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Growing Up On and Off the Court
By Raymond Obstfeld
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At one time, Lew Alcindor was just another kid from New York City with all the usual problems: He struggled with fitting in, pleasing a strict father, and overcoming shyness that made him feel socially awkward. But with a talent for basketball, and an unmatched team of supporters, Lew Alcindor was able to transform and to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
From a childhood made difficult by racism and prejudice to a record-smashing career on the basketball court as an adult, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's life was packed with ""coaches"" who taught him right from wrong and led him on the path to greatness. His parents, coaches Jack Donahue and John Wooden, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and many others played important roles in Abdul-Jabbar's life and sparked him to become an activist for social change and advancement. The inspiration from those around him, and his drive to find his own path in life, are highlighted in this personal and awe-inspiring journey.
Written especially for young readers, Becoming Kareem chronicles how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar become the icon and legend he is today, both on and off the court.
Every Kid Needs a Coach
The world knows me as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
I’m in the basketball record books under that name. I traveled the world as a US global cultural ambassador under that name. Google lists me about five hundred thousand times under that name. I was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame under that name. I received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama under that name. Part of that name has been passed on to my five children and to my grandchild.
But that wasn’t the name I started life with, or grew up using. When I was a child, my friends and family knew me as Lewis Alcindor. Everyone called me Lew.
When I was twenty-four, I changed that. My team, the Milwaukee Bucks, had just won the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, and I had been voted the Finals’ Most Valuable Player. Everything was going perfectly. The fans were cheering my name, Lew, and sports journalists were writing about how bright my future would be. I was at the height of the success I had worked so hard my whole life to achieve. Which is why it came as such a shock when the day after winning the national championship, I announced to the world that I was no longer Lew Alcindor, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means “noble servant of God.”
The world responded: “Huh?”
Three years earlier, while still a college student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I had quietly converted to Islam, which I had been studying for several years. People thought it was just a phase I was going through—an impressionable college kid experimenting with alternative ideas and lifestyles, like becoming a vegan or getting an eyebrow piercing. They figured that as soon as I signed a contract for major money with a professional basketball team, I would revert to my familiar former self. But by changing my name in such a high-profile way, I was announcing on a much grander scale that I was no longer Catholic, but Muslim. No longer Lew, but Kareem.
And that I had no intention of going back.
Because of my fame as a professional basketball player, and because so few Americans knew anything about Islam back in the 1970s, there was a lot of angry backlash. People did not want me messing with their idea of who I was or what I represented to them. To many, by changing my religion and name, I was no longer the typical American kid playing a typical American sport embodying typical American values. I had become something foreign and exotic, like a newly discovered species of tree frog that just might be poisonous.
To me, by changing my religion and name, I was embracing the American ideal of freedom even more than when I was Lew Alcindor. I was becoming the person I chose to be rather than the person everyone was trying to convince me I should be. Lew Alcindor carried the name and religion of the white slaveholder who had exploited, humiliated, and abused my ancestors. How could I allow my successes to honor the name of such a villain? Instead, I decided to adopt the name and religion of many of the Africans who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Those were the people I should be honoring.
But many who learned of my decision were furious. Reporters wrote nasty things, fans wrote outraged letters, and some people even threatened to kill me. My parents were shocked and hurt by my rejection of their name. My teammates were confused; some felt personally betrayed. Despite all that, I knew I had made the right choice because I was, after all those years, finally who I wanted to be.
The long road to discovering who I wanted to be was not straight or easy. I made mistakes—plenty of them. Fortunately, I didn’t have to travel that road by myself. Sometimes it felt as if I were walking alone, carrying a heavy burden on my shoulders. But then I’d look up and see someone there to help me carry that weight, or to shine a light on the path ahead so I knew where to go and what to avoid. I didn’t always realize they were helping me at the time, nor did I always listen to them. At least the mistakes were mine and the successes were mine because the path was mine.
From grammar school through my twenty years as a professional basketball player, my team coaches have helped guide me. But I have also had other people who helped me along my path even though they weren’t part of any team. I think of them as life coaches. Some were teachers, like my martial arts teacher and an eventual international movie star, Bruce Lee. Some were friends, like the world champion boxer Muhammad Ali. Some were actual coaches, like my UCLA coach John Wooden, whose lessons on and off the court still deeply influence me today. Some were writers, singers, poets, athletes, or activists whom I never met, and who may have even lived hundreds of years ago, but whose lives and works inspired me to see the world differently and helped me see my place in it.
Those who loved me weren’t always the best coaches. Some who thought they were providing guidance were actually negative influences—and I learned from listening to their words and watching how they behaved that I needed to do the opposite. That is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Good intentions don’t always have good results.
We are all told what to do and what to think from the moment we are born. Early lessons are pretty easy: where to poop and pee, how to walk, keeping fingers out of blenders and electrical sockets. After that, things get trickier. Parents, siblings, friends, peers, teachers, governments, employers, political parties, media, and religions are all stuffing heavy bricks of their opinions into our mental backpack. Then they shove us out the door to stagger along the path under all that weight of expectation and pressure, without ever asking us if the path is what we truly want.
My journey from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was my quest to figure out what path I wanted. I often felt like Pinocchio dancing as someone else tugged my strings. But as I grew older, I realized that each choice I made was me cutting another string so I could move freely on my own. Only when I’d cut all the strings could I become the person I truly wanted to be and—more important—needed to be.
What My Coaches Through Eighth Grade Taught Me
(Even When They Didn’t Mean To)
“You fail all the time, but you aren’t a failure until you start blaming someone else.”
FOOTBALL COACH BUM PHILLIPS
How I Discovered I Was Black
I didn’t realize I was black until third grade.
Although I was born in the predominantly black community of Harlem in 1947, I was raised in a multiethnic housing project in the Inwood section of Manhattan. Our project consisted of seven buildings, each fourteen stories tall, with twelve apartments on each floor. That totaled 1,176 apartments. Basically, a small, crowded city.
Our neighbors formed a mini United Nations of Russians, Scandinavians, Jews, Irish, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, along with about 15 percent black residents. My friends and neighbors spoke in a variety of lilting and guttural accents, which thrilled me. To be exposed to so many different cultures and languages—and foods!—was so much more interesting to a curious little boy than everyone looking, talking, and acting the same.
That’s not to say that everybody always got along, especially the kids. We had our share of bullies and mean kids. Because I was taller than almost everyone my age, most neighborhood children didn’t challenge me. But I was a well-mannered, gentle child who regularly attended church in my Sunday suit and tie, with no desire to fight nor skills to win a fight. The hard-core bullies always seemed to know which kids, regardless of their size, didn’t have any fight in them, so they zeroed in on me.
One girl, Cecilia, who was three years older, made me her pet project for beatings. She had no particular reason to dislike me—it was as if she picked on me as a form of exercise. More than once she chased me around the playground near our house. I’d try to outrun her but she was fast and relentless. She always caught me and then gave me a few extra punches for making her run.
Once, she chased me after Little League practice while I had my Louisville slugger in my hand. I still ran, but this time when she cornered me on that same playground, I took a couple of tentative swings with my bat at her legs. If I’d actually hit her, I probably would have burst into tears, but that never happened. She sneered at my sad attempt at self-defense, snatched the bat from my hands, and shoved me to the ground. She straddled me and pressed the bat against my throat with a victorious smile. I flailed like an overturned beetle, afraid she would choke me to death, but eventually she hopped off and strolled away. I figured she didn’t want to hurt me too badly or she wouldn’t be able to chase me the next time.
Despite these typical kid conflicts, I was never picked on because of my race. Because the projects were filled with so many different ethnicities, no one risked casting the first stone. My mom and dad never talked about being black, and I was too young to know about the violent racial tensions going on throughout America at that time. It was the 1950s and the world was changing. As far as I knew, we were all the same.
My wake-up call came in third grade when my classmate Michael brought a Polaroid camera to school. Until the Polaroid, all cameras had a roll of film inside that had to be mailed away or taken to a special store to be developed. Sometimes you would wait weeks between the time you snapped a photo and the time you got to see what it looked like. The Polaroid, to our delight, spit out an “instant” photograph.
Giddy over this cool gadget, we decided to take a class photo. I attended a strict Catholic school, with students wearing traditional uniforms: boys in white shirts, blue ties, and navy blue slacks and girls in jumpers and knee socks. Our teacher arranged us by size in front of the blackboard, snapped the photo, then shooed us back to our seats while she removed the miracle image from the camera. The photo, still moist and smelling of sour chemicals, was passed around from student to student, each marveling at this breakthrough technology that, to us, could only mean that jetpacks and flying cars were merely months away.
But when the photo finally landed on my desk, I didn’t see it as a tiny window into a space-age future. I just saw myself, as if for the first time. There I was, freakishly towering over all the other kids, with skin much darker than everyone else’s.
Tilting the glossy photo in the harsh classroom light didn’t change anything. I was still black.
And my classmates weren’t.
I knew two other kids in my school, but not in my classroom, who were also black, but I hadn’t seen myself as the same as them—yet not different from them, either. I just hadn’t realized how different we looked from the other kids.
I didn’t bring up this startling discovery with my parents. They had never mentioned it. No one at school had mentioned it. Maybe no one else noticed, or maybe it was supposed to be a secret. Maybe I had a secret identity, like Superman. Maybe my superpower just hadn’t kicked in yet.
But the color of my skin wasn’t quite the secret identity I thought it was. As we advanced through the grades, I didn’t gain a superpower to protect me, and my skin made me more of a target. As every kid who has ever been a target in school knows, the best way to survive is to become invisible. To keep your head down, not make eye contact, not call any attention to yourself. It’s not exactly a superpower, but it is a survival skill. However, for me, that was impossible. If my black skin made me a target, then my abnormal height made me a highly visible target, like a giraffe trying to hide among gerbils.
Realizing I was black didn’t affect my life right away. I still had plenty of friends, most of them white. I was still the Lew who played occasional pranks at school, mostly slapstick stuff I saw the Three Stooges do on TV, like pulling out a chair when a kid was about to sit down, then saying, “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.”
My best friend, Johnny, was white. Our mothers were close, so we had lots of opportunities to play together. We celebrated each other’s birthdays together, hung out at school together, and played after school together. We were inseparable. Our specialty was building models of tanks, battleships, and fighter jets. We would sit for hours, gluing each tiny plastic propeller into place with the precision of brain surgeons. A typical conversation was arguing about which football and baseball players were best. Sometimes we sat in silence, concentrating on painting our models, just happy to be in each other’s company.
We were also in Little League together and spent as much time as possible playing stickball with the other neighborhood kids. When we were together, no one picked on either of us because we had each other’s back. They knew that even mild-mannered Lew wouldn’t back down from a fight if anyone threatened Johnny. As far as both of us were concerned, we were each other’s brother. Color didn’t matter.
First Coaches: Mom and Dad Sang the Same Song
My parents were my first coaches. Together they had just one goal for Team Lewis Alcindor: Education! Education! and—say it with me—Education! My mom was especially fervent in preaching the gospel of education from her kitchen table pulpit. Her child was going to go to school every day, study hard, and get straight As. Nothing short of an alien invasion would get in the way. Even then, she’d be the one yanking slimy tentacles and reptilian tails from Martian bodies if they blocked my route to the school.
“Lewis, what are you doing?” she’d sometimes ask when she saw me being idle for too long.
“Lots of kids are doing that. But somewhere there’s a child doing extra schoolwork. That’s the one you have to worry about.”
I didn’t understand why I had to worry about that kid, but I hit the books anyway.
Most parents in America want a good education for their children. They attend Open House Night, they help build crude models of plant cells, they constantly bring up college as an inevitable destination. But as important as education is to white middle-class and upper-class families, it’s even more important to immigrant families, poor families, minority families. It’s the only practical hope for them to get out of the cycle of poverty that many live in. Education is a life raft on a stormy, dark ocean.
I wasn’t aware of this when I was a kid and my parents were nagging me to study, study, study. They offered cash incentives for good grades. A good report card meant doubling my allowance to one dollar! That was as far as their hands-on involvement went. If I had a question about my studies, my dad would silently point to a book on the shelf, end of discussion. My mom would just shrug. My parents taught me that education was the key to success, and they did their best to act as cheerleaders to my studies. But when it came to the actual day-to-day learning, I was on my own.
Fortunately, my default setting was Good Boy, which meant that I pretty much did whatever they told me. If they said study, I studied. If they said wash your hands, I washed my hands. I didn’t whine or complain or talk about how other kids didn’t have to study as much I did. I just said, “Yes, ma’am,” or “Yes, sir,” and got on with it.
I enjoyed reading and was always ahead of most other students at school. While the rest of my class was working on one story, I had already consumed three. I was an excellent student with great report cards. I guess I was the child other kids had to worry about.
But I was also reserved in class; I was anxious to please the teachers, so I could get good grades to please my parents. Because I was an only child, all my parents’ focus was on me to succeed. Sometimes I wished I’d had a brother or sister so they could back off from pushing me so much. For my daily routine, I got up, went to school, came home, briefly played with the neighborhood kids, ate dinner, did my homework, watched an hour of TV, went to bed. Being the Good Boy wasn’t exhausting work, but it was boringly predictable.
Coach Dad’s Quiet Lessons
My mom was a seamstress at a large department store. My dad was a transit cop for New York City. They shared a love of music—and of being secretive around me.
As a child, I didn’t think of my dad as secretive so much as just nonverbal. He didn’t like to talk, as if each word he uttered cost him twenty hard-earned dollars. What he didn’t understand was that each word he didn’t utter cost our relationship a lot more. Days would pass without us talking. When I’d approach him with a problem, he’d react with a cool detachment, like a cop taking notes at a crime scene. Everything he didn’t say that I needed him to say—whether words of advice or encouragement or love—pushed me further from him.
“Big Al,” as he was called, was two hundred pounds and six foot three. He loomed over my childhood, casting a large, cold shadow. Others in the neighborhood were equally intimidated by his size and his general demeanor of intense judgment. He was the Punisher and Judge Dredd of the housing project.
My father was considered by many of his friends to be an intellectual because he read so much. Our house was filled with books and magazines, which he would buy, read, and sell back to the used-book store. But having such a well-read father didn’t provide the advantage I’d hoped for. On the one hand, there were plenty of books around that helped me develop my own passion for reading, which has become one of the great joys of my life. On the other, my father used books like the Great Wall of China, to keep intruders out of his private kingdom. If I asked him a question, he’d hand me a book. If I persisted for a more personal response, he’d shoo me away, his book open wide in front of his face so he couldn’t see me.
While he was in high school, when homes in poor neighborhoods still used real ice as refrigeration, he had a job hauling fifty-pound blocks of ice from wagons up flights of stairs. That’s the image that most stayed with me through my life: my father as an iceman, as cold as the translucent, thick slabs he carried.
But my dad also had a secret identity: He wasn’t just a cop, he was also an accomplished musician. He had a musicology degree from the Juilliard School of Music, one of the most prestigious music schools in the country. He played trombone with a lot of well-known jazz musicians, many of whom he introduced me to. He and my mom even sang together in the Hall Johnson Choir, a famous black choral ensemble that performed in Broadway shows and movies featuring African American spirituals. Music animated my father. When he was either playing music or dancing, he was smiling and happy. When he wasn’t, it was as if someone had opened his valve and let all the air out. He sagged back into his easy chair, as lifeless as a deflated doll.
Dad was coaching me even when he didn’t know it. His love of music, especially jazz by greats such as Miles Davis and Gil Evans, infected me, too. Even Big Al noticed my enthusiasm and asked me if I wanted to learn the trombone. He didn’t offer to teach me on his own sacred instrument, of course, but if I wanted to take it up, a friend of his was selling one. The problem was, I didn’t want to play the trombone, I wanted to play the tenor sax like my musical hero John Coltrane. Dad knew I was interested in the sax, and that his musician friends had even offered to give me free lessons, but he never spoke of it. In the end, I abandoned the idea of becoming the next Coltrane because it took too much time and I wasn’t getting any encouragement from home. And as far as Big Al was concerned, either I followed in his rigid footsteps or I was invisible.
For some fathers and sons, sports can be a bonding experience. Not so much for me and my dad.
Baseball was my first love, and I gleefully played Little League for four years, from the time I was eight to when I was twelve. My mom and dad came to a couple of Little League games during those four years, but it wasn’t a priority. At least I won Player Having the Most Fun Award. That was a pretty accurate assessment of my sports skills.
One day, my father decided to play basketball with me. I imagined we were starting a new tradition of the two of us doing more things together. No more just pointing to books and grunting, or freezing me out in silence when I asked a question. Today was the start of a whole new father-son relationship. Soon we’d be chatting about our favorite athletes over breakfast.
It didn’t happen.
In his determination to beat me, he threw his elbows into my ribs, shoved me out of his way, and knocked me around as if I were a tackling dummy. “This is how you protect the ball,” he said, then elbowed me in the face. “You gonna let me drive on you like you’re a mannequin?” he’d say, then shoulder me aside as he drove to the basket. I had hoped that he would patiently teach me, help me improve so he could be proud of me. That we’d laugh about my mistakes the way these father-son scenes played out on television and in movies. Instead, he had brutishly proved his point that he was the man of the house.
We never played again.
Coach Mom’s Practical Lessons
My mom was a more reasonable coach, and from her I learned how to be pragmatic about daily life, especially about money. Mom controlled the household budget, and though she and my father often argued about finances, Mom always won because Dad had no clue how to budget, pay the bills on time, and make every dollar stretch. Years later, after my mom had died and I was taking care of my dad, I would save money for him just as she had done. Otherwise, he would have gambled it all away on lottery tickets and trips to Las Vegas.
She also introduced me to one of the most influential coaches in my life: movies. We went to the movies often, especially if the film starred William Holden, whom she had a crush on. At that time, Holden was in his early thirties, a handsome man who often played a lovable rogue, someone just out for himself at the start of the movie, but ending up doing the right thing. We sat through the exciting Holden war films like Stalag 17 and The Bridges at Toko-Ri, as well as the sappy movies like Sabrina and Picnic. I didn’t care as long as I had a bag of popcorn and a cold soda. Those hours we spent watching the movies flicker on the big screen in front of us brought us closer. It was as if we were sharing a secret life filled with adventure.
I especially loved Westerns, which was a little ironic because my mother was part Cherokee and the villains were often savage Indians. Plus, there weren’t many black people shown, so we didn’t have anyone our color to identify with. I didn’t care. Westerns were a major part of movies and television when I was a kid. There were Westerns on TV every night of the week, and it seemed like a new theatrical release every weekend. One episode of a favorite Western TV show, The Rifleman, particularly affected me. The guest star was Sammy Davis Jr., a popular singer, dancer, and actor who was known for being part of Frank Sinatra’s infamous bad-boy celebrity crew called the Rat Pack. I had seen Sammy on other shows, singing and dancing, but this was the first time I saw him in a Western, and it was the first time I saw any black man as a main character in a Western. At best, black people in Westerns carried baggage, held other characters’ horses, or swept the saloon floor. But Sammy was a gunslinger. He fast-drew his gun from his holster, spun it around his fingers, threw it in the air, and caught it in mid-spin with his trigger finger. He threw a knife at a barn door, drawing and firing his gun as the knife flipped toward the door, so the knife stuck in the bullet hole he’d just made! What? A black man who could do all that?
- * "In our current moment when black athletes are joining the national confrontation with the nation's overwhelming legacy of racial injustice, few are better suited to provide context than Abdul-Jabbar.... Wrestling with what it means to be black, determining his own responsibility and capacity to respond to injustice, and becoming the "kindest, gentlest, smartest, lovingest version" of himself takes center stage in this retelling of the early part of his life. Like the author's unstoppable skyhook, this timely book is a clear score."—Kirkus, starred review
- * "More than a play-by-play sports story, it's an honest, powerful exposition of what it means to be black in white America, offering a de facto history of the civil rights movement."—Booklist, starred review
* "This timely and unforgettable memoir is essential for middle and high school collections, and affords rich opportunities for classroom and book club discussions."
—SLJ, starred review
- "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is... as gifted an intellect as he is an athlete... It's a tale by a wise elder-- about basketball, sure, but also about cultural, political, social, and religious awakenings, big stuff narrated in a very accessible way."—The New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- Nov 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers