Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ’69 makes you think. He’s one of the greatest basketball players of all time because he perfected a thinking man’s approach to the game. And in the two decades since his retirement, the Captain’s provocative ideas have made us think in new ways about issues like race, sports and society. Abdul-Jabbar has written six books on a variety of subjects, including black World War II veterans, his experience coaching Native American kids on an Arizona reservation and Black Profiles in Courage. In his latest, On the Shoulders of Giants, the quintessential scholar-athlete returns to the famous New York City neighborhood where he grew up, chronicling the remarkable Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s and ’30s and its enduring influence on athletics, literature, music, politics — and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
On the Shoulders of Giants is a very personal book for you, isn’t it?
People have asked me all my life how I got to be who I am. By using the Harlem Renaissance as a backdrop, it explained things that I hadn’t consciously thought about with regard to who I am.
What kind of things?
The Renaissance inspired my mom and dad and a lot of people who were prominent in our community. That really affected me. The trickle-down effect was very evident once I started looking at it. The political aspirations, let’s say, of the Harlem Renaissance were the foundation for the civil rights movement.
You examine the Renaissance in four sections: history, sports, music and writing. Why those four?
Those aspects of the Renaissance are things that have turned me on throughout my lifetime. Made me conscious of myself and my community and really helped shape my aspirations.
In fact, there is history in the very structure of your new book. You modeled it after the call-and-response form. Why did you decide to use that structure?
Call and response is a basic aspect of West African culture, something that black Americans carried with them throughout their whole experience in the Americas.
How would you describe call and response for people who aren’t familiar with the form?
Somebody will make a statement and people will respond to it, and then someone will rephrase the initial statement and elaborate on it, and people again will respond to that. This is how you had debates and discussions in the villages of West Africa, and it came naturally to black Americans.
Jazz also clearly holds a special place for you.
Jazz is also based on call and response. You state the theme and then different soloists respond or comment on the theme in their own way, and then the theme is restated.
Scholarship is another important aspect in your life. What’s the most difficult story you’ve ever told?
I think the one that deals with the people on the reservation, because I thought it was going to be some exotic place and it was just like any inner city in America. Lack of educational and economic opportunities, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy — all the things that affect the worst barrio or ghetto in America are happening way the heck down in rural Arizona. I went to Fort Apache to do research on Black Profiles in Courage and the Buffalo Soldiers. They’re a little bit basketball-crazy up there. They thought my coaching could serve as an incentive to the kids in the basketball program to go to college. [But] there was only one who went on to college, and he was the one whose parents were on top of him about getting good grades. He really didn’t need any incentive from me.