Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
This autobiography by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells the story of his childhood and youth and the gradual conversion secretively then openly to Islam. He wrote this book for youth according to the Forward. However, after my reading of it, I would not encourage youth to read it and would barely recommend adults read it. I have outlined the good parts of the book which are far fewer than the many negative aspects of this memoir which are also discussed.
There are good, interesting and motivating parts of this book. Kareem talks about how difficult and unnatural the game of basketball came to him. Kareem is now included in the Top 10 of every list and here at A Sip of Sports the top 3 and my personal Greatest Basketball Player of All Time. It is good for parents of athlete’s and young athletes themselves to understand that regularly sports and skills are not mastered quickly nor magically. It comes through hard work, dedication and some help as Kareem speaks about briefly.
Kareem also makes some important points of not letting just your athletic ability define who you are or how you view yourself. He speaks in this book about his naturally bookish nature and constant desire to learn. A good lesson of balance all can learn from.
The best parts were his relationship with Wilt Chamberlain in his youth. He speaks of meeting Chamberlain while Chamberlain was playing pick-up ball in the New York City Area. Chamberlain, in his prime playing in the NBA, had already heard of the high school Lew Alcindor. At their next meeting they played H-O-R-S-E together and Chamberlain advised him to bulk up. It’s fun to think of a young Alcindor learning from the world- great Chamberlain. These are two men that have come to define the history of the sport and yet at one time they were playing H-O-R-S-E in a YMCA together.
The books came off as whiny and a giant pity party of a man that has not lived a life representing any of those things. He begins by complaining about his parents and the way they did not love him enough or in the way he wanted them to love him. Though his parents worked hard, put more emphasis on education than on athletics, raised him in their faith and never abused him physically nor emotionally somehow, he can find few compliments for his mother and no redeeming qualities for his father. He was not raised rich but neither did he ever want. His parents taught him a love of books and music with a great emphasis on being well educated and continual self-improvement. Yet he spends the whole book bitter, resentful and critical of his parents. This harsh view says much more about the son than the parents.
Race is a huge theme in this book but only through taking a victim mentality. Kareem in his youth was faced with relatively little overt racism for a boy raised in the volatile 1960s. He spends much of the time telling the reader how he “perceived racism” or there was a “feeling of inferiority”.
He even talks about the horrific death of Emmett Till who was a teenage boy from the North who went to visit family in the South. Till was falsely accused of flirting with a white woman and was lynched on his trip. The lynchers were protected by the police. This is a tragic story and one that I have no problem him talking about. Yet he tries to compare his own experience of going to North Carolina on a bus to that of Emmett Till. He felt fear and that was equal to Till’s experience, according to Abdul-Jabbar. Though he even admits nothing happened, no one even treated him poorly while he was visiting family in North Carolina.
That is a common theme of his book, if he felt racism that was equal to facts or actions of racism. Which is a terrible thing to teach a rising generation, that their feelings of injustice are the same as actual injustice. They are not the same, they should not be treated the same and people should not go about life caring so much about their feelings than what is actually happening to them. But Kareem spends most of his book complaining about perceived injustices or felt faults of those around him.
There are times when Kareem is treated in a racist fashion. He talks about having the “N” word used on him. Once by a former best friend and he speaks of the betrayal of having his best friend turn on him and use such an ugly word toward him. This was a truly sad part of the book. But to infer that all white people treated him or thought about him this way does not stand up to the facts. He speaks of having friends of all different races throughout his life and though this betrayal was of course hurtful he still had strong and lasting relationships with white kids who never treated him thus. That does not dissuade Jabbar from using this incident as a defining moment in his own understanding of racial relations in the United States.
The other time the “N” word was directed at him was when his high school coach used it during half-time of a game. Again, this was an awful and inexcusable action by his coach. The coach tried to defend himself and apologize-sort of- to Alcindor after the event. But according to Jabbar there was no healing that bridge and there is little of me sympathetic to the coach in this story. But Jabbar goes a step further and put it on his entire team as a whole feeling that way toward him and believing that Jabbar was a black stereotype. Though he produces no facts to back that point up either. Again, his feelings and perceptions are granted more weight throughout this book while the evidence is much more questionable.
I would never encourage youth to read this book. It is regularly critical of parents and coaches. He has almost no nice things to say about anyone in his life. Yet the main character of this book does not come from a tragic upbringing but a relatively peaceful and ought-to-have-been happy one.
He encourages people to feel rather than to judge only actions and teaches that how you perceive an issue is the most important thing. He does talk about trying to be part of the solution in the Civil Rights movement which I thought was great thing for youth to hear, knowing that you can make a change right where you are. But Jabbar does not have a story that does that. He did not reach out to those of the opposing race and try to erase racism on an individual basis. He does not act charitable towards those that have wrong him but is rather very harsh on everyone in his life. Not a lesson helpful for the rising generation or in line with fixing societal problems.
My biggest problem is I really wanted to like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He is a man I have admired on the court for years. He is a man I think gets overlooked far too often. Yet the more I read his thoughts, feelings and experiences the more I found him to be whiny and ungrateful. I entered this book hoping to find out more about a man who changed his faith and be inspired by his desire for self-improvement and self-sacrifice. I left the book annoyed at a talented and smart person who could look at the world so narrowly.