Review of HBO’s “Kareem: Minority of One”

“Kareem: Minority of One” documentary, produced by Mike Tollin, Rick Bernstein, and Deborah Morales (HBO Sports, Mandalay Sports Media, 2015)

Reviewed by Frank Andre Guridy

My earliest basketball memory is of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shooting his patented “skyhook” shot over rival centers Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones of the Philadelphia 76ers during the 1980 NBA Finals. The master NBA narrative of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird “saving” the NBA in the 1980s has led many to forget that it was Kareem, not Magic, who carried the Los Angeles Lakers throughout much of the early years of its “Showtime” dynasty of the 80s, the decade when the team appeared in eight NBA finals and won five NBA championships. It was because of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that I became a Los Angeles Lakers fan, even though I lived in far away New York City.

The author’s copy of Giant Steps.

But my appreciation for Kareem truly took shape when I read his first autobiography, Giant Steps.[1] It was sometime in 1985—during the era of the supposedly unsafe New York City—when I embarked on what would become a regular ritual for me during my teenage years. Having exhausted the holdings at my local branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx, I decided to explore the libraries and bookstores of Manhattan. On one afternoon that year, I jumped on the #5 IRT train at the Dyre Avenue stop in the Bronx and took the 45-minute long ride to a bookstore in Grand Central terminal. In those days, the iconic station looked nothing like it does now. The corridors were dirty, reeked of urine, and the mall-like commercialism that overruns the terminal today was largely absent. I walked past the folks that Ed Koch’s New York forgot camping out on the floor toward the store where I spent $3.95 of my allowance money on the Bantam rack size edition of Giant Steps. It is the very copy of the book that I consulted as I wrote this review. From the minute I started to read the book on the train ride back to the Bronx, Kareem’s story was clearly identifiable to me. It shared the experiences of a fellow New Yorker of Caribbean descent. Though I could not relate to his height or his outstanding athletic ability, the teenager in me identified with his shyness, his awkwardness, and his experiences trying to find his way in the Big City. As I grew older and more socially and politically aware, I found myself repeatedly returning to Giant Steps in order to explore not just Kareem’s experience, but also the experience of youth of color in urban America during the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s and 70s. Thus, to me, contrary to what is often said in the press coverage of the basketball legend, Kareem was never a misunderstood figure.

In this post, I want to analyze the new documentary “Kareem: Minority of One” in light of this personal history as a Kareem fan and as a historian of sport and the Black experience in the Americas. The 90-minute film, which aired on HBO on November 2, is produced by Mike Tollin, Rick Bernstein, and Deborah Morales, Kareem’s longtime collaborator and manager. Viewers of previous HBO Sports documentaries will notice the familiar voice of Liev Schreiber doing narration. Gary Lionelli composed and arranged the characteristic understated style of HBO-documentary music, interspersed with a few well-selected Black music hits of the 1960s and 70s. The film chronicles the life of Abdul-Jabbar during his distinguished playing career. Though the documentary does not make it clear, the title is clearly inspired by his high school coach Jack Donohue’s claim that Kareem (then Lew Alcindor) was a “minority of one,” because he was a “7-foot Negro Catholic at a private school.”[2] Born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor on April 16, 1947, he was the only child of Black immigrants to New York City (his father was from Trinidad and his mother from North Carolina). Though the filmmakers do not bombard the viewer with his career statistics, I want to highlight them here to remind readers of Kareem’s extraordinary career as a basketball player. The Hall of Fame center is the leading scorer in NBA history (with 38,387 points). He won a record six Most Valuable Player awards; is in third place on the list of all time rebounders and blocked shots; he was a nineteen time All-Star and he won six NBA championships. He played an astounding twenty years and was an impact player in every one of those seasons. While most basketball fans under 40 believe Michael Jordan (or LeBron James) to be the best basketball player in history, “Kareem: Minority of One” does a good job reminding basketball historians and younger fans of his greatness (even though the film shies away from such arguments, diplomatically putting him in the “Mount Rushmore” of basketball greats).

It is important to analyze the “Kareem: Minority of One” as an “authorized” portrait of the basketball legend that seems to articulate his own view of his career and historical significance. Indeed, the documentary is clearly born out of his concern for establishing his own legacy, since he is often marginalized by many contemporary basketball pundits in discussions of “greatest ever” players.[3] The film also aims to address his misunderstood status to tell “his side of his story,” as producer Tollin notes in the film’s press release.[4] As the documentary demonstrates, the basketball legend was never quite comfortable with his star status and he had a wary and often hostile relationship with sportswriters. By and large it was the press who was responsible for casting Kareem as the “brooding black guy” and it is an image that remains with him to this day, as recent portraits continue to suggest.[5]

Although much of the details of Kareem’s story covered in “Minority of One” have been told before in previous documentaries and in countless press stories and profiles of the basketball star, the documentary’s skillful use of interviews with friends, family, former coaches, teammates and opponents, and previously unseen archival sources (letters, archival footage, ephemera, and revealing photos) provides us with an intimate look at Kareem’s first 40 years. The film employs a standard chronological approach, beginning with his formative experiences in New York, where he learned to love basketball, jazz music, and where he first encountered racism. The documentary then moves to his unparalleled collegiate career at UCLA, where he won three consecutive national championships playing for the legendary coach, John Wooden. The remainder of the film profiles his stellar professional career playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, where he won an NBA title playing with Hall of Famer point guard Oscar Robertson in the early 1970s, and, of course, the Los Angeles Lakers, where he won five NBA championships playing with yet another legendary point guard, Magic Johnson.

“Minority of One” also highlights, though too quickly, his role as a political activist who was not afraid to use his visibility to speak out against racism.[6] It also covers his fondness for martial arts and his relationship with Bruce Lee and it delves into his personal life, including his failed first marriage to Habiba Abdul-Jabbar (born Janice Brown), his complicated relationships with his children, and his transformative relationship with Cheryl Pistono, his partner during the late 1970s and early 80s. The film also details his conversion to Islam, which began, as was the case for many black men of his generation, after reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Under the tutelage of mentor Hamaas Abdul Khalis, Lew Alcindor converted to Islam in 1968 and officially changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971. Like Giant Steps, the film details his eventual break with Hamaas, which began after his mentor’s decline following the brutal murder of his children by members of the Nation of Islam in a house owned by Kareem in January 1973. Though it is hard to critique 90-minute film for what it omits, it is important to note that it says little of Kareem’s post-playing career: his financial struggles, his exclusion from the coaching ranks by the NBA, and his phenomenal second career as a writer, historian and cultural critic who is very much active today.

The film persuasively shows how Kareem, in an athletic sense, was a “minority of one.” As Liev Schreiber rightly tells viewers at the beginning of the film, as the cameras follow Kareem’s graceful movements on the basketball court: “There may be no athlete who was ever better suited to the game of basketball than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” The film’s opening establishes his “minority” status as the cameras focus on the 7’2” Abdul-Jabbar towering over people as he walks on the crowded streets of New York City. The scene includes a voiceover by Kareem, in which he states: “I’m just a person just like any other person,” as the title of the film flashes on the screen. The moment sets the tone for the entire documentary, juxtaposing the superstar’s desire to be “just like any other person” with his singular status as a tall, remarkably talented human being.

And yet, as a black athlete, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s experiences were not that unique. Although he was more courageous than many of his contemporaries, as his decision to boycott the Olympics clearly demonstrates, one could argue that Kareem represents a larger experience of what sociologist Ben Carrington has called the “sporting Black Atlantic”[7] Following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson, Kareem was part of a pioneering generation of athletes who excelled on the field and who were not afraid to speak out against racism, including Muhammad Ali, Harry Edwards, Roberto Clemente, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell, among many others. To be sure, he was by no means the only black athlete who had a complicated relationship with the predominantly white male press. Even less political black stars like Wilt Chamberlain had vexed relations with the white sportswriters, who, with some notable exceptions, tended to disregard their experiences of marginalization and minimize their athletic achievements. Neither was Kareem the only black athlete who found himself in Islam, a point echoed in Alex Parrish’s recent piece on Hakeem Olajuwon.[8] Indeed many black basketball players, including fellow UCLA legends, Mahdi Abdul-Jabbar (Walt Hazzard) and Jamaal (previously Keith) Wilkes, among many others, reflect this experience of Islamicization among African Americans in general and black athletes in particular.

What I want to suggest here is that Kareem’s life and legacy are even more profound than “Minority of One” indicates. His story reveals the larger process of transculturation that took place in post-World War II New York City, where West Indians, African-Americans, and other people of African descent redefined blackness not just in the workplace and in nightclubs, but also on the city’s playgrounds and ballfields. As Giant Steps illustrated long ago, it was in New York that Kareem (then Lew) first encountered racism, but it was also where he found himself in an environment where he played with blacks, whites, and Latinos of all nationalities. Thus, his experience invites greater investigation of New York City’s cultural and recreational life in the decades following World War II. Moreover, Kareem’s professional career invites an interrogation of the NBA’s history during the 1970s. His career, like that of Dr. J, underscores the phenomenal talent of the stars who came of age during the decade, a period that is too often dismissed as an era plagued by low attendance and drug infestation. Such narratives presume, as many sports histories do, the whiteness of the sport’s spectator, while discounting the ways working class fans of color still loved the pro basketball even if the games did not produce the profits that team owners and television networks had hoped.[9]

Finally, Kareem’s Caribbean roots, which are not explored in the film, offer suggestive comparisons with another sportsman, writer, and activist with Trinidadian roots: C.L.R. James. Indeed, Kareem’s post-playing career as a historian, writer, and cultural critic continues the work that he began when he studied black diaspora history while he worked at the Harlem Youth Action Project (HARYOU-ACT) program in Harlem in 1964.[10] Like James, Abdul-Jabbar turned to history to understand the causes of the black freedom struggle. Linking Kareem with James, the revolutionary theorist whose thinking on political transformation emerged out of his formative experiences as a cricket player and sportswriter, sheds light on the generative power of sport in African Diaspora history.

Frank Andre Guridy is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and Visiting Associate Professor at Columbia University. He is currently at work on two book projects: Assembly in the Fragmented City: A History of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and When Texas Sports Became Big Time: A History of Sports in Texas after World War II (Under contract with the University of Texas Press).

Notes:


[1] Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Peter Knobler, Giant Steps: The Autobiography of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (New York: Bantam Books, 1985).

[2] Frank Deford, “Lewie is a Minority of One,” Sports Illustrated, Vol. 24, No. 23, December 5, 1966, p.40.

[3] A similar motive can be seen in the release of the release “The Doctor” the documentary on Julius “Dr.J” Erving produced by NBA TV two years ago. See also his autobiography, Julius Erving with Karl Taro Greenfield, Dr. J: The Autobiography (New York: Harper, 2013).

[4] http://www.hbo.com/sports/kareem-minority-of-one/article/about.html (Accessed November 2, 2015).

[5] See for example, Jay Caspian Kang, “What the World Got Wrong about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” New York Times Magazine, September 20, 2015.

[6] Curiously, the film does not touch upon his decision to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games. For an excellent discussion of Kareem as a social activist in this period, see John Matthew Smith, “‘It’s Not Really My Country’: Lew Alcindor and the Revolt of the Black Athlete,” Journal of Sport History Vol. 36, No.2 (2009), 223-244.

[7] Ben Carrington, Race, Sport, and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2010), 53. Carrington defines the sporting Black Atlantic as “a complex, transnational cultural and political space that exceeds the boundaries of nation states, whereby the migrations and achievements of black athletes have come to assumed a heightened political significance for the dispersed peoples of the black diaspora.” Kareem’s career falls squarely within this vision of sport and politics.

[8] Alex Parrish, “God’s Work: Hakeem Olajuwon, Islam, and the Role of Religion in American Athletics,” November 19, 2015, https://ussporthistory.com/2015/11/19/gods-work-hakeem-olajuwon-islam-and-the-role-of-religion-in-american-athletics/ (Accessed, November 20, 2015).

[9] A classic example of this narrative can be seen in Bill Simmons’s history of the NBA. See Simmons, The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy (New York: Ballantine, ESPN Books, 2009).

[10] See Smith, ““‘It’s Not Really My Country’,” 229 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Raymond Obsfield, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2007), 51-63.

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