Talking “On the Shoulders of Giants” with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

by Jon Teitel

In his most recent interview CHN writer spent some time with the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to discuss the recent video release of his documentary “On the Shoulders of Giants“. The documentary focuses on the Harlem Rens, a professional basketball team during the 1920s and ’30s that ranked among the best in the game. Without the Rens many of the players we watch and cheer now wouldn’t have the opportunities they currently have.

Jon Teitel: The title of your documentary is based on a quote from English physicist Sir Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants”. What do you think the quote means?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The quote refers to the fact that all progress is a result of people improving on the efforts of those who have gone before us and advanced the knowledge on any subject.

JT: The film is about the Harlem Rens, an all-Black professional basketball team that was established in the 1920s. What was Harlem like in the 1920s?

KAJ: Harlem in the 1920s was a destination for Blacks from the southern United States and Caribbean. It was a place where the lack of repressive laws limiting the efforts of people of color did not exist.

JT: The Rens got their name from playing home games at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom at 138th St. and 7th Ave. Why did they choose to play there, and was there any concern about having a professional team playing at a casino?

KAJ: The Rens played at the Renaissance Casino because it could accommodate their need for a home event. It was not a gambling casino, so the only concern was whether or not the basketball game would ruin the dance floor!

JT: Bob Douglas (“The Father of Black Professional Basketball”) was the founder and coach of the Rens, and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame. Why did he decide to start a team?

KAJ: Douglas saw basketball as a game with the potential to be popular, and as a wise businessman he saw how to make money in this new sport.

JT: The most famous “Harlem” basketball team is the Globetrotters even though they were actually from Chicago. What was the relationship between the Rens and the Globetrotters, and were the Rens seen more as athletes, entertainers or other?

KAJ: The Rens and Globetrotters were rivals. The Rens were seen as competitive athletes, whereas the Trotters were more about entertainment.

JT: The Ballroom’s jazz orchestra played in the background of the Rens’ games, and the film has a gorgeous soundtrack that includes a lot of jazz. What is the connection between jazz and basketball?

KAJ: In the 1920s and 1930s jazz was seen as the “beat” for the game of basketball, just like rap is seen as the beat for the game in the 21st century.

JT: The technology used to depict the still photos and paintings used in the movie is visually stunning. How were you able to proceed with this project despite the lack of both archival footage and living members of the Rens?

KAJ: We were very lucky to have access to descendants of the Rens’ players, and there were newspaper clippings and photos that shed light on the team and the times that they played in. Additionally, we hired a very talented artist (Justin Bua) to help us bring these memories to life.

JT: Professor Cornel West shared his insight with you on camera while walking the streets of Harlem (“the unofficial Black capital of America”). How has the neighborhood changed over the past century?

KAJ: Harlem has begun to have a second renaissance recently, one that is tied to the gentrification of the neighborhood over the past few years.

JT: The team played most of its games while barnstorming across the country, including a 3-0 series loss to the “Original Celtics”. Why did interracial games sell more tickets than games involving players of the same race?

KAJ: The Rens played interracial games because games between two different ethnic groups appealed to the tendency of people to root for players of their own ethnicity. Boxing was a good example of this trend. The “melting pot” only went so far in America.

JT: In 1939 the Rens beat the Oshkosh All-Stars in the inaugural World Professional Basketball Championship in Chicago. How big a deal was it back then for a Black team to beat a White team in a championship game?

KAJ: It was a shock for an all-Black team to beat a championship all-White team in the 1930s, as Blacks were not considered to be able to compete with Whites on an equal basis. The Rens were able to shock the world by exposing the myth of White supremacy in sports.

JT: The Rens disbanded in 1949 after the integrated National Basketball League merged with the all-White Basketball Association of America to form the all-White National Basketball Association. Do you think the NBA would have eventually allowed non-White players if it were not for the Rens?

KAJ: Professional basketball did not become integrated until 1950. Bob Douglas probably thought that NBA teams would start to hire Black players on a regular basis, which eventually happened.

JT: Your college coach John Wooden said that he learned his signature pressure defense from his time playing against the Rens. What other innovations are credited to the Rens (if any)?

KAJ: The Rens were known for their passing game. Quick passes and cuts creating constant motion on the court. They also played a suffocating pressure man-to-man defense.

JT: The Hall of Fame inducted the Rens collectively in 1963. When people look back on the Rens, how do you think they should be remembered the most?

KAJ: I think the Rens should be remembered for their perseverance. By constantly being one of the best teams in the game they made the sporting world acknowledge their superior play and the fact that they deserved to be competing against all comers, both Black and White.

JT: What have you learned by standing upon the shoulders of these giants, and what has it allowed you to see that other have not?

KAJ: I have learned that if you are consistent and determined, then all obstacles can be overcome, just as the Rens showed the sporting establishment that they were the best team in the game!