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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Scoring Points For Literacy

Abdul-Jabbar on black pride

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In all likelihood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will remain best known for his exploits on the basketball court. After all, with 38,387 points, he is the highest scorer in NBA history. However, since retiring from sports, the erstwhile center for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers has also become a bestselling author and an advocate for reading.

Abdul-Jabbar was recently tapped to be the keynote speaker for the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting, held in Philadelphia. The 60-year-old Abdul-Jabbar said he grew up in an environment that stressed learning.

“My family wouldn’t allow me to be uneducated,” he said. “My love of reading started early as a gift from my father. When I asked him a question, he would hand me one of his many books. It frustrated me at the time, because I really wanted to talk to him. However, this taught me the importance of books.”

Abdul-Jabbar, born in Harlem, N.Y., lauded the ability of books and authors to be a positive influence on the lives of readers. “I was influenced by writers from the Harlem Renaissance, like W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston,” he said. “I found the essays by James Baldwin to be fascinating. It enabled me to better understand what was going on in the civil-rights movement.”

And Abdul-Jabbar didn’t limit himself to certain subjects or styles. When asked for a list of favorite authors, he reeled off an eclectic group: “Raymond Chandler, Charles Dickens, Richard Wright, Alexandre Dumas, Elmore Leonard, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Growing up, Abdul-Jabbar developed a parallel interest in sports. But early on, he actually focused on baseball rather than basketball. Abdul-Jabbar’s mother was “a big fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” he said. “She always rooted for Jackie Robinson. She impressed upon me that he was not only a great athlete, but highly intelligent and articulate.

“I was very fortunate to have examples like Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche and Paul Robeson,” he added.

As he began to tower over his peers, it was only natural that Abdul-Jabbar gravitated toward basketball, a sport that provided a lifetime of memories. “I’ve been blessed to have many great moments,” he said of his sports career. “The 72-game win streak by my high school team; in college, I got to play for one of the great coaches of all time, John Wooden, who took us to three consecutive NCAA titles; then beating the Boston Celtics in 1985 for the NBA championship.”

Muslim in America
But as Abdul-Jabbar readily notes, life isn’t all about sports. Reading and writing have allowed Abdul-Jabbar to better understand himself and the larger world. Born as Lew Alcindor and raised as a Roman Catholic, he converted to Islam as an adult, and subsequently changed his name. Back then, his religion didn’t receive the same scrutiny that it does today.

“Before 9/11, Muslims in America were a blip on the radar screen,” he said. “Then, because of what a few people did, it has caused us all to face pain and fear.” Abdul-Jabbar compared Muslim extremists to another widely reviled group, the KKK. “They’re the same as the Ku Klux Klan,” he said. “Both of them promote hatred and intolerance. It’s not what Islam is about.”

But he noted that negative influences aren’t relegated to religious differences. Abdul-Jabbar also pointed out the negative influence of hip-hop on social values. “Hip-hop glorifies violence, misogyny and ignorance,” he said. “We have to have something that shows alternatives to hip-hop that is more positive, some sort of counterpoint to Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z.”

Black Profiles
Abdul-Jabbar said that his transition from bibliophile to author was a natural progression. “I had been presented with an opportunity to have a career playing basketball,” he said. “At age 42, I retired from basketball. I had to find something else to do. Writing was something that I had prepared myself to do after retirement.

“If I hadn’t been playing basketball professionally, I would have begun writing books after graduating college,” he added. Perhaps it was inevitable that Abdul-Jabbar’s first book, Giant Steps, was an autobiographical account of his athletic career.

However, he was not content to restrict himself to sports-themed books. Instead, he released Kareem, which chronicled his spiritual journey to Islam. Abdul-Jabbar followed that up with a pair of historically based works, Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement and Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes.

With A Season on the Reservation: My Sojourn with the White Mountain Apache, he drew from his own experiences of coaching American Indians on the basics of basketball. Abdul- Jabbar’s latest book, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, is a well-crafted and heartfelt account of that bygone era.

Although Abdul-Jabbar often immerses himself in research for his books, he noted: “I don’t consider it work.” He said his aim is “to make the book informative and interesting to the reader. I hope that my books will help enable young black kids in the inner city to have a fuller sense of their heritage.”

For more information on the documentary and audiotape versions of On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, visit www.osgmovie.com.