Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shines a light on lesser-known legends with the documentary ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’
By Carl Kozlowski 05/26/2011
Say the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and two words usually come to mind: “Lakers great.”
But aside from winning five NBA championships during the Lakers’ legendary “Showtime” era, and one before that with the Milwaukee Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar is also known for being the highest scorer in NBA history and the only person to earn national championships in high school, in college under legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, and in the pros.
Unlike many sports stars, Abdul-Jabbar didn’t fade into obscurity when he walked away from the game in 1989. Rather, the UCLA history grad dove into numerous other projects, including establishing the Skyhook Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving lives through sports and education. He’s also authored seven books, the most recent of which is “On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance,” which relates the African-American cultural movement in 1930s Harlem.
Now Abdul-Jabbar has taken his interest in that historic era to a higher level, co-writing and producing a documentary of the same name that focuses on the Harlem Rens, the first all-black professional basketball team. As part of his promotional tour for the film, Abdul-Jabbar will be joined Saturday by award-winning composer Bill Cunliffe, who scored the documentary, at Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church for a showing and discussion of the movie.
Last week, Abdul-Jabbar fielded questions from Pasadena Weekly via email while on a cross-country flight to promotional appearances in New York City.
Pasadena Weekly: How did you get inspired to work in films?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I have always enjoyed films since I was a kid watching John Wayne, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Randolph Scott, Tyrone Power and the Marx Brothers, so film has always been something that I have appreciated and felt that I could contribute to. “On the Shoulders of Giants” is such an effort. I am very happy with the results of this film and hope to get more opportunities to make more films.
How did you learn about the Rens and decide to do the film about them out of all the great African-American stories to tell?
I learned about the Rens while I was still in high school, but not in any depth. After retiring I was able to find out so much more about this forgotten team, and I did not want to see them fall through the cracks of history. “On the Shoulders of Giants” pays homage to the Harlem community, which was my home, and a great team that has never been fully appreciated. I chose this story because it was a natural start to use basketball to begin my film career. As you noted, there are many stories about African Americans that have gone untold. I think it is a rich area for me to explore. My plans are to develop a library of films that celebrate social and racial tolerance about these forgotten heroes.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing “Giants?”
I hope people can get an idea of what it took for basketball to become as popular as it is worldwide. The humble beginnings of the game are virtually unknown and the struggles of black Americans to participate have never been fully illuminated.
Was there anything you were surprised to learn from the story of the Rens?
I had no idea that black Americans had to go through so much hardship just to have an opportunity to play professional basketball. Their story really parallels that of the Negro League baseball players. I am sure you are aware of Ken Burns’ fine documentary on that subject. I was also surprised to find out that Coach Wooden played against the Rens when he was a professional basketball player with the Indianapolis Kautskys. Also, Rens star Dolly King officiated many of my high school basketball games. At the time, I had no idea that he had been a star for the Rens during the 1940s.
How is your fight against cancer proceeding?
I am doing very well with my battle with leukemia. I am in remission and I intend to do what is necessary to maintain that status.
What did Coach Wooden mean to you and how did his death affect you?
John Wooden was my teacher, mentor and friend. What I learned from him has affected my life and given me guidance in how to be the best citizen I can be. He is an inspiration and I miss him every day dearly.
What would you advise kids going into sports? Do you feel that the trend is going toward or against prospects finishing college before hitting the pros?
I advise any young athlete to get a college degree. Their sports career is something that they can pursue at the same time as their education. This is one very important lesson that I learned from John Wooden: not to neglect my intellectual development because athletes should not feel that they cannot pursue both at the same time. Most professional athletes have on average a very short career — three, four years, max. Your education lasts you your whole lifetime.
What do you feel can be done to increase the literacy of kids in poverty who don’t have a lot of educational opportunities?
That problem has to be solved by society as a whole. The things that are done to improve our school systems, like Head Start, go a long way toward getting the message over to families that education is a key to a successful life.
And finally, how do you feel about the state of the Lakers?
The Lakers have always managed to find a way to the top. I am sure they will try and keep that record intact.