Kareem Discusses His Film
The Hall of Famer on his film, Carmelo and his role in NBA history.
by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack
One would think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would forever be most closely associated with the NBA’s all-time scoring list, given that he’s atop it. Yet for his 38,000-plus points, six NBA titles, six NBA MVPs and three national titles at UCLA, his identity has grown beyond being just a basketball player. He’s become an historian of basketball, and of black history, for that matter.
Abdul-Jabbar has written a series of books on black history through the years, with his latest coming in 2007, when he wrote On The Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance. The book detailed black culture in New York City in the first half of the 20th century, including an exploration of the Harlem Rens basketball team. Abdul-Jabbar’s interest in the squad, which compiled a 2,588-529 record from 1922-49 as the first all-black professional basketball team, is captured in the documentary version of On The Shoulders of Giants.
The feature-length documentary, co-written and co-narrated by Abdul-Jabbar, delves into the history of the Rens, the team’s impact as pioneers for blacks in basketball and the team’s role in early 20th century Harlem. It’s available on Video On Demand on Time Warner, Cox and Comcast cable networks nationwide through March 31. Abdul-Jabbar spoke with SLAM about the documentary and an assortment of NBA-related topics.
SLAM: What motivated you to document this subject?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Well, I really wanted to do the film all along. But because the subject is so unknown and unacknowledged, I had to do the book first, just so that I could have a document up there that depicted the story and what it was about. If you don’t have something like that, then people don’t really know what you’re talking about when you’re talking about a very overlooked subject.
SLAM: I spoke with Charles Barkley about this film — obviously, he makes an appearance it — and he admitted he hadn’t heard of the Rens before he was invited to be in this project. How many NBA players have you come in contact with who didn’t know of the Rens?
KAJ: You know, we’re talking about almost 100 percent. The Rens played at a time before the NBA started, and at a time when black Americans weren’t recognized for anything. The combination of those two circumstances — and the fact the NBA seems to everyone to be what basketball was all about starting in 1947…most people don’t even believe or have any idea that professional basketball was played before 1947, and who the greater teams were. So, I think the whole ignorance about anything prior to the advent of the NBA really has caused what you’re referring to.
SLAM: Parts of this film document the treatment endured by blacks in this country during the 1920s, ’30s and earlier, including lynching in different parts of the country. Did you become overwhelmed with emotion at any point during research for this? Did anything anger you?
KAJ: Well, you know, I was raised during the 1950s and 1960s, and what I saw during the Civil Rights Movement was enough, in too much detail, what that was all about. That is a very sad and unfortunate aspect of American history — how black Americans were treated for so long. I was aware of that, that no one escaped that type of treatment. I’ve been aware of that my whole life.
SLAM: Was there anything you learned through research in this project that you weren’t previously aware of?
KAJ: I guess, I didn’t realize how long the Rens had played before they got their shot. You know, like everyone else, not having any first-hand information about the Rens, I was in the dark. When I was in high school, I learned a little bit about them and that they were a very good team. And that was about it. I didn’t find out what they were all about in-depth until after I had played professional basketball.
SLAM: Since the Rens were extolled in the film as being one of the all-time great basketball teams, what do you think defines a team?
KAJ: I think a team is defined by their record. That is usually what defines any team, no matter what sport it is. The record is a lasting legacy of what they were all about.
KAJ: Not really, because the Rens, like all the great teams, were winners. They had to overcome more obstacles than the average professional teams. The fact that blacks were excluded was a huge hurdle for them to overcome. But they loved the game, and they played a superb game against the best teams in the country, even though they were not given credit for being as excellent as they were. That was okay for them. It was obvious somebody was listing something because their outstanding record was there — they won over 2,000 games over a period starting in 1922 through 1948. An incredible record.