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My Generation

Passing the Ball of Wisdom

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalls the Harlem Rens, the best basketball team you didn't know existed

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds a number of titles in the National Basketball Association: among them 1969 rookie of the year, 19-time all-star, two-time NBA finals MVP and, to this day, the league’s all-time leading scorer.

But Abdul-Jabbar is quick to give credit where credit is due. He could not have achieved the high level of success in his career if it weren’t for the sacrifices made by those who came before him. In the documentary On the Shoulders of Giants, which Abdul-Jabbbar spearheaded, he acknowledges the influence of the best basketball team you never heard of: the Harlem Renaissance 5, or the Harlem Rens.

See also: Coach uses basketball to keep kids off streets.

Former basketball player, author, documentary filmmaker, and mentor Kareem Abdul Jabbar is a modern Renaissance man.

Basketball player, author, filmmaker and mentor, Kareem Abdul Jabbar is a modern Renaissance man. — AARP Broadcast-Publicity

The Rens played basketball in the heart of black America in the ’20s and ’30s: New York’s Harlem. As a precursor to the Harlem Globetrotters, the all-black team couldn’t even play on the same court with whites. Many say they were the best basketball team to ever play the game and that they paved the way for integration in the NBA, a fact not lost on one of its most famous alumni.
 
“It really helped me understand that basketball players today, especially African American basketball players, owe these guys something because they set standards,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “Because of what these men had done, everybody realized not all the best basketball players were playing in the NBA, and within three years the NBA integrated.”
 
But there’s even more to this Hall of Famer than meets the eye. While basketball has given Abdul-Jabbar fame and fortune, you’ll often hear him say that he “does more than stuff a ball through a hoop.” For him, his greatest asset is his mind. He’s an author, having written seven books, including a companion to the documentary, and Brothers in Arms, the story of a tank unit that fought under General George Patton during World War II. His latest book is a foray into children’s literature, the first in a series called What Color Is My World?
 
“It’s about African American inventors and how they’ve impacted life,” he says. “I want to continue on that theme and deal with Hispanic inventors and also Asian inventors.”
 
My Generation’s Diane Roberts sat down for an intimate interview with this thoughtful, intelligent Renaissance man.

You may also like: Researching African American history.

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