Writing on the Wall by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld; Liberty Street/Time, 242 pages, $27.95. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in the NBA, he scored a total of 38,387 points, a record which the NBA encyclopedia expects will never be equaled. He also had 17,440 rebounds, 3,189 blocked shots and managed to score in double figures in a mind-boggling 787 straight games. His Laker coach Pat Riley was wont to call Kareem “the greatest player ever.”
But no one can play professional basketball forever – not even Kareem. What he has done in the past few years off the court seems to me every bit as astonishing as what he did all those years on the court: he has turned into one of the great columnists, and political and media journalists of our time for the Washington Post and especially Time magazine. It is unprecedented in American sports for a towering athletic giant (in professional stature, not physical size) to then set up shop as a brilliant, ever-amazing analyst of political and intellectual life.
What we have in this book are the results of Time magazine, the Post and other outlets discovering that one of the Rushmore figures of his sport in our era is one of the most brilliant and persuasive commentators we have. “Searching for new equality beyond black and white” is the subtitle of this first collection of Kareem’s work in his unprecedented new role. In his introduction, he tells us about his answer to the commonplace question of what he’d want to be if he’d hadn’t played ball. “A history teacher” he always answers – not because he could “amaze kids with cool historical trivia” like the names that George Washington would give the dogs he bred – “True Love” and “Sweet Lips.” But rather, says Kareem, he’d want history “to distill the wisdom of thousands of years of human endeavor into practical lessons” about humanity’s present, where our “political and social turmoil” reveals “we need all the help we can get.” He’s better at providing it than most. About women, for instance, he says the major question isn’t Freud’s “what does a woman want?” but rather “why are so many people – including other women – determined to keep them from having what they want?” This is clarity from on high. – Jeff Simon