Newsboys on LA’s Central Avenue, 1939

One Sunday afternoon in March 1989 my brother and I attended Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final game in Houston against the Rockets. That was now more than three decades ago and my memories are naturally fuzzy, but as I recall I don’t think we knew when we bought the tickets that it would be the great center’s final game in Space City. Before the game they had the typical ceremony where the aging soon-to-be-hall of famer receives accolades and usually some cheesy gifts. Abdul-Jabbar said a few uncomfortable words and then the game was on. Houston was an important city in Kareem’s career: in the 1980s his Lakers lost twice to the Rockets in the Western Conference playoffs and in January 1968 then-still Lew Alcindor’s #2 ranked UCLA Bruins lost to the #1 ranked Houston Cougars 71-69 in the so-called Game of the Century before a nationally televised audience before tens of thousands in the Astrodome. (In March the Bruins would defeat Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA Finals.)

Abdul-Jabbar has always played a role in my and my brother’s popular culture narrative. Though sports mean less to me than they once did, you could not be a Boston sports fan in the 1980s and not think of Los Angeles Lakers. In retrospect I understand that our infatuation was partly based on our being uprooted from the Northeast and transported to the grim, humid Sunbelt in the 1970s; torn from our roots, we clung as we could to was there, which for us included the Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, and–especially–the Celtics. These were the days before the internet or, for us, even cable television, and we often called the local newspaper in the late evening to ask the final score of this or that game before the next morning’s paper.

Abdul-Jabbar always seemed a shy and reserved man, less comfortable in the spotlight than Earvin Johnson. Magic’s affability and gift of gab probably took a great deal of strain off of the great center, which could only have been a relief. In the mid-90s I was working at a large chain bookstore in Houston when we were planning for some book signing event. That led to a discussion in the break room of previous public figures who had passed through in recent years, usually before my arrival on the job. One of them was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who my co-workers told me left though the backdoor halfway through the signing. If that even happened, who know why? Arrogance? Shyness? Social anxiety? Condescension? People are complicated.

A thoughtful and insightful individual, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has kept busy writing books and articles for much of the past thirty years. He recently wrote this fascinating story about Black Los Angeles for the LA Times. It especially covers the LA jazz scene, something that the retired basketball player turned writer knows more than a little about. Lew Alcindor grew up in Harlem and his father both a NYC transit cop and Julliard-trained musician who knew and played with most of the greats of the mid-twentieth century. Do check it out.

(image/photographer, Fred William Carter; Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)