Saunders: From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,wonderful life lessons in growing up

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

By Barry Saundersbsaunders@newsobserver.comcreate new email

Anybody want to buy a 45-year grudge that’s been well-nursed?

I’m trying to get rid of one, now that I’ve actually met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and talked to him.

You see, after the way Abdul-Jabbar abused Rusty Clark, the starting center for the UNC Tar Heels, in 1968 and UCLA easily beat the Heels for the NCAA championship, I have rooted against just about every team Abdul-Jabbar played on. (Back in 1968, he was known as Lewis Ferdinand Alcindor – is that a great handle or what?)

I talked to Abdul-Jabbar this week about his new book, a book I opened with this irrational plea: Please, Lord. Let it bad.

It wasn’t. “Sasquatch in the Paint” is terrific. It’s ostensibly a children’s book about middle-school-age children in a culturally diverse world trying to find their identity, but it’s hard to imagine any literate adult who used to be a kid not loving it, too. Basketball, Abdul-Jabbar said, is just the backdrop.

Help from ‘Sasquatch’

“A lot of sports books for kids,” he said, “emphasize the sports. While there’s a lot of basketball in this book, this is also the story of a young boy trying to find his identity. … This age is the most awkward and confusing time in our lives. ‘Sasquatch’ is about kids trying to figure out their lives as they enter their teenage years. I’m hoping this book will help kids navigate those rough waters a little better.”

Hear, hear. Breathes there a soul among us who can look back on being 13 years old without wincing, who couldn’t have used some help navigating those rough waters?

Also, is there one among us who hasn’t had a conversation like this one the main character, Theo Rollins, has with his best friend, Brian:

Brian: Man, 13 sucks. No wonder it’s an unlucky number.

Theo: I know. Suddenly everyone’s piling on all this new responsibility, but without any respect. When you want to do something new, they say ‘You’re only 13.’ But when they want you to do more work, they say ‘You’re 13 now, not a kid.’”

Ring a bell?

Abdul-Jabbar will be signing “Sasquatch in the Paint” Thursday at Quail Ridge Books & Music from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The “washed-up jock me” loved the book for the basketball scenes and for the fact that Theo – obviously based on Kareem – couldn’t play a lick of basketball when he started. It was with sadistic glee that I, with my usual class, asked the all-time leading scorer in pro basketball history “Did you stink at basketball when you first started playing?”

“Oh, very much so,” he laughed. “The only reason I was on my grade-school team basically was because I was tall. I had no skills, but they figured that would come along. … I didn’t like the game. I loved baseball, but my athletic talents lent themselves more to basketball.”

A really good read

The “adult me” kept wishing – as I devoured “Sasquatch” over two days – that there’d been books like this when I was a kid. The book and the powerful anti-acne medicine now available are the only two reasons I’m jealous of today’s kids.

Here’s how you know you’re reading a really good book: when you get to the last page but keep turning, looking for more. Honestly that’s what I did.

Fret not, though. Abdul-Jabbar said “Sasquatch” – the unflattering name fans of an opposing team call Theo – is the first in a trilogy. That means we’ll be able to follow Theo through high school and college.

I just hope he leaves out the part where Theo’s team beats the Tar Heels.

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