NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

NBA great talks about his latest project, On the Shoulders of Giants, and how his love of history has led to a new career.

Most know that hoops legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the kind of player that graces a sport once in a lifetime—Time named him History's Greatest Player and ESPN chose him as The Greatest College Basketball Player of the Century. What may be a surprise is that he's a student of history, his major at UCLA. His passion is evident in his six best-selling books on the contributions of African Americans to American culture and history. The New York native's latest project is On the Shoulders of Giants, an examination of the poets, artist, musicians, athletes and activists of the Harlem Renaissance.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome the captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, back to this program. The basketball Hall of Famer and six-time league MVP is the executive producer/writer on a terrific new project about a little-known all-Black basketball team in New York that played during the Harlem Renaissance. The documentary is available on demand and is called “On the Shoulders of Giants.” Here now, a scene from “On the Shoulders of Giants.”
Tavis: Barclay, as always, shy. (Laughter) What you really trying to say, Charles? Kareem, good to see you, man.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Good to see you. Nice to be here.
Tavis: Man, glad to have you back, and congratulations on a wonderful piece of work.
Abdul-Jabbar: Thank you.
Tavis: Before I get into the piece specifically about the Harlem Rens, you have made another career for yourself beyond the playing as a historian, from the books to the documentaries. Was this all part of the plan, or did you just –
Abdul-Jabbar: It was all under the surface, really. If I had had to have a real job, I probably would have started trying to do these things when I got out of UCLA. But the NBA was quite a career, and I devoted myself to that. But this was always something that was inside of me and finally now I’m getting a chance to make it real.
Tavis: The part that’s always been inside of you is specifically what, a love of history, or?
Abdul-Jabbar: A love of history and just wanting to communicate certain things, especially I remember the history books that I had to deal with coming up in the ’50s and ’60s, and Black people were only mentioned in it with regard to the issues of slavery and civil rights. Nothing else was in there that really depicted what our real experience was all about, and I wanted to have an effect on that situation for Black kids. They need to know more about what their community has done and how our nation relates to them and how they relate to our nation.
None of that is there for them, and they really have to do some serious digging to find that out. I wanted to make it a little bit easier.
Tavis: Yeah. But you’ve got such a broad range, though. You’ve told the stories of Black veterans all the way up to a professional basketball team that we knew nothing about, so your palate is pretty broad on this historic stuff.
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, there’s a lot of information out there. There’s a lot of experiences out there that are just going unknown and unrecognized. I think that’s a real key there, that we have to recognize these stories and bring them into the whole weave of the American story.
Tavis: This story, about the Harlem Rens, there’s a whole documentary about it but tell me what it was about this story that made you want to share it with all the rest of us.
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, having been a hoopster myself and coming from the community of Harlem, I was very proud of what they did. Back in the ’20s and ’30s the Rens were a real source of pride for the Harlem community, so the whole idea that they went unrecognized and they really paved the way for the NBA to be what it is today, and people don’t know that.
So I figured I had a little niche here to tell this story and to give today’s basketball athletes an idea of what had to happen for them to have the opportunities that they have.
Tavis: How much of this story did you know as a kid growing up?
Abdul-Jabbar: I didn’t know very much of it at all. I knew a lot more about baseball. I was a baseball fan myself, I wanted to play baseball. (Laughter) So I knew about –
Tavis: What position?
Abdul-Jabbar: I pitched and I played the outfield. But I knew about Satchel Paige, didn’t know about Bob Gates. Basketball was not a major sport at that point. So by letting kids and the general public know about all of this, I think I’m doing a service here and giving them an opportunity to understand what this is all about.
Tavis: If I were a cynic – I am not, but if I were a cynic, Captain, I would ask, as I will, what there is for the general population to learn, to take away from this. I can see why you would want, to Barclay’s point, I could see why you want these brothers in the NBA to understand this history.
Abdul-Jabbar: Right.
Tavis: We’ll come back to that in a second. But what do the rest of us take away from this?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, just that the whole struggle for equality and civil rights went over every aspect of human endeavor. It wasn’t just about politics. It wasn’t just about being able to go into a lunch counter and sit down and eat. It had to do with every aspect of life, especially the things that we take for granted.
Tavis: Tell me more about the Harlem Rens. Tell me about these guys.
Abdul-Jabbar: The Harlem Rens were just great athletes who wanted to play professional basketball, but Blacks were not allowed to compete in the professional basketball leagues. So a Caribbean immigrant named Bob Douglas decided that he loved the game and wanted to try his hand at having a professional basketball team, so this was Harlem’s team.
In a documentary Dr. Dodson talks about the fact that Harlem didn’t have a professional baseball team or a professional football team, but they did have a professional basketball team and they were the best in the country.
Tavis: I think a lot of people watching right now, when they think of a professional Black basketball team they think of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Abdul-Jabbar: Exactly.
Tavis: So tell me about the relationship and the timing between the Rens and the Globetrotters.
Abdul-Jabbar: It’s always very confusing for people because the Harlem Globetrotters are from Chicago. (Laughter) So that’s the first thing you have to try and get clear. The Harlem Rens were from Harlem, the Harlem community. The Harlem Globetrotters were from Chicago and they had a different approach to things.
Their owner was Abe Saperstein and he wanted to take the approach that his team was not going to be threatening. So they catered more to a more negative image of Black Americans, whereas the Harlem –
Tavis: You mean more, like, clownish-like?
Abdul-Jabbar: Clownish, yeah. They had an entertainment thing, some of it was kind of annoying, some of the things that they indulged in. They’d be playing a basketball game and then they’d stop and start shooting dice and stuff like that – stuff that today we might find degrading.
But the Rens, they were all just hardcore warriors on the court. They came out and they played a very serious game. They played to beat you. They weren’t out there to entertain anybody.
Tavis: What opportunities did they have, speaking of wanting to beat you, what opportunities did they have, even though they couldn’t play in the NBA, they couldn’t play professional basketball, what kind of interaction did they have with the best of the White players during their time?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, the Rens would play the best of the professional teams in barnstorming games. Those games usually were lucrative financially because the White community wanted to see the Black guys lose, and these guys didn’t lose. So it was (laughter) – yeah, it started a rivalry and with the very best of the White teams, the original Celtics, Joe Lapchick’s team, they played them a lot.
They would play them in a lot of different areas and it was always an exhibition game and a lot of people would come to see them play. Coaching staffs, coaches around the country would bring their coaching staff to see the Rens play, to get them to have an idea of what the game was all about because the Rens’ passing game was so dynamic and effective.
My college coach, John Wooden, he played against them. He played professional basketball for a team in Indianapolis and the Rens used to go through there and beat them and Coach Wooden said it was the best professional team he ever saw play.
Tavis: You may have already answered this – passing was one of the things you said a moment ago. What were these guys so good at then that the other players, the White players, specifically wanted to check out their style? So passing was one of it.
Abdul-Jabbar: Their passing game. They kept moving. They themselves kept moving and they kept the ball moving. That’s what got them open shots. So that was one aspect of it, and then they played a very suffocating defense. Everybody played close to their man, really kept the other team from dribbling the ball, made it difficult for them. They learned how to play the passing lane, making it difficult –
Tavis: Sounds like Kareem and Magic in the Lakers. (Laughter)
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, I’m sure Coach Wooden incorporated a lot of what he learned playing against them into his style of coaching.
Tavis: This just wasn’t a Black team of great Black players or of great Black coaches, but they were Black-owned.
Abdul-Jabbar: Yes.
Tavis: That’s, like, a major deal back in the day.
Abdul-Jabbar: Back in the day, that was –
Tavis: We have what, one Black owner now in the NBA – Jordan with the Bobcats.
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, Jordan with the Bobcats.
Tavis: Yeah, one outright owner would be Michael Jordan, but they were Black-owned back when.
Abdul-Jabbar: Yes, and that really was such a great example for Black entrepreneurs, that the owner had a vision for them and was able to execute it financially and manage the team and deal with all the financial aspects of owning a professional basketball team.
Look at what happened with Marcus Garvey, the mismanagement of what he was trying to do, not being able to deal with the economics of it competently, it all fell apart. The Rens kept playing and the owner only gave up when the NBA refused to let his team into the NBA.
Tavis: So what happened – when you say he only gave up then, what ultimately happened to the Rens?
Abdul-Jabbar: They disbanded. In 1948 they disbanded and then two years later the NBA decided that it would integrate in 1950.
Tavis: And the first player was Sweetwater?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, there were three guys – Sweetwater, a guy named Charles Cooper and then a guy named Earl Lloyd. They all were in the NBA autumn of 1950. One was drafted, another one was signed. Sweetwater’s contract was signed over to the NBA from the Globetrotters, and then Earl Lloyd was chosen by the Pistons, all in the – so we don’t know which one played the first. (Laughter) I think Earl Lloyd played the first game.
Tavis: In the first game.
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah. But Cooper was drafted earlier in the year, so, but those three guys are the ones that were the trailblazers in terms of integrating the NBA.
Tavis: So what’s the NBA doing to make this, if anything, available to all the players? We just had the big all-star week here in town and you premiered this film here during the all-star week. So tell me about the film and the NBA and whether or not anything’s happening here that can educate these players about this history.
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, we’re in contact with the NBA offices and they see this as a good teaching moment. Being able to show especially the young players this film will give them an idea of how we got to this point, because most Black kids think that basketball has always been there for them to have this opportunity, and it wasn’t like that.
These people, especially on the Rens, were the ones that opened these doors and made it possible for America to accept Black Americans as basketball athletes.
Tavis: How funny is it to you – because I just get a kick out of it – thinking now that at one point the NBA was all White? I just – (laughter).
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah.
Tavis: It blows me away to even imagine that these days in 2011.
Abdul-Jabbar: It’s hard to conceive now, especially looking back in recent history. But if you go back when the Lakers first started, we show a picture of them with George Mike in there, and it was an all-White team.
Tavis: Wow. Hard to imagine. I’m glad they changed that.
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah.
Tavis: As all Laker fans are these days, I think.
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah.
Tavis: “On the Shoulders of Giants” is the piece, brought to us by our friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As I said earlier, he’s made a whole new life for himself as a historian, bringing all kinds of important subject matter to us that we ought to wrestle with, so Kareem, good to have you on.
Abdul-Jabbar: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Glad to have you. Great work, man.
Abdul-Jabbar: Glad to be here.
Tavis: Great work. You can get it on – you can watch it on Video on Demand I think for the next couple-few months, and on DVD, I’m sure, if not now, awfully soon.
Abdul-Jabbar: Right.
Tavis: Congratulations again.
Abdul-Jabbar: Thank you.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm