GIANT STEPS by Kareem & Peter Knobler Abdul-Jabbar
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The candid, earnest, low-key memoirs of basketball great Abdul-Jabbar--offering more style and substance than most star-athlete autobiographies, with serious close-ups of his problematic, shifting political/religious allegiances. Growing up in middle-class Inwood (Manhattan) in the 1950s, Kareem's name was Lew Alcindor; his ambitious parents were Catholic; his remote father was a transit cop, a voracious reader and gifted musician; his mother was protective. So Lew, hugely tall but thin and meek (""I used to get my ass handed to me on a regular basis""), was a good student at Catholic schools, eventually becoming the All-American star at Power Memorial Academy--devoted to his white coach there, catching the eye of flashy, jovial celebrity Wilt Chamberlain (who lent him jazz records). But, though still ""a very good little boy"" at 17, Lew started to break out of his mother's stranglehold in the early 1960s--experimenting with drugs at UCLA (where he led the virtually undefeated basketball team), abandoning Catholicism. Moreover, infuriated by white racism (Southern violence, his high-school coach's ""nigger""), he became a racist himself, consumed with anger: though liking individual whites, ""the race as a whole could die tomorrow as far as I was concerned."" Then, however, largely inspired by The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Lew began studying Islam in the late 1960s--finding a devout mentor, changing his name, marrying his mentor's choice of a bride (a mistake), ridding himself of racism and anti-Semitism. And meanwhile his pro career soared in the NBA--despite problems with the press (""continually dwelling on the negative,"" preferring white star-center Bill Walton) and feelings of unjust treatment: ""What I've had to contend with for as long as I've played the sport is my opponents' constant attempt to physically punish me and the referees' equally consistent refusal to permit the rules to protect me."" (Which is why he lost his temper and ""kicked the shit out of Kent Benson."") Abdul-Jabbar isn't always persuasive in his protests against persecution. But he honestly grapples with the imperfections in his embrace of Islam--including the relationship with his increasingly fanatic mentor, who became unhinged after his family was massacred by Black Muslim assassins. And he writes vividly about life-on-the-road (drugs, etc.), about the dynamics of the game, about such colleagues as Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson (who, along with a new love, has helped to mellow Kareem), and sometime arch-rival Chamberlain. (""I play to win at all times--but never to show him up. . . I always liked him, just hated his politics."") With gentle touches of humor and just the right balance between off-court/on-court concerns: a high-scoring sports memoir all around, thoughtful rather than dramatic or flashy.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Bantam