“Life is Short, But It’s Very Wide,” said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in response to a question during the recent Conversations with Tyler: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The question was about how Abdul-Jabbar brings together his wide range of interests. Held at The Westin Arlington, the talk was moderated by Tyler Cowen and sponsored by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.
There are few things that Abdul-Jabbar hasn’t done during his lifetime and the breadth of his knowledge is staggering. He played 20 seasons in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He remains the all-time leading scorer in the NBA. But his resume is wide-ranging. He has written 11 books; starred in and directed movies; been an avid reader since he was young; is a jazz aficionado; was cultural ambassador for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – and that’s just for starters.
Early on in the interview, he talked about converting to Islam and issues with Black America. “Black America needs to get a grasp of what’s afflicting them and how to fix it,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “We need to get the best and the brightest the best education. Knowledge is power. You need to read and experience life to experience that power.”
He said that most of the Muslim states are under police control and they are not practicing the true beliefs of Islam. “The problem in the Islamic world is not just the distribution of wealth, but also the way that it is interpreted is contrary to the way the prophets meant it,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “I am not optimistic about the outcome [of Muslim countries]. It’s the job of the West to show them what Islam really is.”
Cowen homed in on Abdul-Jabbar’s love of jazz and asked him how many times he had seen jazz icon Thelonious Monk. Abdul-Jabbar said that he had seen him at least 20 to 30 times, but said that there was a story behind that. It turns out that he babysat for Ben Riley, Monk’s drummer, as a teenager, so he was allowed to sit in one some of the shows at the Village Vanguard. “It was a great part of my life,” said Abdul-Jabbar. When asked which Miles Davis album that he thought was most underappreciated, Abdul-Jabbar said that he really liked “Seven Steps to Heaven.”
Abdul-Jabbar also said that he didn’t think jazz was dying. “I know for a fact that it’s not dead,” he said. “Jazz musicians are coming from all different places – Azerbaijan, Indonesia. There are still people all over the world who love it [jazz] and will make it survive.”
Talking about Abdul-Jabbar’s favorite personalities from the Harlem Renaissance, he said that he loved Chester Himes. “He wrote those crazy detective novels,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “I love Cotton Comes to Harlem.” About Harlem today, he said: “People are looking for an affordable place to live and it is gentrified. It’s a different place.” Abdul-Jabbar, who lives in Los Angeles, said that he had thought about coming back to Harlem to live but that it was too cold; he laughed about the current snow situation.
About L.A., he noted, “Los Angeles is very vital and vibrant and more relevant than ever. There has been a renaissance in the movie industry and the idea of making a complete movie in one place is still appealing. It has its own identity.”
Cowen asked Abdul-Jabbar if he thought various personalities were under or overrated.
Michael Jackson – underrated – he was an incredible performer.
Jackie Chan – underrated – he was an incredible actor, continues the tradition of Bruce Lee.
Earl “The Goat” Manigault – the American street basketball player – overrated, while he was a great scorer, he was not a team player. He messed up doing drugs but “went out doing the right thing” – creating the Walk Away From Drugs tournament for kids in Harlem.
The conversation turned to basketball and Cowen asked Abdul-Jabbar if he remembered the game against the Detroit Pistons. It was one of the last games that he would play before retiring. While the Lakers didn’t win the game, Abdul-Jabbar gave a great performance. “We were without Magic Johnson and Byron Scott but I wanted to go out the best way I could,” he said.
Abdul-Jabbar was well known for his Sky Hook and when asked why none of the current players use that technique, he said, “They don’t realize that if you get close to the basket, you get more baskets. They want to be out there in the stratosphere getting the three-pointers.” He cited how Stephen Curry made 92 out of 100 three-pointers during practice. “The three-point shot is worth more so if you have people who can work those shots, it’s to their advantage,” said Abdul-Jabbar. But he did wonder if it’s going to change the game so much that it won’t be as exciting to watch.
Abdul-Jabbar was in town to promote his latest book, Mycroft Holmes. Abdul-Jabbar has been fascinated with Sherlock Holmes since he was a young boy. So much so that he used deductive reasoning even while playing basketball. “I overhead a ball boy say that when Bob Lanier (who played for the Detroit Pistons) and the coach went into the locker room, they were nicotine fiends,” he said. “I figured that if I could get him to run a lot during the second half, I could win!”
Talking about playing against Bruce Lee in Game of Death, Abdul-Jabbar said, “Bruce learned that it’s hard to fight somebody with long arms, but I learned that somebody who weighs 155 pounds can be very tough.”
Photos by Gale Curcio