Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: A Seven-Footer with Roots, 1977

[Most of us are familiar with the dry humor of ESPN’s former anchor Kenny Mayne and current Sports Center host Neil Everett. Humorous though they can be, Mayne and Everett walk on the shoulders of print journalists past. One is the deadpan columnist Charles Maher, who covered pro sports for the Los Angeles Times from 1965 through most of the 1970s. Here’s his dry humor in action in this droll, but well-done, interview with the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The article ran in the newspaper on March 3, 1977. Enjoy!]

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar knows where he came from, knows where he’s at, and has an idea where he’s going. 

Nigeria is where he came from, or his ancestors did, quite involuntarily, a few centuries back. 

Where he’s at is into records, reading, Persian rugs, swimming, cross-country running, and—unbeknownst to all but his closest friends and perhaps 200 million others—professional basketball. 

Down the road, when his skyhook rusts out, he may go into broadcasting. Just looking at him, you can see he’d make a first-rate community antenna. But he’d prefer a speaking part in broadcast journalism, not necessarily in the sports end of it. 

All this came up in an interview the other day. One question to Abdul-Jabbar was whether he has followed the Roots craze. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve read the book.”

“Do you know anything about where your ancestors came from?”

“Yes. My family came here from the West Indies, from Trinidad. The family was brought to the New World by a French slave trader named Alcindor. He sold slaves in Trinidad, in Martinique, and in what later became Haiti. My father went down and found the archives and read about the family, about the time my people were brought over.”

“When was that?”

“In like the 17th century. They were brought to Trinidad, and my father went from there to New York.”

“What was the family up to in the West Indies?”

“My grandfather was a cop, a bobby. Right now, most of my relatives down there are in civil service. I have a cousin named Gabriel Alcindor who is chief of police there for a number of years.”

“How about a few generations farther back?”

“Mainly, my people were just involved in whatever kind of agriculture there was. On back to Africa, my family spoke Yoruba. That’s my tribal language.”

“Where is that spoken?”

“In the western part of Nigeria, approximately around where Lagos is and a little farther north. That’s Yoruba land. The Yorubas had the misfortune of losing a major war about the time the slave trade came in.”

“They lost the war to . . . ?”

“The Moslem north. The people in northern Nigeria. The Yorubas were trying to become independent, and they had a war with the north.”

“Did that have anything to do with your embracing Islam?”

“No. That was separate. But today a lot of Yorubas in Nigeria have accepted Islam.”

Abdul-Jabbar playing an accident victim in the TV show Emergency. The episode aired July 25, 1976

Abdul-Jabbar accepted it some years ago, dropping his Christian name, Lew Alcindor, and becoming a new kind of hyphenated American. (He would be obliged, by the way, if people would use the words on both sides of the hyphen. As they would not call Dick Van Arsdale— “Arsdale”—he would have them not call him “Jabbar.”) 

“How much time do you spend on reading and music?” he was asked.

“Most of my time,” he said. “When I find something interesting to read, I get right into the book and don’t let it go until I’m through with it. The rest of the time I listen to music, when I am home and sometimes on the road.”

“What kinds of books have caught your fancy lately?”

“Well, like history. That was my major in school.”

“One story said you were a big Shakespeare man.”

“No. Jack Kent Cooke (owner of the Lakers) asked me a few questions one time, and I mentioned some characters from Shakespeare, from Othello. We were talking about someone, and I said he was like Iago.”

“And you were immediately classified as this Shakespeare authority?”

“Right,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “But I’m not into Shakespeare at all. I don’t like plays that much. I guess I’m a 20th-century man. I really like film.”

“What kind of music do you like?”

“Jazz, mainly. And a little of the more-popular stuff.”

“I read that you and Spencer Haywood have the largest record collections in the NBA.”

“Probably,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Spencer has about as many as I do. I’ve got a couple of thousand.”

The collection is housed in Abdul-Jabbar’s place in Bel Air. The home was Hawaiian modern when he bought it, but he thought it had a touch of Hollywood phony, so he remodeled. Now, he said, it’s sort of a ranch house. 

The rancher gets from there to the Forum and back in a black 450 Mercedes sedan. Now if you stand next to Abdul-Jabbar, you will see that either he is above average in height or the rest of us are suffering from arrested development. How does a man that tall get into a car?

“He just pushes the seat back,” a source at the Forum said. 

That, of course, is the back seat. 

Abdul-Jabbar was asked about a story that he collects rugs. “Yes I do,” he said. “Mainly Persian.”

“What got you into that?”

 “I was living in Milwaukee.”

“I’m not sure I’d get the connection.”

“Well,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I was up there, and I didn’t have anything to do. I was walking on the street one day, and I saw a rug store that had a few Islamic artifacts in the window. That interested me, so I went inside and started talking to the guy. He gave me a few things to read, and I started collecting rugs that year.”

“You have a lot of them now?”

“Yeah.”

“Are any of them magic?” The kind you can fly on?”

Abdul-Jabbar laughed. “No,” he said, “that’s not in the rug. That’s always in the person.”

“What sports are you interested in besides basketball? I understand you’re a boxing fan and have a lot of old fight films.”

“Yes, I like boxing a lot . . . and football . . . as spectator sports. And for my own self, I like to swim, run cross-country, and do a little horseback riding.”

“Where do you ride horses?”

“Well, I used to just go out to a riding academy. But I haven’t ridden in a couple of years.”

He didn’t get tired of it. But one suspects the horses may have. 

Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee

One recent story said Abdul-Jabbar was thinking of going into journalism after basketball. He was asked about that. “In my last years in high school,” he said, “I was with a poverty program in New York. They had a lot of creative workshops in journalism, photography, film, dance, drama.” Abdul-Jabbar got into journalism. 

“We gave our own account of the Harlem riots of 1964,” he said. “It was my beginnings in journalism.”

“How did your accounts differ from those in the popular media?”

“Well, you know, a whole lot of innocent people were hurt, and if you read the New York papers, everybody who was injured was a rioter. But we figured that maybe only one-quarter of the people injured were actually rioting. Others were just caught away from their homes. You know, the New York Police Department beat up a couple of cops. Didn’t recognize them. They were in plain clothes.”

Abdul-Jabbar said he’s still interested in journalism. “Broadcast journalism,” he said. “But I don’t really want to be restricted to basketball. Sports is a great field for me, but right now, I feel I shouldn’t be restricted to it.”

“Do you see yourself as a creator of ideas,” he was asked, “or a technician or what?”

“Mainly I’d just like to get out and talk to different people,” he said. “I know a lot of people in different areas that others would find interesting.”

Abdul-Jabbar said two New York publishers want him to do an autobiography. But he hasn’t done much writing lately. “You’ve got to sit down and deal with the words and put something together that’s readable and intelligent. It takes time.”

He did do a story in December for the New York Times. It was about Calvin Murphy. “Everybody was so shocked that Calvin Murphy was such a little guy and had been playing in the league so long and beating bigger players,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Everybody was mystified by it. My story actually had to do with size, and I just used Calvin as a focus to expand my idea on size.”

“Which is that it doesn’t make that much difference?”

“It really doesn’t,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “The year I graduated from college, there were 60 other players in the NCAA that were seven feet tall.”

“How many made it in the pros?”

“None.”

Abdul-Jabbar somehow managed to catch on, however, and spent his first six seasons in Milwaukee. “I found it very dull,” he said. “They had the greatest fans. They supported us through thick and thin. The press tried to make it seem like I was looking to bad-rap the place, when all it was, I just needed a change of environment.”

“You just wanted a bigger town?”

“Yeah,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

“New York was your first choice?”

“Right. Because that was home.”

“L.A. was your second choice?” 

“Right. The way it worked out, the Knicks were trying to make a deal for McGinnis and, at the same time, telling me to wait just a little bit. While they were doing that, Jack Kent Cooke got the players and the cash, and everybody hooked up.” [Note: That’s not what happened. The Bucks wouldn’t deal Abdul-Jabbar to the Knicks. The ill-fated McGinnis signing came later.]

“Will you likely stay here when you are through playing or go back to New York?”

“I don’t know. I definitely intend to finish playing here. The way it worked out, it was very good I ended up here.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, I just think right now it’s a much-better city to be in than New York. New York is having all kinds of fiscal problems. Sociologically, it’s becoming scary. It’s not the same. A lot of poverty. A lot of people in hopeless situations who don’t have any chance to change it . . . I go up to Harlem to visit friends, and everybody says (Abdul-Jabbar lowered his voice to a whisper), ‘You aware?’”

“What peril would you be exposed to there?”

“They wouldn’t really care who you are if they have something in mind, like a robbery. They wouldn’t care.”

Abdul-Jabbar was asked if his racial attitudes have changed over the years. “About seven years ago,” the interviewer said, “you did a story or a series with Jack Olsen in Sports Illustrated. My recollection is you came down pretty hard on us honkies.” 

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “Well, I didn’t think I did. I made mention of the fact that at one time I definitely didn’t like white people. That’s for sure. I definitely said that. But I tried to end it on the upbeat. I said that wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, and that wasn’t the way it had to be.”

“And how have your experiences since altered your attitude, if at all?”

“Well,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “just becoming an adult, I think, enables you to see what’s going on. The older you become, the more you realize that black and white has a lot to do with it; but that’s not really the crux of the matter. There are things beyond that you have to consider before you just blame it all on the black-white thing. Definitely, racism has been a big factor in the formation of America. It’s one of the major things that has formed America. But today, at this point in time, I don’t think it’s about that.”

“What has the problem shifted to?”

“Now it’s become more or less a personal thing. Individuals can get together and overcome all this. It’s a difficult thing to do, especially for Black people. They begin to talk about how they’ve been misused so much, and that gives them like a defeatist attitude. It doesn’t have to keep you down all the time.”

“There has been some improvement in the past decade or so?”

“There’s been a definite removal of a lot of blocks that were there, either de facto or by law. I would say that’s the main thing that’s happened.”

Abdul-Jabbar and a reporter were talking in a conference room at the Forum. It was time for the Lakers to practice now, and Abdul-Jabbar had to leave. The reporter followed him out and took a courtside seat next to a man from the Forum front office. 

Abdul-Jabbar has been a much happier player this season, the front-office man said. He’s glad to be out of Milwaukee, and he likes the system introduced by the new coach, Jerry West. 

Not that the Lakers center has become a court comedian on the order of Hot Rod Hundley, who used to wear Abdul-Jabbar’s uniform number (33). But, watching the workout, the reporter observed that Abdul-Jabbar frequently flashed a smile, an expression for which he has not heretofore been famous. 

After the workout, the reporter had one more question: how Abdul-Jabbar deals with time and human pests on the road. Basketball players have a lot of the former to kill, and probably some of the latter they’d like to. Some people apparently would think nothing of demanding a player’s autograph, though it meant his missing a meal, a plane, or even a drink. 

“In a lot of towns,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “I’ve got friends, and I’ll go see them. Or I’ll just stay in the room and read or watch the tube or sleep.”

If he ventures out, though, he’s got a problem. A 6-foot-4 player may halfway succeed in melting into a crowd. But when you’re 7 foot 2 . . . 

“It’s impossible,” Abdul-Jabbar said. 

“So, being your height is no easier even after you’ve had a few years of practice at it?”

“I’ve had a lot of years of practice.” Abdul-Jabbar said. “People don’t seem to really care. It’s just something you have to deal with. It’s human nature.”

And that, of course, is the worst kind. 

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