Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Book Signing, NYC, May 16, 2017

Okay, so, I got a little bit distracted over the last couple of weeks or so. I meant to write this particular blog entry as a review of the recent talk and booksigning event by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in New York City earlier in May. But the next day, I wound up working both of my jobs and being utterly exhausted - too exhausted to write this. And then, on the 18th, Chris Cornell's suicide shocked me, and I found myself trying to come to terms with the loss of such a brilliant musician.
However, I have gotten back to normal blog entries over the last few days, and it just occurred to me that I never did return to this one and finish it. So, here is the remedy, as I write this in retrospect. Hopefully, me memory serves me well, but we shall see. Here goes:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should probably be more of an icon than he apparently is. I went to New York after a surprising day off from my day job, as I was not called in. Truth be told, I was not going to go in anyway if called, because this event just looked too cool! But this was also in New York City, and the wristbands were being handed out at 9am. I get out of work at 7am, and then had to drive out to Newark to take the PATH train, and after the traffic, then parking, and then waiting for the train, and the actual ride, I figured the earliest that I might get there would be around 8:30am. As it turned out, it was closer to 9am, and surely, there would be a massive line, the wristbands would all have been handed out, and it would all have been for naught.
Except that upon arriving, it was virtually empty. There was a line of maybe ten people there. Perhaps it was a bit early for people to arrive at 9am for an event that would actually take place 10 hours later! Whichever way, it was a pleasant surprise, and I gladly went in, bought the book, and got my wristband.
The annoying thing was that now, I would have to go all the way back home in New Jersey, get a few hours of sleep, and then go back to the city for the actual event, before going back to work that night. It would be long, and it would surely be tiring - very tiring!
Still, I figured it would be worth it. I remember Abdul-Jabbar during his later playing days, although truth be told, the Los Angels Lakers may very well be my least favorite sports team of all (it's either between them, or football's San Francisco 49ers). But you cannot deny how great he was - he's the leading scorer in NBA history! He played more games than anyone else in NBA history, took and made more shots, blocked more shots, and won more games than any other player in league history! His famous skyhook shot was basically indefensible. He was voted league MVP a record six times, more than any other player. He won six NBA titles, and was the MVP for two of those series. No less authorities of the NBA as Pat Riley, "Dr. J" Julius Irving, and Isaah Thomas consider him the greatest basketball player of all time!

Working under the assumption that there would surely be a mass of people attending, I arrived early, wanting to secure my spot. It was maybe two hours before the scheduled start time, although as it turns out, I need not have bothered. The place remained surprisingly empty even half an hour before the event, although it filled up in the final minutes, ultimately.

Sometimes, when you attend a public event like this, you hear people clapping well before you ever spot the star of the evening. You look and crane you head, looking in the direction that everyone else is looking, but you cannot see anything. That was most certainly not the problem this time around, as Abdul-Jabbar towered over everyone, and could be clearly seen from a distance. When he finally made his way up to the stage, where seats were arranged for his conversation with the legendary great manager of the famed New York Yankees, Joe Torre.

It was a very interesting conversation. As the book is about the friendship between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his former coach, the late, great John Wooden. Abdul-Jabbar mentioned his own upbringing right here in New York City, and spoke of how hooked he was when he saw the sun and the greenery of the southern California college campus at UCLA. He recalled that Coach Wooden barely spoke of basketball during their first meeting, and emphasized the significance of strong academics, which left an impression on the young basketball phenom. When Wooden came to New York to meet his parents, Abdul-Jabbar remembered his mother sending him to his room, as if he were a small child, while the adults talked. They had been skeptical of their son's desire to live across the country, so far away. After the meeting, however, they gave their blessings, convinced that Wooden was more than just a good basketball coach who would be using their son, but a good man who had their son's best interests truly at heart.

Of course, that was also a time of great turbulence in this nation's history, particularly in terms of racial tensions. Abdul-Jabbar remember just walking around in Harlem, and seeing and hearing legendary figures like Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr.. He also remembered riots breaking out, and how once, he had to run for his life, and hear bullets flying quite close to his head. His height, which has served him well throughout his life now, was almost his undoing on that night.

He remembered one time when one woman asked Coach Wooden, "How tall is that nigger?" Abdul-Jabbar overheard it, and according to him, Wooden seemed uncomfortable and embarrassed for the duration of the day. Those were days of much more overt racism, of course.

There was another time that the players began to start talking about their religion. Abdul-Jabbar had converted to Islam, and had changed his name. He and other players were having a frank discussion on their religious views, and he remembered that Coach Wooden engaged in this conversation. He did not shirk the issue, or try to press his opinion or expertise on anyone else. But rather, he listened, and allowed the conversation to take on a life of it's own - something that Abdul-Jabbar appreciates greatly in retrospect.

Obviously, Abdul-Jabbar enjoyed a great college career, before going off to the NBA and also have a great, even legendary, career there, too.

However, he and Wood remained friends afterward. In fact, their friendship blossomed into something special, and as he grew older, Abdul-Jabbar began to realize just how important and influential this friendship was for him. They were very different personalities, with Wooden coming from a typical, Midwestern upbringing. Abdul-Jabbar said that he liked Wooden's Midwestern twang upon first meeting him. Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar was a cocky, albeit largely quiet, kid seemingly born to play basketball.

They remained friends for many years, with Wooden always offering his advice and friendship throughout Abdul-Jabbar's professional career and beyond. Some of Abdul-Jabbar's favorite memories with Wooden were simply just going to his home and watching hours of Westerns, which they both enjoyed together.

It was an interesting discussion, and Joe Torre was a good choice to sit opposite of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for it. I am not a baseball fan, much less a Yankee fan. In fact, as much as I like baseball at all, it has almost reached the point for me of being anybody but the Yankees. It's just that their fans are incredibly obnoxious, with that same arrogance and sense of entitlement as Cowboys fans in football, or Lakers fans in basketball.

However, Torre always seemed to me a bit more thoughtful and likable, as far as managers are concerned. He always seemed to hold himself with a certain level of dignity, and showed class regardless of whether he was on the winning or losing side. He impressed upon me that he is much more than the stereotypical jock type, who chews gum or tobacco and only talks about his sports, because that is all that he can talk about. There are some coaches and managers who seem like that, where if the discussion veers away from their field of intense interest, then there is not much there. But there are others, like Marv Levy, or Phil Jackson, or Joe Torre, where you really get the impression that they have a lot more to say, and a lot more that they are capable of discussing.

Frankly, that same point is true of professional athletes, as well. Some seem incapable of talking about anything but their particular sport, and their desire to win. Then, there are others who appear to be more thoughtful and intelligent, and who seem fully capable of expressing themselves in numerous other topics. Kareem always seemed like one of those more intelligent and well-rounded athletes, to me. That was always my impression, and never so much as the last couple of years, when I have read some articles by him about what is going on in the United States today, as well as a letter in support of Bernie Sanders last year, which may even have been the topic of a blog entry at some point. Plus, the parts of this book that I have read thus far have been impressive.

After the discussion, I was close to the front, and so wound up being one of the first to get my picture taken with Kareem, which allowed me to catch up with Joe Torre, who was pretty swamped with people wanting to take selfies. Usually, I am not one much for selfies, or even for approaching well-known people, but for once, decided to go ahead and ask him for both an autograph and a picture. Both came out pretty nicely. He signed Kareem's book, even though he obviously had nothing to do with it. But since he was part of the discussion, and there was nothing else for him to sign, it seemed right to me to have him sign that, as the opportunity presented itself.

It was a very nice, pleasant night, and I am thankful for having gotten the chance to be there. Here are some pictures from the event, which illustrates just how tall Abdul-Jabar is!

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