Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on His Love of History, Youth Sports and Which Books Everyone Should Read (Smithsonian Magazine)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The basketball legend has always had a writer’s touch

At this point, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has spent more of his life as a best-selling author than a pro-basketball player. But for Abdul-Jabbar, who still holds the NBA’s career scoring record, the second act as a writer isn’t so much something new as the continuation of an inquisitiveness that preceded his status as living sports legend. Working as a cub reporter in Harlem during high school, he covered Martin Luther King, Jr., and once, in the mid-1970’s, he reportedly told Gay Talese—to the famous writer’s amazement—that he wanted to become a sports writer once he retired. His career arc to writing for Time magazine and the Washington Post was simply interrupted by dabbling in sports.

Later this summer, Abdul-Jabbar will publish his tenth book, Writings on the Wall: a ranging collection of essays that weaves through race, politics, religion and aging, all with an eye to how we as a culture might do a bit better by each other. It’s a frank, earnest offering, dotted with pop culture references and bits of humble advice that takes advantage of the unique perspective that comes with being one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Like his other books—he’s written histories of forgotten African-American icons, books for children, and, most recently, a reimagining of the life of Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft—it shows off the breadth of his interests and his undiminished curiosity for both the past and the present.

Abdul-Jabbar spoke with Smithsonian late this spring about his new book, his historical heroes, and what he makes of the cutthroat world of youth sports.

You mention that, had you not been a basketball player, you would have been a history teacher. What period of history most draws you in?

There are two periods that I find especially exciting. The American West brings out the little boy in me because it was a coming-of-age time for our country. Those were America’s teenage years, when we were a brawling, sprawling country with a young person’s ambitions to conquer the world and bend the future to our will. Our enthusiasm bred arrogance and, like many teens, we sometimes ignored the morality of what we were doing in favor of success. That fever spread across industrialists exploiting workers, politicians exploiting weaker countries and average people in the desperate search for land or gold or commerce.

No wonder outlaws were celebrated as heroes.

As much as I enjoy the growing pains that resulted in gunfights and heroic battles, I’m equally fascinated by how we went from a relatively lawless society to a civilized culture. That’s where the real heroics of the American West are revealed: people willing to struggle, not for personal gain, but for social justice. The adventurers of the Old West are exciting, but the social reformers are inspiring.

The second period that interests me is the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the 1940s, which I detail in my book, On the Shoulders of Giants. If the American West brings out the little boy in me, this period brings out the mature man. It’s one of those rare times in history when the arts, sports, politics and social reform form an intellectual tsunami that washes over an entire culture and changes it forever. African-Americans found their voice after so many years of oppression and that voice was a sweet harmony of outrage and celebration. Poets, playwrights, novelists, jazz and jazz musicians flourished. And black intellectuals united to lay the groundwork for racial equality.

Is there a historical figure that particularly resonates with you?

That’s like picking your favorite parent. I’m fascinated by the world-shakers like Napoleon and Attila and Alexander the Great, but the historical figures that most resonate with me aren’t the ones who tried to conquer the world, but those who fought to change society to make it more just and equitable place. Those are the people who have inspired me to be a better person. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Muhammad, Jesus, Gandhi, and the Buddha had a vision of a better society and were willing to risk everything in order to make that vision a reality. History is not a static thing, a collection of interesting trivia to spark dinner conversation. It’s a guide to spiritual and social improvement because it allows us to study the mistakes and triumphs of the past in order to better understand and shape or values…

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