Spirit & Place interview: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of three participants — with writers Anita Diamant and Thomas Lynch — in the Spirit & Place Public Conversation, which will cap off 10 days of S&P events pertaining to the theme of the body. The free conversation is Sunday, Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth El-Zedeck.

Since retiring from professional basketball in 1989, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has embarked on a second life as an author and historian telling stories of exemplary moments in black American history. His latest book, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey through the Harlem Renaissance (2007), considers key figures such as James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois; his documentary by the same name, released this year, focuses on the story of the Harlem Rens, an all-black pro basketball team that played in a Harlem ballroom between barnstorming tours against top pro teams from all-white leagues.

Abdul-Jabbar is also the co-author of Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement (1996), which discusses names both familiar (Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass) and less so (Lewis Latmer, an inventor and Edison collaborator; and Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion (2004), concerning a largely African-American WWII battalion whose most famous member was ballplayer Jackie Robinson.

NUVO: Is this is a typical speaking engagement for you?

Abdul-Jabbar: Oh, no, it's pretty unusual, but I was interested.

NUVO: Have you given thought to what you'll end up talking about? It's a rather general theme…

Abdul-Jabbar: I think they just want to get an idea of how people deal with thinking about their physical selves. As an athlete, you have a certain approach to it, and there are other viewpoints that are equally valid and interesting.

NUVO: There are several programs involving yoga as part of the Spirit & Place Festival; I wonder about the role yoga has played in your life.

Abdul-Jabbar: The thing about yoga is that it tries to take a total approach to your health, so the whole idea of how you conduct your life, the discipline you have in the way you exercise and diet — I think all of those things are what yoga's about. For me, it was very helpful because stretching was an aspect of physical training that was not very well respected in the West, and we've found that it's absolutely essential. Cardiovascular endurance and strength training are key, yes, but so is flexibility. The idea of approaching things in a holistic way has greatly benefitted athletes.

NUVO: Have you found it as helpful after your professional career?

Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, I haven't gone to class in a long time, though.

NUVO: I was talking with one of the other Public Conversation participants, Anita Diamant, earlier, and she talked about how, for her, yoga and Judaism are pretty much distinct. I wonder how yoga and Islam relate for you? Do you subscribe to any of the mystical elements of yoga?

Abdul-Jabbar: I see yoga as a physical discipline. It is mental and spiritual, but I don't get involved with it religiously. There are some religious aspects to certain types of yoga, where certain religious groups have their style of yoga that is closely aligned with their religious beliefs. But as a physical discipline I find it very useful, and it hasn't created any conflicts in my life with regard to my religious beliefs.

NUVO: Given how active you've been as a writer, I think we might think of you just as much as a storyteller as anything else. What interests you in telling stories about these lesser-known movements and people from American history, about the 761st Tank Battalion and the Harlem Rens?

Abdul-Jabbar: I think that so many stories that have contributed to what America is all about haven't gotten a decent amount of attention because the people that these stories are about are not from the dominant group, they're not people of European descent and they're dismissed. You can include stories about women, but black Americans, native Americans, Hispanics quite often do not get the credit that they deserve in our history books. I know the history books that I had when I was going to school in the '50s and '60s dealt with blacks only in terms of the issues of slavery and civil rights.

NUVO: So you've made a multi-media attempt to get those stories out there in the public consciousness.

Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, black kids need to know how black Americans have contributed to what America is all about. When you look at some of the standard textbooks, it's not dealt with. You can start with the American Revolution: The very first person to die, Crispus Attucks, was a black American. You have to really go through a little bit to a lot of trouble.

NUVO: He's a household name in Indy because of Crispus Attucks High School, but he's probably not elsewhere.

Abdul-Jabbar: Right. Crispus Attucks was actually mixed: His father was of African descent and his mother was a nomadic Indian, and those are two groups that do not get their rightful share of attention.

NUVO: When did you first hear the story of the Harlem Rens — and then what motivated you to get that story out there?

Abdul-Jabbar: I first heard about the Harlem Rens when I was in high school, but I didn't get any in-depth understanding about what they had done; I didn't know what they meant to the story of basketball. It wasn't until I retired from professional basketball that I started to see what it was all about in-depth, and at that point I wanted to do a better job of telling that story.

NUVO: Are there any stories that you still want to tell about black history or American history that you're working on now?

Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, there are a number of stories — I wrote a book called Black Profiles in Courage, and I deal with a number of the stories in that book. It's all about opportunities: I might get the opportunity to deal with one or a number of those stories; and if I get the opportunity, I will do the best I can.

NUVO: I called you a storyteller, but I wonder if you think of yourself that way?

Abdul-Jabbar: Well, my parents are from the West Indies, and because they didn't have radio or anything, storytelling was a way to pass on family history or entertain. I think I absorbed at lot of that tradition just through my grandmother.


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