Kareem Discusses His Film
The Hall of Famer on his film, Carmelo and his role in NBA history.
SLAM: What did you learn about New York City during this project that you didn’t previously know?
KAJ: Well, what I learned about New York City was how close I had been to so many of the Rens players without knowing it. John Isaacs, who was the last player from the championship team in 1939, to pass away — he passed away two years ago — he told me he used to come over to my neighborhood and watch me play in the park because he heard when I was in grade school that I had a lot of potential. He saw me play in high school, and I had no idea.
Dolly King was a player from LIU — he played for the Rens in the ’40s. In the 1940s, they normally played out of Washington, who were a championship team. And he officiated a lot of my high school games. I hadn’t known he played on the Rens. I had just known he had gone to LIU; I didn’t know much of what happened with him after that. So, a lot of these stories were very close to me.
The Renaissance Theatre [in Harlem, where the Rens played their games] — my dad used to go there when he was in high school. Again, someone in my family was aware of King. But there was no connection. He never really talked to me about it, and I just found out in the few years after I retired of his awareness of what the Rens were all about it.
SLAM: Yeah, and I think through the film your appreciation for where you grew up is reflected in it. You grew up in Washington Heights, right?
KAJ: Inwood, actually. Inwood is the next neighborhood north of Washington Heights. My neighborhood…it’s, like, two miles from Harlem. It’s very close to Harlem. And, you know, all of our friends, my family friends, still live in Harlem, so Harlem is still very close. But my family lived in Inwood.
SLAM: Growing up there, did you have an appreciation for your neighborhood and the surrounding areas?
KAJ: Well, I had a very strong appreciation for Harlem just because it was such a great place for black Americans. Even with all the negatives there — the negatives that were found in many black communities at that time. Harlem still was a place of great pride for black Americans. Because of that, it impacted me greatly in the things that I did and what I thought about.
SLAM: There are so many great people in this film — Spike Lee, Maya Angelou, Cornell West. How did you approach the folks whom you wanted to participate in it?
KAJ: Well, I was very lucky in that a lot of the people I asked to participate in the film were aware of who I was and what I was about. And they think of me as being more than just an athlete. They knew that I had a serious approach to this, that I’m near and near to black Americans and black history. They were aware of that. Fortunately for me, it was easy for me to approach them and to get their cooperation.
SLAM: Carmelo Anthony had a good role. I was surprised at the level of appreciation he showed for an earlier generation. What did you think of his involvement?
KAJ: I was very thankful that Carmelo took the time to give us some quotes like that. And like most young players now, they don’t know too much about the Rens and what had to happen for them to have the opportunity that they had. Once they are made aware of it, they are very appreciative and they’re very much willing to acknowledge and go public with their acknowledgment of what the Rens did and the debt that they are owed.
SLAM: Have you discussed black history much with this current generation of NBA players?
KAJ: Oh, I don’t have an opportunity to get to all of them. It’s really a hit-or-miss thing for me. When I meet some of them, and when I get the opportunity to talk about the subject, I do. That is something that sometimes happens and most often doesn’t happen.
SLAM: What do you want people to ultimately get out of this film, even for white people and folks of other races and ethnicities, who may not have ties to Harlem or New York City, in general?
KAJ: Well, I hope they get an idea of what had to happen for us to get to this point. And just the acknowledgment that the Rens get from people seeing and learning about them…that’s one of the great things made possible by me doing this documentary. People are becoming aware of it. For example, people were not aware of the fact that [former UCLA men's basketball coach] John Wooden played professional basketball and often competed against the Rens when they came to Indiana. They often played Coach Wooden’s team; he played for a team in Indianapolis. He said to me, his team couldn’t beat the Rens. Coach Wooden was a fine professional basketball player.
SLAM: Had you discussed that with Coach Wooden through the years?
KAJ: Oh, when I first started doing documentaries, he was one of the first people I went to, to interview. I got some in-depth knowledge from him about what the Rens were about. He told me about how they played a really great passing game. They kept the ball moving the entire time. They kept their bodies moving, and it was a very difficult team to guard. They played a tight defense. Everybody one-on-one; everybody that was on the court kind of influenced Coach Wooden’s coaching schemes later on in his life. He knew effective ball movement would help a team become a dominant team.
SLAM: A final question on this topic. With your role in working on projects regarding black history, is this as big of a passion for you as basketball was when you played?
KAJ: Oh, definitely. I’m on the coaching staff for the Lakers, but this is becoming a very important aspect of my life. I have an opportunity now to do some more, and I’m looking forward to taking advantage of that opportunity and doing more things like that.
SLAM: On to some other topics. I’ve read about your time when you played for Milwaukee and why you wanted to play in New York or L.A. What were the circumstances around that trade from Milwaukee to the Lakers?
KAJ: Well, basically, Oscar Robertson had retired. He retired after the 1974 season. And things didn’t look good, in terms of any immediate…the Bucks did not have the talent to be contenders for a world championship title at that point, once we lost Oscar Robertson. So, I wanted to move on. I let the management people know I wanted to move on. My contract with them was going to be up after the 1976 season. So, they only had me on contract for one more year, at which point I would be a free agent. So, for them the best that they could do would be to trade me while I still had a year left on my contract. They could trade me and get what they needed to get to refurbish their team and get back into contention for a league title.