JULY 25, 2017
BASKETBALL HAS ALWAYS, for me, transcended the idea of sport. Since I was a kid, it’s been a means of bonding on suburban courts, a window into black lives, a stage on which astonishing physical feats were transformed into moments of transcendent beauty. It was a perfect escape from homework, and then real work, and through immersion in it now it’s a means to postpone contemplation of anything unpleasant. I played until I was in my 40s, introduced the game to my children, coached my daughter’s teams, read blogs about it, and attended, and still attend, NBA games. Growing up in New York, I listened to a young Marv Albert broadcast West Coast Knicks games with a transistor radio tucked under my pillow while my parents thought I was sleeping. My teammates and I learned what cool meant from watching the grace with which old-school players like Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe moved, later trying to replicate the court magic they conjured. Because players like Frazier and Monroe were our size, or near it, imitating them seemed within the realm of possibility.
But back in the era of Shaft, Parliament-Funkadelic, and headlines like “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar cut a singular figure. Astonishing height and unsurpassed physical refinement combined to produce something inimitable. His skyhook was like Johnny Hartman’s voice; you could try it at home but there was something about the physics of the thing that was otherworldly. There were other dominant big guys in the National Basketball Association, but Abdul-Jabbar was unique. Unafraid of controversy, aloof, introspective, Muslim for god’s sake, no one showed up for the 1970s quite like he did — seven feet and two inches, clad in a dashiki, big Afro, raining points, training with Bruce Lee, all of it dunking on the United States’s head. Like all great athletes, there was something mythic about him.
Now Abdul-Jabbar has written a terrific new book, Coach Wooden and Me. But here’s the thing: It’s not brooding or aloof or angry or controversial, and it’s not dunking on anyone’s head. It’s tender, melancholy, and made me tear up. It’s also funny and contains a lot of basketball. Last year, I had the good fortune to interview the author/legend for the Los Angeles Review of Books Radio Hour in a cramped room in the back of a Los Angeles bookstore, and he was thoughtful, low-key, and incisive. It was like talking to another writer.
You’re probably thinking, Of course, the man’s written, like, a dozen books, who did you think you were talking to, Dennis Rodman? And you’re right. He’s responsible for a shelf of volumes on subjects as diverse as African-American inventors, the Harlem Renaissance, and World War II. But, and it’s a “but” of major proportions — the man is the leading scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association, having put up 38,387 points over a 20-year career. Consider that accomplishment for a moment. Scoring legends Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, and Shaquille O’Neal all finished their careers thousands of points short. LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant, current reigning NBA monarchs, have all averaged fewer points per year. It’s an iconic achievement, like that of Babe Ruth’s 714 homeruns, one meant for the ages. Someone might break it eventually, but it’s not anyone who’s playing now, unless they manage to play longer than Abdul-Jabbar’s 20 years. He was a perennial All-Star, a six-time NBA champion, and that doesn’t even take his unparalleled college career at UCLA (three national championships) into account. I could go on, but we’d be here all day. This is just to establish a reference point for his world-historic status as an athlete.
Athletes do not often make good writers because what makes them great athletes, their skill set of superb reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and the ability to endure extreme physical and mental strain without the aid of a martini, is not generally associated with producing upward of five hundred words a day. This is where the phenomenon of the “as told to” book comes in. A ballplayer, golfer, tennis heroine “writes” a book by gabbing to an actual writer who renders the words into readable prose. Coach Wooden and Me is no “as told to.” Abdul-Jabbar is an actual writer. And a skillful, accomplished one.
The “Coach Wooden” in the title is John Wooden. His career, like that of his most famous player, is unparalleled. As the head coach of the men’s basketball program at UCLA, he won 10 national titles. No one else has even come close, and like the scoring record of his former charge, it is an achievement that will not be equaled any time soon. And it would appear, to the untutored eye, winning a boatload of basketball games and championships was what the two men had in common. But what the book explores is the overlap of the Venn diagram, where one circle consists of the white, Christian, small-town Indiana-reared coach who preferred to keep his non-basketball opinions private and the other is represented by the Muslim, Harlem-raised, jazz-loving, politically committed player. It’s the story of how much they shared to begin with, and the degree to which this commonality grew over the nearly 50 years of their friendship.
They bonded over basketball, of course, but Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, was a bookish kid when he arrived at UCLA — a reader with tastes that included Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Wooden had been a high school English teacher. It was common for him to quote writers like Kipling, Shakespeare, and … Langston Hughes. This got the young player’s attention, and he was immediately taken with the coach’s cerebral approach to the game.
And yet in that era, like this one, race hangs over everything. Abdul-Jabbar is gentle in his admonishment: “When it came to racism, I thought Coach Wooden had a good heart, but he was on the sidelines of this game.” He writes of the race-baiting he faced at away games and in encounters with individuals at home. Though the stories have a familiar ring, they are no less horrifying, and the old coach — a taskmaster on the court, but at heart a humanist — acts as a buffer between the sensitive young player and the corrosive world. Abdul-Jabbar tells a story of an off-handed racist comment by an older white woman while in the coach’s presence. Wooden does not react in the moment, but later says, “Don’t let ignorant people prompt an ignorant response from you.” Abdul-Jabbar, rather than being disappointed in his coach, writes, “I could see it was eating him up. I didn’t want that. I could see that he was a good man, and I was touched that this incident was tearing him up so much inside.” Abdul-Jabbar’s ability to sympathize with this coach at this juncture is impressive, given the degree to which American society was riven by these issues at the time. The player was at least as much a humanist as the coach, and it is this deeply felt humanism that veins the book.
Coach Wooden was a devout Christian. Abdul-Jabbar was raised Catholic, but he converted to Islam while at UCLA. Abdul-Jabbar informs his coach and teammates of his recent conversion on a team bus ride when a religious colloquy breaks out among the players. “I glanced over at [Wooden] a few times to see if I could gauge his reaction about my announcement, but all I saw was a wide smile of joy, not at me, but at the team. His boys weren’t just basketball players, they were the mature, respectful gentlemen he wanted us to be.”
That his observation reads as a sentiment derived from the cornfields (literally and figuratively) doesn’t vitiate its power, and it’s one of the pleasures of the book to see the synthesis of the coach’s “corny” with the player’s cool.
While Wooden can sometimes come off as a too-good-to-be-true storybook father figure, there are enough accounts of his saltiness to keep it from being hagiography. The coach winks at an instance of violent in-game retaliation on the part of one of his players, did not embrace social change fast enough, and voted to ban the dunk in college basketball. This last affront was a slap in the face to his star player. “The game is about teamwork,” the coach explains. “The dunk is about embarrassing your opponent.” They never agreed on that one.
Abdul-Jabbar writes of their familiar triumphs but does not dwell on them. He has internalized the words of Kipling’s “If,” a favorite poem of the coach, one they discussed early in their relationship, especially the notion that one should “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” That Kipling was a colonialist (and many would say racist) whose legacy is controversial, of which the author is surely aware, does not enter into the equation. Abdul-Jabbar recognizes the irreducible complexity of things. Although a deeply political man, his subject here is the human heart.
In the book’s final section, Abdul-Jabbar writes movingly of the losses each man suffered and how the darker things became, the more strength and solace they drew from one another. Of his final visit with Wooden in the hospital, Abdul-Jabbar writes:
I had become the man he’d wanted me to be. I had followed my path, which is all he’d ever encouraged me to do. I had raised my children to be kind and compassionate. I had fought for justice whenever I saw injustice. I had lived one of his golden rules: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is what others think you are.”
Abdul-Jabbar has always been an avatar of cool, and yet his values remain Victorian in the best sense of the word. (Not for nothing was his last book a novel about Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft.) He and his coach met in the place where the verities of friendship, mutual respect, and kindness hold sway. His themes remain timeless and yet, in these cruel and corrupt days we currently endure, they could not be more relevant.