*In HBO’s new documentary on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, his former Los Angeles Lakers teammate James Worthy describes the NBA’s all-time leading scorer as: “A different piece of toast.”
Worthy is right.
Whether he purposely played the oddball card or was inherently socially awkward off the court, the NBA Hall of Famer who spent 20 seasons sky hooking over other league greats, was often demonized because he really didn’t play the game when he wasn’t on the court. In an effort, however, to debunk the myths about the man and the legend, HBO, along with executive producer Mike Tollin and producer Deborah Morales have collaborated on a masterful portrait of Abdul-Jabbar called Kareem: Minority of One.
The documentary, which premiered Nov. 3, chronicles Abdul-Jabbar’s formative years growing up in Harlem as Lew Alcindor—the only son of working class parents—thru his NBA afterlife. Some of what you’ll see will amaze you, while other parts will have you wondering how he ever survived the surrealness that became his life at such a young age.
Yet, after viewing it you come to understand why Abdul-Jabbar perhaps had such a difficult time finding his footing on Mainstream Boulevard. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re at least two feet taller than the average human being; prefer jazz to Motown during the R&B-ruled ‘60s and you’re struggling to balance your consciousness with the status quo as a superstar athlete whose job it is to play and not preach. So, at 68, the 7-foot-2 six-time NBA MVP is moving toward his destiny by redefining his legacy.
Oddly enough there’s no mention in Minority of One of Abdul-Jabbar’s battle with leukemia or his recent quadruple bypass. I suspect, however, that once you overcome life-threatening diseases, you’re more likely to realize that truth and repentance will truly set you free.
Admitting that he wasn’t the greatest father—his oldest son Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Jr. says that he used to refer to his MIA father as “Uncle dad”—has helped father and son restore their bond. Opening up about the racism he experienced in college, the mistakes he made by trusting the wrong people in the Muslim community; why his once close relationship with Wilt Chamberlain went sour; has also enabled him to take the Band-Aids off those sores so they can heal naturally.
The clever juxtaposition between his personal struggles—especially after his conversion from the Catholic Alcindor to the Muslim Abdul-Jabbar—is what really takes this documentary to another level. “I wanted to clear the air,” he said at the premiere of Minority of One in New York last month.
But if all that inner-reflection is not your thing, fans yearning to revisit all of those memorable highlights from Abdul-Jabbar’s stellar career will be more than satisfied. You’ll see the young, gangly Lew Alcindor towering over opponents at Power Memorial High School in New York and dunking over worthy adversaries at UCLA. He dunked so often that the NCAA banned that shot during his college years.
You’ll also get a taste of what life was life for the NBA rookie in Milwaukee, a city that was akin to living in an igloo on the North Pole for a New York-born, L.A.-educated young man. Because of the lack of cultural options, Abdul-Jabbar requested a trade to New York or L.A. during the fourth year of his contract. He went west where he and Magic Johnson led the Lakers to five NBA titles.
Some of the coolest commentary about the man his teammates called “The Cap,” however, came from Johnson. Theirs was an unlikely friendship given the age gap and their polar opposite personalities, but each credits the other with enhancing their greatness on the court and off. “He’s on my Mt. Rushmore,” Johnson says. “He needed me and I needed him.”
Additionally, you’ll hear from former Lakers Coach Pat Riley; Lakers teammates Jamaal Wilkes and Worthy; Bucks teammates Oscar Robertson and Lucius Allen; NBA stars Elvin Hayes, Bill Walton, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Larry Bird and a host of celebrities, sports writers and social commentators.
For those of us who have interviewed The Cap, this documentary contains a lot of information that may have made those conversations flow a little easier when he was still playing. He’s still rather reserved in the afterlife but becomes much more engaging when asked about the books he’s written on African American history or his latest effort, Mycroft Holmes, a novel about the older brother of Sherlock Holmes.
But as I found out 10 years ago, Kareem is only going to give you as much as he wants to before his silence, even though it’s coming from a warm place, ushers you out the door.
That’s why you should watch Kareem: Minority of One. It’s about as close as any of us will ever get to demystifying The Cap.