On a rainy Friday night at Diesel, a bookstore in the Rockridge section of Oakland, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar signed copies of “On the Shoulders of Giants,” his new book, which is about the Harlem Renaissance and its impact on him, personally (Simon & Schuster, $26). Purchasers had been given yellow cards with numbers specifying their place in line. By the time the author arrived, card #180 had been issued and the line snaked through the aisles like a stationary conga dance. Number 33 was a young African-American woman who had become engrossed in the book while waiting. She told your correspondent that 33 had been Kareem’s number and she was hoping he would sign her yellow card. I had brought a book of my own to give him (“Ethno-Botany of the Black Americans” by William Ed Grimé), and some copies of O’Shaughnessy’s, the pro-cannabis doctors’ journal, in an envelope. Abdul-Jabbar is a migraine sufferer who has acknowledged having a doctor’s approval to medicate with cannabis but has been arrested twice for possession.
Abdul-Jabbar was seated behind a table, pen in hand. He glanced at Grimé’s book with interest, said thanks, and passed it to a woman standing alongside the table. I gave her the envelope, too. She said, ominously, “We’ll review the packages.” She was Kareem’s manager and her card said, “Iconomy (Merging Icons with Economics).” I wonder if she’ll deem O’Shaughnessy’s worthy of being passed on to her client; or too risky, image-wise. Abdul-Jabbar, who is on the staff of the Los Angeles Lakers, reportedly aspires to be a head coach in the National Basketball Association.
In “On the Shoulders of Giants” Abdul-Jabbar (with co-author Raymond Obstfeld) recounts how a few square miles in northern Manhattan became the cultural capital of Black America in the 1920s and ’30s (while extortionate rents were creating slum conditions). Abdul-Jabbar’s definition of the Harlem Renaissance is expansive enough to include not just its famous intellectuals -Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, et al- but Marcus Garvey, the charismatic advocate of a return to Africa who had a mass following. “It was the renaissance atmosphere in Harlem that gave him the inspiration and platform to launch his Universal Negro Improvement Association,” Abdul-Jabbar explains. The classy intellectuals promoting the image of a “new Negro” despised Garvey. “In an article in [the NAACP journal] ‘the Crisis’ entitled ‘Lunatic or Traitor,’ Du Bois called Garvey ‘the most dangerous threat to the Negro race.'” Garvey called the NAACP “the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People.” Abdul-Jabbar does not play favorites in describing this old but still relevant class split. “On the Shoulders of Giants” treats all its protagonists with understanding, respect and insight.
Music and basketball flourished in the Harlem renaissance. Abdul-Jabbar grew up steeped in the former -his father was a Juilliard-trained musician who made a living as a transit cop and played in jam sessions with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. Whereas the famous Cotton Club (owned by gangster Owney Madden) admitted only white patrons, the black-owned Renaissance Casino and Ballroom on West 138th St. served the real Harlem. The Crisis held its awards dinners there, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other unions held meetings there, “patrons danced to the jazz licks of the house band fronted by Vernon Andrade, as well as other renowned musicians and entertainers And the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom had one other thing the Cotton Club didn’t have: an all-black championship basketball team, the Rens. Between band sets, the dance floor would be cleared and the Rens would play basketball to the enthusiastic cheers of the patrons. When the game was over, the hoops would be stored away and the dancing would continue, sometimes with team members joining customers on the dance floor.”
When Abdul-Jabbar first learned about the Rens as a high school student, a passionate interest was aroused. He has researched their history and in this book lays it out in the detail it warrants. In 1939 the Rens defeated the Oshkosh All-Stars in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, a 12-team event that included two black teams (the Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters). Abdul-Jabbar observes that white teams had “more formal and scientific” coaching but were constrained from improvising. “Like some of the jazz musicians who had been denied formal training or forbidden to perform with whites,” black basketball players “developed a style all their own.” Julius Erving is quoted: “Soon the white player began to emulate these thoughts and moves and eventually the game became what it is today -a stage where a unique combination of the team concept and individual expression is presented in pure form.”
I don’t know when Dr. J made that idealistic comment, but today the game has taken on a desperate, gladiatorial edge and players routinely suffer severe injury as a result. Off the top, the Warriors are without Michael Pietrus, Baron Davis, Jason Richardson. Michael Redd is out for the Bucks, Bobby Simmons will miss the whole season, ditto Darius Miles and Kenyon Martin. Yao Ming is out for the Rockets. Paul Gasol missed the start of the season. Shaquille O’Neal, Rashard Lewis, Chris Paul, David West, and Paul Pierce are just off the injured list. The Nets are without Richard Jefferson and Nenand Kristic, the Nuggets without Iverson, Sean May is out Aren’t sports supposed to be the apotheosis of health and well being? Not in this culture, obviously.
Outside the bookstore I asked lovely young #33 if she’d gotten Kareem’s autograph on her yellow card. She said she couldn’t bring herself to ask him. “I got too shy”
Tyrus Tucker’s Crime
I drifted into the bar next to Diesel, George & Walt’s, a pleasant, spacious place with Sierra Nevada on tap. The regulars are about as well-integrated and sports-oriented as the crowd that had come to catch Kareem. The Warriors were playing the Bulls on three screens. Because the game was on national TV, Jim Barnett -whose commentary has been an oasis sustaining and refreshing Warriors fans through all our years in the desert- was not announcing. We were subjected to the wit and wisdom of Tom Tolbert, who seemed to have a serious edge when he came on the scene but now, after years of radio banter with Ralph Barbieri, is a master of the cliché and a promoter of whatever corporate line he’s handed to read.
No sooner did Bulls rookie Tyrus Thomas make a bucket than Tolbert was denouncing him -and praising the owners of the Bulls for fining Thomas $10,000- for the crime of telling a reporter that his motive for participating in the NBA’s slam dunk contest was financial. “I’m just going to go out there, get my check and call it a day,” Thomas had told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
Since when did it become a crime for an American to say he’s working for the paycheck? If the slam-dunk contest didn’t mean that much to Tyrus Thomas, if he’d rather spend “all star weekend” at home with friends and family, doesn’t he have the right to say so? What if he simply wanted to spare himself the gratuitous wear on his knees? Some of those midair contortions require landings that make a man with a repaired ACL wince in empathy. The cult of the acrobatic dunk has to be a factor in the level of injuries -along with the refs rewarding defenders who “plant” themselves in the path of players who couldn’t possibly stop to avoid the charging call.
The NBA team owners are so lordly they can insist that their employees smile and pretend that it’s all fun and games. By fining Tyrus Thomas they send an instruction to all workers everywhere: you will be punished if you don’t advance the company interests with every waking breath. NBA players don’t have freedom of speech, so why should you? NBA players don’t have the right to medicate with marijuana, why should you? Emulate their compliance -that’s the real meaning of “role model.” Fans are also encouraged to envy the pro athletes’ salaries (which, in this exceptional instance, actually do reflect talent and skill), and to pretend that they own and can trade them.
“Ethno-Botany of the Black Americans” depicts and lists plants introduced and used by the slaves -among them okra, peanut, akee, cannabis, African oil palm, black-eyed peas, certain types of yam and broad beans- along with the uses to which they were put -“Medicinal,” “Household,” “Food,” etc. The purpose to which cannabis was put, according to Grimé, was “Relaxation.”
PS Upon being told that Abdul-Jabbar was a migraine sufferer, William Courtney, MD, of Elk, said almost reflexively, “Large quantities of leaf or very low grade cannabis as a preventative.”
FRED GARDNER will be opening for The Richmond Kings at the Rockit Room (Formerly the Last Day Saloon), 406 Clement St. in SF, 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18.