I had arrived at the hotel room of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar one day last spring eager to talk to him about basketball and whatever else was on his mind, but when the door opened and he invited me in, I found myself startled and slightly unnerved by his tremendous size. I was accustomed to seeing Abdul-Jabbar in vast arenas or in the company of other very large men. In the hotel room he seemed to have to slouch just to keep his head from hitting the ceiling, and as we talked it occurred to me that when you are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you live in a world defined by walls. For the remainder of our interview I could not make the thought of that claustrophobia go away.
The same feeling returned as I read Giant Steps (Bantam, $14.95), Abdul-Jabbar's remarkable autobiography written with Peter Knobler. It's a book that covers a lot of ground in telling of Abdul-Jabbar's growth intellectually and spiritually, and yet that growth is described from so narrow a point of view that his journey seems to have been made through a long tunnel.
For all but the last couple of his 15 NBA seasons, Abdul-Jabbar has protected himself with a formidable wall of indifference or hostility toward the public and press, and that icy remove has puzzled a lot of people and turned many of them against him. If the book serves no other purpose—which, happily, isn't the case—it does show how the wall went up, brick by brick and trauma by trauma.
Growing up in Harlem as Lew Alcindor, he was the fairly happy, only child of a stern father and a mother who was determined that her son get a good Catholic education. He's insightful in describing parochial schools and some of the nuns. "They had the word of God," he says, "and you were going to learn how to spell it." It's clear he never got over his parents' decision to uproot him from an integrated school and pack him off to an all-black Catholic boarding school when he was in the fourth grade.
That was only the first of many critical decisions in Abdul-Jabbar's life that, in effect, were made for him by others. When he graduated from UCLA, he wound up playing for the Milwaukee Bucks rather than the New York Nets—an ABA team near his home, where he wanted to play—because he had agreed to a proposal by advisers Sam Gilbert and Ralph Shapiro to let the two leagues enter into a blind bid for rights to him. When he was torn between marrying one of two women, he allowed Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis, his Muslim mentor, to all but choose his wife for him; she was not the one he really loved. Abdul-Jabbar may be a keen observer of life as it churns along below him, but he's easily bored. During his final two years at Power Memorial High his team lost one game, but he remembers basketball then as drudgery, marking time until college. Yet he was so quickly tired of UCLA that he dismisses his senior season there—during which the Bruins won their third consecutive NCAA championship—in less than a paragraph.
Some readers no doubt will be offended that Abdul-Jabbar seems to find white racism everywhere, while at the same time insisting his own feelings of racial hatred ("...when a whole lot of white people died in a tragedy—say a fire or a plane crash—I'd be happy," he writes) are behind him. He had his reasons to hate. When he was a junior in high school, his coach, a white man named Jack Donohue, whom he had respected, tried to motivate him during halftime by telling him he was playing "like a nigger." Abdul-Jabbar also paints a fairly dismal picture of the racism in pro basketball, and he backs up every charge with examples.
At one point Abdul-Jabbar describes sportswriters as "scurrying around like cockroaches after crumbs..." and some of them may have proved his point by making headline news out of his discussion of the fact that he has tried marijuana, cocaine, LSD and heroin. The most revealing of the passages about his drug use was the first one, in which he describes spending considerable time at the library researching marijuana before he smoked his first joint.
Giant Steps is an intelligent, thoughtful autobiography by a man who has chosen—until now—to be misunderstood. For all the people who have asked Abdul-Jabbar, "How's the weather up there?" the answer given in this book is a very definite stormy but clearing.