies, and nine other tomes tackling historical and literary subjects ranging from World War II tank battalions and the Harlem Renaissance to Mycroft Holmes, in recent years he’s become a prolific and prominent essayist, penning numerous columns for Time magazine, the Huffington Post, and Esquire.
And again, it’s hard not to be impressed by the breadth and scope of the subjects he’s written about. He’s gone in hard on Donald Trump, weighed in on both the Black Lives Matter movement and the self-flattering outrage at the purging of Donald Sterling, advocated ending amateurism in college sports, and even taken Lena Dunham’s Girls to task.
I spoke with Abdul-Jabbar later that evening, shortly after the screening. He and I had ducked into a smaller screening room and he’d managed to wedge himself into an ill-equipped movie seat, his knees practically touching his shoulders, staring off into the distance.
Despite the less than ideal furniture, there’s something profoundly regal about his entire presence. I can’t say that I’ve ever been as close to another human being for whom the word “dignified” immediately springs to mind, even as I’m aware how it might also scan as standoffish or even aloof, especially if that’s what you’re looking for.
I asked why he thought more and more athletes were choosing to speak out about social and political issues.
“I think that people are starting to see that we still have a ways to go,” he said. “When Tamir Rice got killed in Cleveland, some members of the Cleveland Browns who were parents, two of the players who were parents and had young boys, they had a lot to say about it.
“Some of the people on the police force wanted them to apologize, but these are legitimate concerns of parents, and it’s entered their generation—guys that never thought they had to be concerned about a cop just walking up to their kid and executing him.”
I mentioned that some members of the St. Louis Rams had faced a similar backlash after entering the stadium with their arms raised in protest, with the local police demanded that the players be “disciplined.”
That’s really unfortunate,” he said. “That the police would take a position where they had to express that type of resentment at people who have legitimate concerns. It’s not like somebody got a ticket for watering his lawn.”
“People are dead. And they don’t seem to understand that.”
We talked about the pushback that’s gone hand-in-hand with the rise of this generation’s black activism—the denial that any sort of white privilege exists.
“For so many people, the privilege of being a white person is something they don’t want to give up,” he said. “If you have a privilege and all of a sudden it’s going to be taken away from you, you might be resentful.”
Or even deny that privilege exists?
“Right,” he said. “It was taken for granted for so long and maybe now that’s changing.”
“There’s a lot of resentment, that black Americans still are an issue,” he continued. “And people are tired of it. But if you’re a black American it’s a lot worse. People don’t get that. When we get to the point where we’re all treated as first-class citizens, when we get to the point where the criminal justice system treats us all the same way, I think we’ll have gotten over the hump. But we’ve got a ways to go.”
In a follow-up email, I asked if things would have been different for him, especially when it came to voicing his opinions, if the tools provided by social media were available when he played.
“Absolutely,” he wrote. “It’s frustrating when all your thoughts and actions are interpreted and filtered through a third party who may have an agenda of their own.”
“It’s like the kid’s game of Telephone in which someone whispers a sentence to the kid next to him and by the time it goes around the circle, the sentence says something completely different. But social media allows me to directly communicate with fans. Of course, that means I have no excuses if it doesn’t resonate.”
It certainly might have changed how fans perceived Abdul-Jabbar. He said he grew deeply weary of answering the same questions from the traditional press, that the boredom of telling yet another army of beat reporters how he’d struggled defending Wilt Chamberlain led to curt or even dismissive answers, and that the scrum of a post-game locker room interview wasn’t the best vehicle for someone as introverted and introspective as he.
“I do better when I’ve had time to think about what I’m going to say and then craft it just right,” he wrote. “Had social media been around when I was a player, I think fans would have seen a lot more of the real me.”
Abdul-Jabbar said that he has been doling out advice to current athletes that are looking to become more politically engaged. But as one might expect, he’s neither an ideologue nor does he insist that everyone should follow his lead.
“Each athlete has to make that decision for him or herself,” he wrote. “Just because you’re famous doesn’t mean you are obligated to give an opinion. More importantly, they should be sure they are well-informed before saying anything because everything you say is recorded and archived on the Internet forever.”
“That tweet you dashed off trying to be funny is suddenly viral and being interpreted as something awful,” he continued. “Now you’re spending days doing damage control. So, know what you’re talking about first. Get the facts. There’s nothing more damaging to your reputation—and brand—than spouting off about things you know nothing about.”
And that measured, reasoned tone extends to the upcoming election. Abdul-Jabbar hasn’t found a candidate that he could see himself supporting, because “it’s still too early in the process for me to endorse anyone,” he wrote.
“Much of the rest of the world, and our own media, often criticizes us for our lengthy vetting period with presidential candidates. But I think it’s great because over time the facades of many candidates crumble under such intense scrutiny.”
Talking with Abdul-Jabbar, you could practically see the gears of his thought process clicking into place, waiting until he’d gathered all the necessary components, plucking from his vast repository of information, until he’d selected the exact word he wanted.
And you can’t help but see the way Kareem’s mind works as not wholly dissimilar to the balletic, oh-so-precise brilliance of the shot that made him a basketball immortal: the skyhook.
In the film, it even makes Dr. Cornel West gape in awe.
“That ball just taking its time...” West says, pausing as a beatific grin curls around his lips. “That’s nice, that’s nice.”