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Steve Aschburner

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been the driving force behind the documentary, 'On The Shoulders of Giants.'
Brian van der Brug/Getty Images

Passion for history, community fuels Abdul-Jabbar's venture

Posted Mar 11 2011 8:58PM

The day after the NBA got a new record-holder for 3-point field goals -- the perpetually in motion Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics -- the league's all-time leader in 2-point baskets was on the move too.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- whose 15,836 2-point field goals represent 99.99 percent of his lifetime NBA regular-season work (he was 1-for 18 from outside the arc that arrived for his final 10 seasons) -- had spent several days in New York and New Jersey screening his film "On The Shoulders of Giants," a documentary about the Harlem Renaissance Big Five, basketball's first all-black team. Abdul-Jabbar was the film's executive producer, after writing the 2007 book about the Rens that served as its launching pad.


Like Allen, Abdul-Jabbar -- the most prolific scorer in league history, a 19-time NBA All-Star, a six-time MVP, the winner of six championship rings and a Naismith Hall of Famer -- is a bit of a moving target, a Renaissance man if you will.

Now 63, he has thrown himself into a variety of pursuits and passions in the two decades since he retired as a player, with filmmaking merely the latest. The native of New York and the dominating center from UCLA remains a special assistant coach to the Los Angeles Lakers and has been dedicated for most of his adult life to chronicling and sharing black history with younger generations.

Abdul-Jabbar's interest in the Rens was a natural, then. Named after the Renaissance Casino Ballroom in Harlem, the team blazed a trail across nearly three decades in pro hoops' early days. It won an incredible 88 consecutive games in 1933. From 1932 to 1936, according to Ron Thomas' book "They Cleared The Lane: The NBA's Black Pioneers," the team's record was 497-58 -- and they weren't playing the Washington Generals. One year, the Rens won 112 games and lost seven.

"To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball," UCLA coaching legend John Wooden -- a barnstorming player himself in the 1930s and later Abdul-Jabbar's coach at UCLA -- once said. "They had great athletes, but they weren't as impressive as their team play."

The Rens barnstormed with and beat a team of white players known as the Original Celtics, competed in various tournaments and were the first all-black team to win a championship. They lost their last shot at a world championship in 1948, falling to a Minneapolis Lakers squad that would become the NBA's first dynasty. One man from that Rens club, Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton, became the first African-American player to sign an NBA contract, brought by Joe Lapchick -- a player on the Original Celtics -- to the New York Knicks. But the Basketball Association of America denied the Rens admittance to their league and so did another NBA precursor, the NBL.

Abdul-Jabbar presented "On the Shoulders of Giants" in its East Coast premiere Feb. 9 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at 135th St. and Malcolm X Blvd. in Harlem. He will participate in a screen in Los Angeles for All-Star Weekend. But the documentary now can be seen across the country via Video On Demand through Cox Cable, Comcast and Time Warner Cable. More information is available at

The NBA's all-time leading scorer, whose signature sky-hook move remains strangely neglected by the generations of big men who have followed, spoke with Why did you see the Harlem Rens' story as an important one worth telling?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: For me, it was just an opportunity to talk about the community that I was raised in and that I was passionate about. I wrote a book about the Harlem Renaissance, and the book was about the music, the political activism, the artistic excellence and the Harlem Rens. They were all part of the Harlem Renaissance. It started out as me talking about our community. What sort of obstacles did they face?

KA-J: The NBA didn't start playing until 1947; the Rens started in 1922. There were professional leagues at that point, but they couldn't get in because of segregation. All professional sports were segregated -- the only one that wasn't was boxing. You had the Negro Leagues in baseball. Blacks could not play professional football or any other sports. As good as they were, the Rens have been more or less forgotten -- until enough people see your film, anyway. Meanwhile, the Harlem Globetrotters are famous the world over, and they too started out as a legitimate, competitive traveling basketball team. How did they compare?

KA-J: The Globetrotters started in approximately 1928. The Rens had already been in existence for about six years. And the Rens were the better team -- clearly. When the NBA started, and then integrated, the Globetrotters decided to become a novelty act, traveling, doing exhibitions and playing entertainment basketball. That's how they're known now. But in the 1930s and '40s, they were competitors. And the Rens still were clearly a better team. The Renaissance Ballroom was a hub of entertainment in Harlem, with all the great dance bands -- Duke Ellington, Count Basie -- playing there, sometimes before and after games. How important were the Rens to Harlem and to black culture in their time?

KA-J: Especially in the 1920s and '30s, the Rens were a source of pride for the Harlem community. Because they obviously were a very good basketball team -- a lot of people thought they were the best basketball team -- yet they [weren't permitted to] compete against the other teams. For black Americans, especially for the Harlem community, that were a source of pride and were one of the things that kept them motivated and competing. Who should people know about from the Rens? I've read about some of their best players, such as Pop Gates, Pappy Ricks, Fat Jenkins, Charles (Tarzan) Cooper, Casey Holt and Bill Yancy.

KA-J: The owner and general manager, Bob Douglas, was someone who had an ideal of becoming a professional sports team owner. He put the team together and then managed the team to be one of the best in professional basketball, winning the first professional championship. He is the first black person to enter the basketball Hall of Fame. He deserves a lot of the credit for the Rens' success and prominence. They had good players, but if it was not for the owner, the team would not have stayed together. How would the Rens' style of play compare to what we think of as "1950s basketball?" Your old coach, John Wooden, said "the way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then, and I believe it would be today."

KA-J: It's hard to make a comparison because the rules are different, OK? When they started playing, you'd have a jump ball after every basket that was scored. The three-second lane was only six feet wide. You could have one player that could go in there.

They played a passing game because the ball had a seam on it, with laces like a football. So every now and then there was going to be a crazy bounce. So they passed the ball rather than dribbling it, and they ran a lot. They did a lot of cuts. Cut through, pass and go away. And they shot set shots -- that was the main shot. Layups and set shots. It was a different emphasis. So there wasn't a lot of individual expression for the Rens either.

KA-J: Not really. If you started dribbling that ball, sooner or later it was going ot come down on those laces. And the ball was going to go either off your foot or out of bounds or some place. So they really moved the ball around a lot. I can think of some coaches who wish they could get their hands on a ball like that for practice.

KA-J: You've got to take a look at it. We've got a picture of the ball in the documentary. It had huge laces -- almost the size of football laces. You talked with and include contemporary players in the film, relating to the Harlem Rens' experience. How familiar did you find them to be with the pioneers of this sport?

KA-J: Most of today's players have no idea what happened before their time. When I was doing it, I would ask guys we interviewed if they knew the NBA was segregated when it first started. They had no idea that it was. There's been a real disconnect. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that people from the previous generations did not see to it that the history of the game was shared with younger people. My book and this documentary is an effort to deal with this issue. What sort of responses have you gotten from audiences at screenings?

KA-J: We've gotten great reactions, especially when we show the film with academics. The emphasis is on the basketball team, but we also deal with the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural phenomenon, and that's very important to black history. There are a lot of people who will make the connection and are very happy to see the material. You were able to make the film available via streaming video to classrooms.

KA-J: We did it in school districts in Michigan, New Jersey and New York, and we're going to do one or two more. It's really important to me to get this information out to young kids today who don't have an idea of what their history is about. That was one of the main purposes that I wrote the book in the first place, and why I chose to go this route with the motion picture. What's next in the pipeline for you, in terms of film projects?

KA-J: I'm trying to figure out what I want to do next. I'll be giving that some serious thought in the next couple of weeks or a month, and hopefully I'll get started before too long. My movie-making career is becoming a pretty important part of my life. I'm looking forward to going forward as a moviemaker. That's why I'm really happy with the way people are reacting to "On the Shoulders of Giants." It's been a real shot in the arm for me to see that people appreciate it and are interested in it. From authoring books to producing films to, back in the day, appearing in them, from your work with the Lakers to your love of yoga and Mark Twain's writing, what is it that propels you forward?

KA-J: I'd have to attribute it to intellectual curiosity. I've always been into a lot of different things and been curious about them, and I've pursued those interests. This season, the Milwaukee Bucks are celebrating the 40th anniversary of their NBA championship, which you helped provide in just their third season of existence. What do you think of when you reflect on that one, the first of your six?

KA-J: I just think it was a great testimony ot the fact that the draft worked [chuckling]. The Bucks were able to get me and then they got Oscar [Robertson], and they had the nucleus of a team that could compete for a championship. Anything else stand out from that 1970-71 team?

KA-J: We had a very good team. I just wish we could have kept that team together. Once we won the championship, they started fooling around with the team. They got rid of Greg Smith. He was a key player for us. Even though we eventually got Curtis [Perry] and he was a great player, we never got back to the chemistry that we had with that '71 team. Smith was a tremendous wing player, always active, great in transition. He was always finishing breaks with dunks.

KA-J: And he could play power forward. At 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, he could bang and leap, and compete with the guys who were 6-foot-8. They went and found somebody who was prototypical in that spot, instead of somebody that was effective. And nobody could run the court like Greg. Your Bucks team was notable, too, for promoting the first black executive in professional sports, Wayne Embry. A great evaluator of talent, an NBA lifer back to his playing days with Cincinnati and ultimately the man who had to trade you, at your request, to the Los Angeles Lakers.

KA-J: He was a trail blazer. I think the NBA has done a great job in giving black Americans access beyond the arena and being a player. So you have black executives and black coaches. The NBA is way beyond the other sports in the numbers of people it's given opportunities to. I think that says a lot for them. We're headed into All-Star Weekend, which has been dubbed the "black Super Bowl" by some media folks. You played in 18 of these games -- most of the time when it was just that, a game rather than a three-day extravaganza. Any thoughts on the event?

KA-J: It's something that has become part of world culture. So many people, wherever they are, are excited to see their favorite players get a chance to play. In November 2009, you went public with your Video diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia. Can you give us an update on your health?

KA-J: I'm at a point now where it's at a minimum in my body. I could not have it be any less -- if it were any less, I would be cancer-free. I can never be totally "cancer free" but I'm in total remission. I'm doing very well and I'm going to continue doing everything the doctors tell me to do to stay that way. Your old "Showtime" teammate Byron Scott is about as far removed from those days as he possibly could be, coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers through a historically bad season -- including 26 consecutive losses -- in the start of the the city's post-LeBron James era. What do you make of his struggle?

KA-J: Byron is a good friend. I totally am suffering with him because he's a good coach and they don't have a bad team. They have some quality guys there. I guess with the way things went with LeBron leaving, they haven't been able to forge a new identity for the team and found a way to win games. I'm rooting for him -- he's a great guy and a very capable coach -- and I hope they're able to turn it around.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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