Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Discusses the Power of Reading, His Writing Process, and His YA Memoir Becoming Kareem

In this interview, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar discusses his new bestseller, Becoming Kareem, a heartfelt memoir for young adult readers, as well as his writing process, the importance of reading and civil rights.
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photo credit: Dan Winters

For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball was never enough.

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Leading New York City’s Power Memorial High to 71 consecutive wins, helping UCLA to an astonishing 88-2 record over three seasons and becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer while winning six league titles defined Abdul-Jabbar only in the record books. At age 71, he is an accomplished author, activist and now, a somewhat unlikely but avid competitor on Dancing with the Stars.

Abdul-Jabbar’s new bestseller, Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court (Little, Brown), is a heartfelt memoir for young adult readers. In the words of the author, the book is for “anyone who ever feels picked on or put upon, outraged but out of range, vilified yet voiceless.”

As difficult as it is to imagine Abdul-Jabbar being bullied, ostracized and, in some ways, at odds with the very game that resulted in his iconic status, the young Lewis Alcindor was, in fact, an outsider growing up in his multiethnic Manhattan neighborhood. Along with a love of jazz music, his passion for reading provided him with a much needed lifeline.

What is the importance of reading for our children and how did your joy of reading influence you as a young man?

Reading is like having a super power that just keeps getting more powerful. You can learn how to do pretty much anything through reading. Today I don’t know how to catch a fish, but I read a book and by tomorrow I can. Or build a house. Or do a math equation, a chemical formula, knit a sweater, shoot a basketball. Knowledge is endless and cumulative because of reading.

But reading is much more than the accumulation of practical information, it is a pathway to wisdom and happiness. What’s the point of being able to do many things if you don’t know how to be happy? And on the simplest of levels, reading is just plain fun.

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For me, reading was my most consistent pleasure as a young man. I would sit my room and read adventure stories like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Treasure Island and it inspired me to want to have a life of adventure. I’m convinced that those books gave me the courage and confidence to pursue basketball as hard as I did. That became my adventure.

Why is it important for young adults to understand the benefits of being a so-called “outsider?”

Every young adult feels like an outsider, alienated from their parents, their peers, their own bodies. Even popular kids often feel the pressure to maintain a façade of fitting in. It’s when individuals embrace their differences that they really start to shine. No one wants to be shunned by their peers, especially teens, so they contort their personalities and even bodies to be accepted. But all the greatest innovators, artists, thinkers, and performers were outsiders who eventually came to celebrate their uniqueness.

In high school, I was the ultimate outsider: I towered over all the students and teachers, I was one of three black students, I was an A student, and I was shy. All of those seemingly “loser” traits actually combined to drive me to work even harder to succeed. It also made me care about all the people who were made to feel like outsiders because of race, religion, poverty, or other conditions. Because I know how harshly outsiders can be treated, I was inspired to work hard during my life to help them. It also led me to hang out with others like myself—artists, athletes, activists, etc.—which has given me a very interesting and fulfilling life.

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Who were your most important mentors?

Coach Wooden certainly was one of the most influential because over our 50-year friendship, he taught me not just about the nuances of basketball but about the importance of morality, friendship, and social responsibility. Bill Russell taught me a lot about basketball, but also about how to be a decent human being and to represent athletes with dignity and grace. Muhammad Ali taught me about how important it was to be true to yourself, no matter what the public says, and to never allow success to numb you from the needs of others.

What was the most influential book you ever read?

There are so many books that I’ve read and reread that I hate narrowing it down to one. But one of the most influential books is The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Hailey which I first read in college. Malcolm X’s journey from pimp to political powerhouse, from selfish criminal to selfless activist inspired me to become more active. It also educated me on the role of African-Americans in society and what needed to be done to improve our lives.

What is your approach to writing and how do you decide which projects to work on?

I choose projects based on what interests me. Fortunately, I have a lot of interests. I love writing about sports, history, pop culture, and politics. That variety is very exciting to me. My process, once I come up with a topic I want to write about, is to think about it for a few days, writing notes to myself as I think more deeply about it. Then I sit down and write, delete, write, delete. Eventually, I come up with something I don’t hate—and I rewrite it until I kind of like it.

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How did your passionate interest in civil rights change your life? And how can we alter the current climate of racial and religious hatred in America and abroad?

Other than being a father, my involvement in civil rights is the most important thing I’ve done in my life. I’ve loved playing basketball and I love writing, but neither compares with trying to make sure that all people in America are treated equally and have the same opportunities for success.

How to fix it? Remember that song from South Pacific, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”? It begins, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear/You’ve got to be taught from year to year.” Sadly, there is no quick fix, no law we can pass, because the roots of prejudice are deep within the ignorance of tradition and are handed down by parents and culture. Our first-aid approach is to enforce anti-discrimination laws and to get rid of politicians who exploit people’s fear for their own gain. For that, we have to fight the widespread conservative movement to restrict voting by the poor and minorities.

But to solve the problem, we need to start in schools by teaching critical thinking right from elementary school on. The reason conservatives are so adamant about charter schools and home schooling is because it allows parents to continue the brainwashing of children so that they never apply logic, reason, or critical thinking to lessons about politics or social issues. Once children are no longer victims of their parents’ biases, we will have positive change.

What was your reaction to Laura Ingraham’s “Shut up and dribble” comments?

I’ve been hearing variations of that all my professional life, so I didn’t have a big reaction of outrage. I felt sad because her comment means there are still ignorant people with a public platform that say provocative things in order to get a reaction to stay relevant. I’ve been an activist for 50 years and have been a professional writer for more than 20 years, longer than I played in the NBA. Yet, I every time I publish an article, I can count on some sad trolls to comment, “Stick to basketball.” Athletes are contributing members of society, they are parents, spouses, business owners, taxpayers. You don’t hear her saying to Trump, “Shut up and defraud students at Trump University.” Or to top Republican venture capitalist Elliott Broidy, “Shut up and negotiate a settlement with your Playboy mistress.”

What is your next writing project?

I always have several writing projects going as well as my regular columns in The Hollywood Reporter and The Guardian. I’m in the middle of my third Mycroft Holmes novel (my second one, Mycroft and Sherlock, will be released in October). I’m also working on developing a drama series for television and I’m starting to write my autobiography about my years since retiring from the NBA.

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