In his writing, Abdul-Jabbar has a lot to say
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, aloof for so long, has turned to writing stories mostly about school-age kids.
SELDOM HAS a man with so much to say been so reluctant to say it.
For years, the overriding narrative concerning Kareem Abdul-Jabbar focused less on his Ruthian career and more on his Sphinxian existence.
It went like this: Abdul-Jabbar's aloof nature as a player alienated him to peers, teammates, coaches and the press. That alienation grew into resentment and distrust, a dynamic that disqualified Abdul-Jabbar from candidacy when coaching opportunities arose.
All of which makes perfect sense . . . except, as it turns out, he has plenty to say. Most recently, he has been saying it with original fiction. We might have seen this coming.
Abdul-Jabbar's first literary efforts either were autobiographical or concerned historical issues germane to black history in America. All were co-written.
Then came his painfully personal columns for Esquire, which turned into a regular, more broadly scoped column for Time.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar and one of his co-authors, Raymond Obstfeld, developed an idea for stories aimed at the tricky tween market; stories about a group of kids who play junior-high basketball, their friends and families. The second book in the Streetball Crew series, "Stealing the Game," hit shelves last month (Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 hardcover). The main characters in the first two books have been quiet, shy, talented boys, stumbling through adolescence, guided by quick minds and excellent moral compasses.
In the first book, "Sasquatch in the Paint," Theo, a suddenly giant, nerdy middle-schooler, navigates issues surrounding his growth spurt (including his introduction to basketball), his widowed father and his wannabe-gangster cousin.
In the second book, Chris, the team's bright point guard, deals with complicated secrets of his own and others.
Yes, cute, smart girls are involved.
The methods Chris and Theo use to resolve their problems, while perhaps unrealistic, supply a fine template for intuitive thought for the target audience. And, while some of the dialogue is stilted, the use of the lingo kids use today resonates as genuine.
The books are as carefully crafted as Abdul-Jabbar's startlingly thorough and relevant commentary in "Time."
They also paint the protagonists as principled, smart, misunderstood and confused: clearly, Abdul-Jabbar's explanation for his own shortcomings even as his life went on.
Frankly, the columns and the books smack of a man in his latter years seeking redemption for a life led in haughty judgment of a world he resented, feared, or both. Now 67, Abdul-Jabbar was anointed a cultural attaché by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has appeared on Sunday morning talk shows. He is a phenomenon.
It might be atonement, but so what? Abdul-Jabbar deserves whatever attention he gets.
His life has been remarkable; transcendent of basketball, which is merely the mechanism by which he secured his fame and fortune.
Of course, the basketball cannot be minimized.
Abdul-Jabbar was such a dominant college player at UCLA, where he won three national championships, that the NCAA briefly outlawed dunking. He won a record six NBA MVP awards, six NBA titles and was an NBA All-Star 19 times.
Both Isiah Thomas and Julius Erving have said that, of all players in NBA history, they would start their Dream Team with Kareem.
Abdul-Jabbar holds the NBA record not only for points scored but also for minutes played - a remarkable indicator not only of his toughness but of his discipline. He studied martial arts under Bruce Lee in the late 1960s and credits yoga for keeping him productive in the 1980s.
On principle, Abdul-Jabbar forsook millions from the ABA Nets and a homecoming to the New York City area when he signed his rookie contract to play in Milwaukee. He declined to participate in the 1968 Olympics for what many assumed were political reasons.
He has since refuted the details and motivations of both of these incidents . . . sort of.
Certainly, Abdul-Jabbar has not lived a life above reproach.
Citing a disconnect with the city and a dearth of personal relationships, he forced the Bucks to trade him in 1975, but only to either New York or Los Angeles, where he had roots. That's how he took his talents to Venice Beach.
According to a recent story in the Washington Post, he has five children from three different women, only one of whom was his wife.
Then again, Abdul-Jabbar doesn't present himself as a priest; just a basketball player who writes books, a man who, to his regret, shut out much of the world for much of his life, certainly to the world's detriment.
But then, maybe Kareem never was meant to share himself. Perhaps his knowledge and wisdom needed to percolate; to mature, like a wine or cheese, until its nuance and depth could be fully appreciated.
Or, maybe he is simply trying to atone for a lifetime of dismissive arrogance.
Either way, the world is better for it.
On Twitter: @inkstainedretch