Saturday, June 4, 2016

He Got Game: The film career of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The Athletes in Film Blogathon is this year's WSW event, co-hosted by the fabulous Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Go to her blog and check out the list of participants for the first half of the blogathon, then come back here tomorrow for the second half!

If you were a basketball fan in the 80s, like I was, you probably remember well the brilliance of the Los Angeles Lakers. It was quite thrilling to watch them go through the playoffs year after year, and even though the Knicks held my main loyalty, I liked rooting for the Lakers, especially when they went up against their great rivals, the Boston Celtics. Magic Johnson was the face of the team during those championship years and an undisputed megastar, but there was another who was pivotal to the team's success - someone who'd been a superstar in his own right long before he put on the purple and gold of the Lakers.

The numbers tell the story of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and they speak volumes: 19-time All-Star; six-time MVP; member of six NBA championship teams, five with the Lakers and one with his previous team, the Milwaukee Bucks; two-time NBA Finals MVP; and still the NBA leader in points scored. Over the years, he parlayed his success on the basketball court into other avenues: he is the author of a number of books on a wide variety of subjects, and he was named a cultural ambassador for the US by Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a Los Angeles Laker
KAJ also had a nice run of film and television roles, and not just as himself. His professional acting debut was on the TV detective show Mannix, in 1971. He played the missing son of a businessman, who hires Mannix to look for him. KAJ's character was a student at UCLA, the same school KAJ attended. As a Bruin, he was part of three consecutive collegiate championships back when he was still Lew Alcindor.

During his college years, he met someone who would become an influential figure in his life: martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. Under him, KAJ studied Jeet Kune Do. He described their relationship in a 2002 Lawrence Journal-World article:
We were friends. I trained with him. We hung out. We talked philosophy. He learned about different issues having to do with the civil rights movement, which he didn't know much about. He didn't really understand the background of it. He understood that blacks had a lot in terms of issues, but he didn't know why. I was able to explain it to him.
KAJ with Bruce Lee in Game of Death
It was Lee who encouraged KAJ to make his film debut in what would have been The Game of Death. Lee, however, died in 1973 of cerebral edema while making the film. Although over 100 minutes of footage was shot before he died, only eleven minutes and change was used in the 1978 revision, which was stitched together using stunt doubles and footage from other Lee films.

KAJ played one of several villains Lee must face within different levels of a pagoda. In an interview with the site Jeet Kune Do Library, he talked about working with Lee:
...I was not nervous but I did feel the pressure to perform - acting wise. We were making money and had to make it work. Since I had no lines we managed a good scene. It was my first full-length movie.... I thought Bruce was a superb actor. He had been acting since he was a child. His father was in the Cantonese Opera and that is how Bruce was born in San Francisco and that is also how he got into show business.
KAJ in Airplane!
In 1980, KAJ appeared in one of the greatest comedic films of all time, Airplane! The directing and writing triumvirate of David & Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams made this film partly as a homage to similar airplane-related disaster films. The casting of KAJ was meant to recall the film Zero Hour, which also featured a professional athlete as a pilot, football star Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. Reportedly, they originally wanted baseball star Pete Rose, but he was unavailable, so they went with KAJ. He's not the most convincing actor, but he fulfills his role adequately, especially in this scene where he unexpectedly breaks character.

KAJ went on to appear in a variety of TV shows and films while playing in LA and after his retirement, whether as himself in movies like Fletch and Forget Paris, or in fictitious roles in shows like Diff'rent Strokes, 21 Jump Street and Saved By the Bell. He also got into producing, beginning in 1989 with an all-star special devoted to him, followed in 1994 with a James Earl Jones movie called The Vernon Johns Story.

KAJ today
In 2011, KAJ produced a documentary, On the Shoulders of Giants, about a pioneering all-black basketball team, the Harlem Rens (aka the New York Renaissance), that dominated their opponents, including all-white teams, for three decades during the early 20th century, and helped pave the way for integration in the NBA. The Rens were originally the subject of a 2007 book of the same name written by KAJ, and the film version includes interviews with basketball stars and other noteworthy figures, including Reverend Al Sharpton, Maya Angelou, Cornel West and Spike Lee. This article goes into further depth and includes video footage of KAJ talking about the film.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's basketball feats are the stuff of legend, but when added to his accomplishments outside the sporting world, he has become a true renaissance man, and an inspiration to many.

Films with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:
Game of Death


  1. Such an interesting and admirable man of great accomplishment. I am the lone non-basketball fan among my sisters, but his statue in his sport is known even to me.

    1. I imagine it's known to a lot of people, Kareem was a dominant force in basketball for many years.

  2. Great post, Rich! I was a fan of KAJ when he was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr. Loved watching him play basketball and admire him as actor, best-selling author and cultural critic. Thanks for your kind comments about my Brian's Song post.

  3. Wish I could've seen him in his UCLA days. Three titles in a row is an amazing feat for a college team.

  4. Thanks for recommending the documentary On the Shoulders of Giants. Sounds really interesting!

    I knew basically nothing about KAJ before reading your excellent post, other than his role in Airplane. I had no idea he was named U.S. cultural ambassador, or that he was a prolific author. You've certainly expanded my horizons today! :)

  5. If it helps, I didn't know some of this stuff either!

  6. I first saw Kareem in Airplane! He wasn't the best, as you said, but was convincing in his character.
    Your post taught me a lot. I didn't know, for example, that KAJ and Bruce Lee met and hanged out together. That's very cool.
    Thanks for hosting this fun event!


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