It seems that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar really can do more than just stuff a ball through a hoop.
At a lecture in Ezra Stiles College on Sunday afternoon, the former basketball great spoke to a packed dining hall about his new book, “On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance,” and about what led him from professional sports to a career promoting the legacy of African-American achievement. Though students said they had come for the basketball, over half a dozen attendees commented that learning about Abdul-Jabbar’s intellectual interests made him seem more well-rounded.
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His passion for learning about recent African-American history began in 1964, when his then-basketball coach went on a tirade about Abdul-Jabbar’s performance.
“In the heat of the moment, the ‘n’ word came up,” recalled Abdul-Jabbar, who was then known by Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. “I just heard that word come from his mouth and it soured our relationship.”
At that point he decided he wanted to switch from the basketball summer camps to the journalism workshop at the Harlem Youth Action Project, a program in which participants published a weekly newsletter about the Harlem community.
Researching Harlem’s past, he became fascinated with the 1920s jazz age and black American cultural icons like Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong he said.
“This showed me how important it was to show the world what black people have given to American culture,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
But Abdul-Jabbar, now a special assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, did not entirely ignore the topic on most audience members’ minds: basketball.
The 7’2” former player famous for his “Skyhook” shot described the historic 1939 basketball tournament in which a black team, the Harlem Rens, won the inaugural World Pro Basketball Tournament by beating the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars, setting in motion the integration of the National Basketball League. Though this tournament occurred before Abdul-Jabbar was born, it demonstrated for him the connection between basketball and African-American achievement.
Throughout his basketball career, Abdul-Jabbar said, he remained intellectually curious.
Abdul-Jabbar attributed the seeds of his conversion to Islam during college to an article about Malcolm X, saying that it challenged his beliefs and led him to research different forms of spirituality.
“You name it, I read it,” he quipped.
When queried on politics, Abdul-Jabbar said that he was going to vote for Sen. Barack Obama because Obama is “from the real America.”
The claims from anti-Obama groups that Obama is Muslim are disappointing, given that a candidate’s religion should not play a large factor in elections, he said.
Theater studies professor Reginald Jackson, who attended the talk, said he appreciated Abdul-Jabbar’s direct, frank responses to student questions.
For Usama Qadri ’10, Abdul-Jabbar was more mellow and down to earth than he had expected.
“That’s what’s lacking in today’s basketball players,” he said.
Three of the eight students interviewed said they were disappointed that Abdul-Jabbar did not talk more about basketball, the sport that made him a household name.
But Anne Loeb ’12 said she thought the more academic aspect of the talk was a pleasant surprise.
“I didn’t know he was such an intellectual,” Loeb said. “I thought he was just a basketball star.”