After using his long arms to perfect the skyhook, become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and win five of his six NBA championships with the Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has used them to produce something else at a prolific rate.
Writing books. Lots of them.
He just released “Sasquatch in the Paint,” his eighth book illustrating his love both for the written word and his interest in a variety of subjects. Abdul-Jabbar has co-authored autobiographies (Giant Steps & Kareem), history (Black Profiles in Courage & Brothers in Arms), sports (A Season on the Reservation & On the Shoulders of Giants) and children’s books (What Color is My World?).
His latest one falls under the latter category and features a character named Theo, a middle school aged boy who struggles with a drastic growth spurt, excelling in basketball and mastering the science club. Abdul-Jabbar went through similar struggles.
Below the jump is a recent Q&A I had with Abdul-Jabbar on his book.
How did the idea for this book originate?
Abdul-Jabbar: I thought it would be good piece of source material talking about issues that span over generations. I went through this in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s and it’s still happening today. It’s been happening the whole time since then so I just wanted to talk about it and give kids a chance to get a feeling that they’re not the only ones that go through this.
What were the challenges that you went through in your childhood dealing with your height?
Abdul-Jabbar: When you’re 6 feet tall and you’re in the sixth grade, I grew past my dad’s height. Some people thought that if you were as tall as an adult, they’d expect you to be older and more mature. And you’re not. There’s a whole lot of insults that come at you from out of nowhere, it seems. Dealing with this and talking about my experiences, I can put it out there for kids to read the book. Then they won’t feel so alone and alienated where they feel like, ‘Jeez, I’m the only person that this has ever happened to.’
I always had to duck through doorways. That’s the physical remnants that force me to adjust. But what you’re going through and dealing with puberty and trying to get your head around what it means to be an adult and what it takes to make a successful transition, that’s more of what the book is about. The names that you get called, people everybody thinks they’re comedians. They all have to have some funny sarcastic names for you. It’s supposed to be funny. They would call me Daddy Longlegs, Long Drink of Water, Shorty. The name stuff, you can’t let it get on your nerves.
Did that initially get to you?
I was able to make myself hard to define. Those days never stuck with me.
Can you take me through Theo’s character in how he comes to grips with that? Reading from the reviews, it seems like he’s trying to grapple with his height, play well on the basketball team and excel in the science club. How does he try to handle all that?
Abdul-Jabbar: He’s trying to figure out what makes the most sense. He just grew six inches and he’s now 6’4.” All of a sudden his friends see him in a different light where now he is going to be a good basketball player. He has that potential now. He’s grown to this height and has become more of an adult. Being tall doesn’t make you a good basketball player. It gives you an advantage if you have certain types of athletic talent and if you develop the knowledge of the game and skills. But by no means is it a sure thing.
How did you go about making your height a strength as far as basketball is concerned?
I was able to do well at school and I kept getting better at basketball. I wasn’t great, but I kept getting better at basketball. I wasn’t great, but I kept learning. I also played baseball. I originally wanted to be a baseball player, and not a basketball player. It’s trial and error. You put the emphasis on fixing the errors, you get through it.
I read an interview where as a baseball player, you said you could throw a 95 mph pitch, but you could never throw it in the right place.
Abdul-Jabbar: (laughs). Yeah. I was in the biggest of the year at the end of the season and my team is losing, they bring me in to relieve pitch. The second or third pitch I threw went up into the stands [laughs].
At that point, were you thinking, ‘I should try something else now?’
Abdul-Jabbar: (Laughs) Yeah. Thank heavens that basketball had a lot of different potential for me. But you never know.
Getting back to the book, the reviews also say it focused on a lot of different themes with bullying, racism and religious tolerance. What’s the message with those themes?
Abdul-Jabbar: The whole idea in writing a children’s book is outlining some of the choices they’ll probably be confronted with. In the book, I try to explain how and why they should make the good choices. It’s about Theo figuring out what the good choices are. He listens to his dad. His mom is dead. So he and his dad are closer for that reason. I explain how they’re affected by the various circumstances they’re in than their peer and the choices that they make.
I know obviously you majored in English and history at UCLA, but what is it about writing that has appealed to you over the years?
Abdul-Jabbar: You’re able to share your thoughts and your opinions and to share things. I think it’s the most effective way of communicating. We speak words, but they float away out of the air. Written words, you can go back and check them again.
When you look at all your books both the ones written for adults and children, there’s always elements of history in them. What’s your overall hope and message with that?
Abdul-Jabbar: Just that if we don’t understand the world, then we’re condemned to repeating it. That doesn’t always work out well that way. I’m just trying to give books that have breadth and depth to it. Hopefully people who read my books will learn a few things.
I’m hopeful that my books will give them an idea that they’re not as limited as they think. Just look at how many companies that need engineers of all stripes – mechanical, electric, computer engineers, construction engineers, chemical engineers. You can go on and on and on. So many kids don’t get it. Hopefully by pointing these things out, they can see how to figure things out and the perspective on how to live their way and support themselves into doing things in meaningful ways. They can help their families and children through education.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org