kareem abdul-jabbar_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the best basketball player ever, is on a mission: to spread the word about a little known 1930s basketball team that excelled against all odds but gained little recognition.

The Harlem Renaissance Big Five, more commonly known as the Harlem Rens, of his home state of New York, faced pervasive racism, were prohibited from staying in most hotels and from eating in many restaurants.  They were never recognized by the sports establishment, which was white, despite winning more than 2,000 games and  the first world championship.

So passionate is Abdul-Jabbar about his mission that he co-wrote and became executive producer of a documentary on the team, On the Shoulders of Giants.

“I’m very happy to announce that I’ll be taking this film to Jerusalem to the 28th Annual Jerusalem Film Festival and I hope to get some awards or bring more attention to this effort of mine,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a recent interview.

The basketball great was in West Palm Beach on April 7 for an engagement at Trump International Golf Club.

On the Shoulders of Giants is narrated by Jamie Foxx and features appearances by poet Maya Angelou, basketball star Carmelo Anthony, Former NBA player Charles Barkley, actor Samuel L. Jackson, filmmaker Spike Lee, historian and scholar Cornel West, Coach John Wooten and many other NBA greats.  More information on the film is available at kareemabduljabbar.com.
Billy Thompson, one of Abdul-Jabbar’s former Los Angeles Lakers teammates, now senior pastor of Jesus People Proclaim International Ministries in Boca Raton said he is not surprised that he is promoting the film and its message.

Abdul-Jabbar has always been a unique blend of athletic greatness and intellectual genius and very concerned about social issues.

Thompson, who was a rookie assigned to Abdul-Jabbar on the Lakers team, recalls fond memories of him joking around in the locker room, wrestling with him and having lots of fun – a side that few people ever see. But he also recalls Abdul-Jabbar setting the record straight in many serious conversations about slavery and other social issues of the day.  “He was always a deep thinker. Whenever he spoke, he really had something important and substantial to say,” Thompson said.

Chad Tendrich, who co-chairs the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach’s “Men’s Nite Out” that brought Abdul-Jabbar to town, described him as among the best speakers at the popular event.

“We’ve had a lot of great speakers but he is the deepest speaker we’ve ever had,” Tendrich said prior to Abdul-Jabbar taking the stage.  “He’s got more depth than anyone we’ve ever had. He’s not just an athlete but a philanthropist, a historian and author. You can’t escape the black-Jewish relationship and the black-Muslim relationship – and all those things together make him the most compelling speaker by far.”

In the interview, Abdul-Jabbar said he believes college athletes are exploited by colleges and universities and should be paid. He does not believe in the “One and Done” rule which requires college athletes to play one year of college athletics before being allowed to turn professional. That doesn’t bode well for the athlete or the university or even the pro teams, he argues.

He believes also that many athletes do not use the platform given to them as professionals because they do not understand their full potential. Many believe their value to the world is found only in their athletic skill and prowess, he said.

The Basketball Hall of Famer said he has had many great moments during his 20-year professional career, including being named the NBA MVP six times, and a 19-time All-Star, winning six championships. But for him his greatest moment came in 1985 when the Lakers beat the Celtics for the championship – after losing to their rivals eight consecutive times.

Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia several years ago and he said the illness forced him to look inward and realize what is truly important in life.

“When you come down with cancer, such as the leukemia that I have, you really have to reorganize yourself, figure out what your priorities are and you have to have the courage and the determination to fight the illness and hopefully win out,” he said.

When he first learned he had cancer, he believed the diagnosis was a death sentence, he said. But the cancer is now in remission and he continues to focus on endeavors that are important to him, such as his documentary and his Skyhook Foundation, which teaches low-income youth the benefits of sports along with education.

About 300 guests, mostly men, attended Men’s Nite Out, paying $200 per person, in addition to a $150 donation to the Jewish Federation’s Campaign 2011. Some guests paid $5,000 per person to attend a private reception with Abdul-Jabbar before the main event.

Pink Trousdale and Ashley Ward, philanthropists from West Palm Beach, were among the handful of women present to hear him speak. They frequently attend charity functions, though Ward, originally from West Africa, said she is more into soccer and had never heard of Abdul-Jabbar until the day of the event. She came to believe in his cause.

“I’m always looking to support any charity I can,” said Ward.

Daphne Taylor may be reached at daphnetaylor_49@hotmail.com.