Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s 1983 autobiography Giant Steps was an intended to be a revisionist history of the life of the basketball great. It was supposed to be true account of the basketball great that once-and-for-all corrected the media misperception of Kareem. His inside leaflet even reads:
To millions of sports fans, the name conjures up the image of a reticent loner, withdrawn from the public, hostile to the press. Now the basketball legend steps out from behind his mask to reveal the man behind the story public image.
I was interested in reading this autobiography ever since reading Bill Simmons’ epic history of basketball, appropriately entitled The Book of Basketball. Simmons constantly picks at Kareem for being A) a Laker great, B) a “ninny” on the court and C) a mercurial superstar. I was curious to read the book to see if Simmons’ perception was correct, and by extension, to see if the larger sports world’s knock on Kareem had merit.
Did Kareem come off as unnecessarily standoffish? Was he as cerebral (in a brooding way) as people say he is? Does his personal life reflect a “reticent loner?” Could he be moody?
Was Kareem misperceived during a particularly conflicted epic in American History (The Civil Rights Movement)? Was his reticence a learned personality defense mechanism? Is Kareem an introvert living in an extrovert-dominated culture? If so, should we hold that against Kareem?
Here is what I discovered:
1. Kareem’s life should be interpreted within the context of his time period.
Lou Alcindor was born in Harlem, New York, in 1947. He grew up in a distinctly proud black community that overlapped an emerging migrant community. He was raised in a two parent home as an only child. Both parents stressed discipline, respect, and education. Lou was educated by the finest Catholic school systems in Harlem by mostly white men. The dominant black male role model was his dad, an intelligent, introverted jazz musician and civil servant for the New York Transit Authority. Lou came of age during the late 50’s and early 60s in America, making him a hippy, a black power pioneer, a civil rights advocate, and new age philosopher. He attended UCLA during the time of free-love and free drugs. He was a standout basketball player during the precise time when the game was moving from all-white players to segregated teams.
Look back at those social factors weighing on his upbringing and worldview formation. Civil Rights, Harlem, Jazz, Catholic School, Free Love/Drugs, Hippies, Immigration, Basketball.
And we wonder why Kareem never fit into the neat and nice mold of your standard NBA player.
2. Kareem is an introvert.
He read voraciously growing up, with genres spanning from poetry, to long form journalism, to religious works, to novels. He was curious as a kid and encouraged by his father to explore his curiosity. He is contemplative and intelligent and a strong writer. He took his first job in high school as a journalist for a Civil Rights organization in Harlem. The narrative he weaves throughout Giant Steps is readable and demonstrates a keen awareness of the power of words. He values mediation, prayer, and travel abroad. He was an only child who, unlike many children growing up in Harlem, had his own room during childhood.
Again, look back at those personality factors. How would we expect an introverted only child in a two parent black home in Harlem during Civil Rights to relate to other black children with siblings growing up in a one parent home? Or to introverted white children with siblings growing up in a two parent home? Or to extroverted Italian children growing up in a two parent home?
And again, why should we keep trying to fit Kareem into the mold of big personalities centers, such as Wilt Chamberlin and Shaq?
3. Kareem Seeks Customizable Religion
I was curious to see how Lou Alcindor made the transition to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from a theological standpoint. How does a catholic kid turn into a muslim kid? And is he black muslim or Shia muslim or Sunni muslim?
Answer: Kareem is a paradigm of emerging religion in America. In other words, Kareem is basically a Shia Muslim with a self-selective moral code that would, otherwise, not be strictly Shia. To be clear, Kareem never identified with the Nation of Islam that was popular with many black males in Harlem during the 60s. Even then Lou Alcindor saw through the paper thin ideology of that movement. Kareem longed for something grounded and philosophically consistent and found something real in the teachings of Islamic radical Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis. After Abdul-Khaalis turned out to be a fringe radical, Kareem retreated from his strict Shia moral code to something that he deemed more manageable.
My faith in Allah was still strong, but I allowed myself more room to breathe. I prayed less often and without the rigorous preparation Hamaas demanded; I curtailed my traveling all over the Islamic globe. I developed a less formal, more personal relationship with my religion. I started learning how to love in the real world.
Kareem prefers to identify with Islam, believes in Allah as the supreme reality in the universe, and aligns with Islamic moral teachings. But he smokes marijuana, sleeps around, and makes choices that best fit his personality. He does not come off as a particularly good husband and father, his personal life is full of inconsistencies, and he appears to make no effort to harmonize these inconsistencies. Kareem’s Islam reads like Jennifer Lopez’s Buddhism or Angus T. Jones’ Christianity. At least it does in 1983. Maybe he has adjusted it since then.
Kareem is a fascinating character in the life of American culture. He is arguably the greatest NBA center of all time, the greatest college basketball player of all time, and the one of the greatest high school players of all time. And yet, to cast Kareem as a basketball player would do him an injustice. Kareem is a thinker, a leader, and an icon. He offers incredible insight into his own life and time period. He is an author, coach, actor, and political commentator. He is a father, he is an art collector, and he is a friend In conclusion I find Kareem to be much more than people give him credit for and much less than people want him to be. He is not an outgoing personality, but he is a big personality. He is not a dumb jock, instead opting for a brilliant athlete. He is a mysterious character who feels comfortable on his own terms and doesn’t need everyone to figure him out. And I admire his originality.