Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Most Interesting Man in the (Basketball) World

The Big Fella on his new writing projects, his love of history, who he’s reading and what (team) he’s watching

The tile of “living legend” would weigh on most, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar carries it with the same lightness and grace that he exhibited when soaring for a skyhook. One of the greatest players ever to step on a court, Abdul-Jabbar’s 20 seasons in the NBA included six championship rings and six MVP awards, and he still holds the title of the league’s all-time high scorer, even after 28 years in retirement (as well as the efforts of  Mr. Jordan and Mr. James).

But Abdul-Jabbar’s second career has also been full of impressive highlights. He is the author of 13 books, from autobiography to mystery novels, historical research to graphic fiction, as well as writing columns for The Washington Post, Time and The Hollywood Reporter. Many of his books combine his own story with a wider one, such as Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, which elaborated on his connections to the Harlem Renaissance through the neighborhood he grew up in or A Season on the Reservation, about his time spent coaching basketball on the White Mountain Apache Reservation; he also has a series of fictional books about Mycroft Holmes, brother of legendary detective Sherlock. Earlier this year, he published, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Relationship On and Off the Court, which explores his long friendship with his college coach; more recently he came out with Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court.

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

1984: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes for a hook shot against the Phoenix Suns during an NBA game at the Forum in Los Angeles, Calif.

And Abdul-Jabbar also has recently won another title: cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with a form of leukemia in 2008 but has successfully managed his illness and seeks to spread a positive message to others who are struggling with their diagnoses. While recently in town for the Coaches Against Cancer benefit, Abdul-Jabbar spoke to Vegas Seven about his new writing projects, his love of history, who he’s reading and what (team) he’s watching.

So, what is your new book, Becoming Kareem, about?

It’s about how I got to understand who I wanted to be as an adult. So I go from childhood to my first year in the NBA. I explain what I learned, the different mentors that I had, and all the emotional issues and intellectual issues about making good choices. The book is for young readers and it’s very important to me, because I’m exposing myself again there. I’m hoping that it will help kids make better choices on their life path. …  There are a lot of different examples for me, how I did it. But just making wise choices and understanding that being mentored is really a great thing. You’ve got to have some wisdom, and wisdom is something that humans process and develop in here [head] and in here [heart]. Mentors usually have that kind of wisdom.

As someone who loves history, was it easier for you to go into writing fiction with a historical background, like in your Mycroft Holmes books. Will there be another one?

Yes—next year September, every September. … And it was. Plus all the little hints about the Arthur Conan Doyle books that are in there that unless you’ve read him, you won’t recognize it. So that’s fun to have people come up to me and say, “I saw what you said about this issue.” Or this person.

You also worked on a graphic novel about Mycroft. How was that different?

The graphic novel was steampunk. It was a totally different audience. The novel itself was a Victorian novel. And the graphic novel, it’s a comic book, it’s in your face and there are all kinds of monsters and fantastic devices. … It’s enabled me to be exposed to a whole new generation of readers that wouldn’t necessarily want to be picking up a Victorian novel.

Photo by Dan Winters

Were you a history buff even as a kid?

The part of Manhattan that I lived in was Inwood. And that was a Revolutionary War battlefield. … You know when the British chased George Washington into Valley Forge? That part of Manhattan was where he fled from—that’s why they call it Washington Heights. There’s still wooded areas in that part of Manhattan that’ve never been developed. When it would rain, we’d find musket balls and old bottles and arrowheads and stuff in Inwood Hill Park. …  And then there’s Dyckman House, located on Broadway at about 203rd Street. It was a Dutch farm, when New York was a Dutch colony. And the house is still there; it’s a museum. I became aware of a whole lot of [history], and it fascinated me.

To shift a little bit—you’re outspoken about many things, but you keep your private life private. What made you decide to be so publicly open about your battle with cancer?

Too many people … they’re just like, “Oh, I’m just going to ignore this, I don’t feel too bad.” You have people who do that. And you have people who won’t follow the instructions or won’t comply with what their doctors tell them. And that’s really sad. … So being able to tell my story and having Novartis behind me to promote that, being able to talk to people and tell them, “Look, you’ve got to do what the doctor tells you. Get your blood checked. If you’re on meds, take those. And you can beat this.” It’s all about surviving and getting people to understand that it doesn’t have to be a death sentence.

What was that moment like when you got the diagnosis?

It’s really—it’s stunning, and all of a sudden you start thinking about things that you never expected to think about until, well, maybe when I’m in my 80s I’d start to think about getting everything together and getting ready to pass away. I was 63 when I was diagnosed. I was like, this is too early. But I was fortunate. My son was in med school at the time and I had somebody to talk to about it who gave me good advice.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve been reading Joe Ide, a book called IQ. It’s about a black guy in L.A. who has the same skills as Sherlock Holmes. It’s fascinating. And for me it’s great because he’s describing L.A. and places I know. … And he has a great eye for people. He’s Japanese-American, but he talks about everybody accurately—black Americans, white Americans, Asians. He talks about their triumphs and their failures, the funny and the tragic having to do with them. He’s great.

And, I have to ask—any basketball teams or players you enjoy watching now?

I don’t watch the whole thing. I like the way Golden State plays. They’ve caused the game to advance, so I like seeing that. And the young man, Anthony Davis, who plays with the New Orleans team, I think he’s probably the best big man in the league right now.

You broke the NBA scoring record here in Las Vegas. Did you go out and celebrate afterward?

No, I didn’t. I just wanted to go home. But my parents were here. My mom and dad loved Las Vegas. They would drive up a lot. My mom liked to gamble—my father tried to gamble. My mom was pretty good at it. All I know is he would lose all his money and my mom would come back with three or four hundred dollars.

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