Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on His Love of History, Youth Sports and Which Books Everyone Should Read

The basketball legend has always had a writer’s touch

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Dan Winters)
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At this point, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has spent more of his life as a best-selling author than a pro-basketball player. But for Abdul-Jabbar, who still holds the NBA’s career scoring record, the second act as a writer isn’t so much something new as the continuation of an inquisitiveness that preceded his status as living sports legend. Working as a cub reporter in Harlem during high school, he covered Martin Luther King, Jr., and once, in the mid-1970’s, he reportedly told Gay Talese—to the famous writer’s amazement—that he wanted to become a sports writer once he retired. His career arc to writing for Time magazine and the Washington Post was simply interrupted by dabbling in sports.

Later this summer, Abdul-Jabbar will publish his tenth book, Writings on the Wall: a ranging collection of essays that weaves through race, politics, religion and aging, all with an eye to how we as a culture might do a bit better by each other. It’s a frank, earnest offering, dotted with pop culture references and bits of humble advice that takes advantage of the unique perspective that comes with being one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Like his other books—he’s written histories of forgotten African-American icons, books for children, and, most recently, a reimagining of the life of Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft—it shows off the breadth of his interests and his undiminished curiosity for both the past and the present. 

Abdul-Jabbar spoke with Smithsonian late this spring about his new book, his historical heroes, and what he makes of the cutthroat world of youth sports.

You mention that, had you not been a basketball player, you would have been a history teacher. What period of history most draws you in? 

There are two periods that I find especially exciting. The American West brings out the little boy in me because it was a coming-of-age time for our country. Those were America’s teenage years, when we were a brawling, sprawling country with a young person’s ambitions to conquer the world and bend the future to our will. Our enthusiasm bred arrogance and, like many teens, we sometimes ignored the morality of what we were doing in favor of success. That fever spread across industrialists exploiting workers, politicians exploiting weaker countries and average people in the desperate search for land or gold or commerce.

No wonder outlaws were celebrated as heroes.

As much as I enjoy the growing pains that resulted in gunfights and heroic battles, I’m equally fascinated by how we went from a relatively lawless society to a civilized culture. That’s where the real heroics of the American West are revealed: people willing to struggle, not for personal gain, but for social justice. The adventurers of the Old West are exciting, but the social reformers are inspiring.

The second period that interests me is the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the 1940s, which I detail in my book, On the Shoulders of Giants. If the American West brings out the little boy in me, this period brings out the mature man. It’s one of those rare times in history when the arts, sports, politics and social reform form an intellectual tsunami that washes over an entire culture and changes it forever. African-Americans found their voice after so many years of oppression and that voice was a sweet harmony of outrage and celebration. Poets, playwrights, novelists, jazz and jazz musicians flourished. And black intellectuals united to lay the groundwork for racial equality.

Is there a historical figure that particularly resonates with you? 

That’s like picking your favorite parent. I’m fascinated by the world-shakers like Napoleon and Attila and Alexander the Great, but the historical figures that most resonate with me aren’t the ones who tried to conquer the world, but those who fought to change society to make it more just and equitable place. Those are the people who have inspired me to be a better person. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Muhammad, Jesus, Gandhi, and the Buddha had a vision of a better society and were willing to risk everything in order to make that vision a reality. History is not a static thing, a collection of interesting trivia to spark dinner conversation. It’s a guide to spiritual and social improvement because it allows us to study the mistakes and triumphs of the past in order to better understand and shape or values.

You’ve also written about the lives of African-American inventors and historical figures. Is the one, in particular, who you think doesn’t get enough credit, or who more people should know about? 

Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961) may have changed the entire structure of America through his innovations in refrigeration. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of school after the sixth grade. He taught himself mechanics and electronics and in 1935 created a portable air-cooling device that allowed trucks to carry perishable foods. These units were especially significant during World War II because it made possible transporting food, blood, and medicine to military hospitals and battlefields. Even more important, refrigerated trucks and railroad cars allowed food to be transported and preserved across the country, lowering food costs and giving rise to the supermarket, which in turn gave rise to suburban neighborhoods. The landscape and lifestyle of America was completely altered by Jones. He went on to receive 61 patents, including those for portable x-ray machines, and was eventually awarded the National Medal of Technology.

What book, or books, do you think every American should read as part of their historical education? 

Common Sense by Thomas Paine. The sheer audacity of Paine publishing his reasons for America declaring independence from Great Britain is enough of a reason to read what was the biggest bestseller of its time. But we should all read it to remind ourselves of the principles that our Founders were willing to fight for so we realize that the fight is not over until every person in this country is treated equally.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-written by Alex Haley (who also wrote Roots). This book captures the zeitgeist of the black awakening of the 1960s. By detailing his own transformation from small time crook to big time civil rights leader, he reveals the depths of the effects of historical racism on the country.

A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present by Howard Zinn. We get the sunny side of American history from a lot of sources throughout our upbringing. Zinn catalogues the darker side of our history to reveal a pattern of abuse and exploitation that is contrary to what the country stands for. I don’t look at it as an indictment so much as an articulation of our collective conscience so that we can do better.

What do you think the most pressing issue facing America today is? Is there one that cuts across all the others you talk about? 

The cultural elevation of emotional reactions over logical thinking is at the root of racism, misogyny, homophobia, political corruption, and most other social ailments. The public is constantly manipulated by appeals to tradition, popularity, sentiment and other emotions that are meant to short-circuit logical thinking in order to get votes or money or both. Politicians will crank up the fear factor about immigrants or bathrooms or voter fraud despite the lack of evidence that there is any real threat. When people are afraid, they act irrationally, but justify their repugnant behavior by wrapping themselves in the flag or a holy book. As we look around at statements being said by this year’s presidential candidates, do we feel like proud Americans embracing the principles of the U.S. Constitution?

You express some skepticism about youth sports today. What do you think they're missing?

Fun. Youth sports is such a big business (45 million kids from 5 to 18 are in organized sports) that the infrastructure can’t keep up with the demand. So, we end up with unqualified coaches, hyper-aggressive parents, and too much pressure on the kids. That’s why 80 percent of them quit sports by the time they’re 15. I’m no stranger to the pressures of organized sports, but that kind of focused path is not for most kids, who just want to have fun, socialize with their peers, and be part of a group. The way we’re approaching youth sports now not only turns kids off of sports but risks their health. We have got to do better.

You career as a journalist began in Harlem when you were 17. What stories you covered had the biggest impact on you or were most memorable?

The most memorable story was when I was allowed to participate in a news conference with Dr. Martin Luther King. I was so excited to be there among all the veteran reporters who scribbled away in their notebooks with journalistic detachment. I, on the other hand, was trying to maintain my cool and pretend to be professional like they were, but inside I was shaking with admiration and fear that I would somehow screw up. However, I did fine, even asking him a question.

You write a lot about role models, both being one and needing them. Who do you think of as your role models today?

There is no shortage of role models, depending on what a person is looking for. Role models don’t all have to have the same characteristics, except for a few basic ones: honesty, bravery, commitment to community, compassion. Many people find their parents to be great role models because of the self-sacrifice for their family. That’s where it all starts. Then there are sports figures like Muhammad Ali and LeBron James, who are willing to take controversial political stances in order to do the right thing. Former president Jimmy Carter has spent his post-political career fighting for the poor and helpless around the world. Gloria Steinem took on women’s rights when few were willing to talk about and she has continued to do so even when it’s more convenient not to. There are so many more just as inspiring and admirable as they are. That’s one of the hopeful elements in society today, the plethora of wonderful role models.

You end the book with advice to Generation Z. What does that advice boil down to? 

We put a lot of pressure on each generation to step up to the plate and fulfill the American Dream. Then we sit around in our poolside lounge chairs judging them on how well they're doing and how fast their going in reaching the goals we’ve set for them. But we don’t take into account that their version of the American Dream may not be the same as ours. In fact, studies show that it isn’t. They don’t necessarily want what the previous generation wanted and they aren’t on the same timetables. My advice was the customize the American Dream to fit their own needs and values, but to never stop working to make sure everyone has equal access to achieving it.

What was the inspiration to write this kind of holistic book—which covers a wide swath of the problems facing America—at this particular moment?

This election cycle has shown Americans to be at one of the most divisive times in its history. I wanted to write a book that reminded everyone of the common values that we share that have defined this country from its inception. Our freedoms that we’re so proud of also make us vulnerable to attacks from within of those who would exploit our fears in order to manipulate us and rob so many of equal opportunity and economic parity.

You write in the book that you likely wouldn’t have written it if you didn’t think it would have a positive impact. What sort of influence do you hope it might have?

I don’t have any delusions that I’m shining a bright light through the political and social jungle to guide our way, but I do hope that I’m adding some value to the national discussion and maybe helping people understand the causes of our polarity and how we might make things a little better. I’m happy just to be part of it all and to do my share in making things better.

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