Legendary Sports Figure Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Left to right: Ronna Mandel, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ronna's son Coleman.
“I can do more than stuff a ball through a hoop; My greatest asset is my mind.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
I watched as one of America’s most beloved and celebrated athletes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ducked his head under an archway and walked into the office where we met. He was coming to talk about his new children’s book What Color Is My World?: The Lost History of African American Inventors, co-written with Raymond Obstfeld and illustrated by Ben Boos and A.G. Ford. The packed house he spoke to following our interview only served to cement my impression that Abdul-Jabbar, newly named U.S. Cultural Ambassador, is a popular force of good not only here in the states, but internationally as well. In minority communities, Abdul-Jabbar’s aim is to drive the point home about the power of an education. I have no doubt he’ll throw a skyhook on this shot.
It’s unusual for such a prominent sports figure to celebrate the prowess of a great mind versus that of a top athlete. Did you know any inventors as a kid?
No, I didn’t. For too many minority communities, their kids grow up thinking that the only way they can be successful is in the realm of sports or entertainment. Everything else is not even presented to them as a possibility. I wanted to have an effect on that situation. By doing this book and pointing out heroes and people who had to overcome a lot to get things done with their minds, I think that’s clearly opening up some windows for these kids to look out of and to see what’s possible.
What Color is My World teams 13-year-old twins Herbie and Ella with a very knowledgeable yet mysterious handyman to introduce kids to unsung black inventors. Did you want this to be a story about overcoming obstacles?
Yes. Because minority kids are not expected to reach certain heights. Talk to a young black kid that lives on the south side of Chicago, or Bedford Stuyvesant, and ask them who their heroes are. They’ll say, LeBron James or Jay-Z. I feel the need to affect that situation and give kids in minority communities an idea that they can achieve in areas they are not thinking about right now. The people I emphasize in this book are scientists and engineers.
You use Sir Isaac Newton’s quote “standing on the shoulders of giants” to inspire kids about building upon old ideas. How did you come up with this?
Well, I read all the time. I came across it once and it just stayed with me, and I definitely got it. [Kids should] take other ideas that they can understand and apply them to new situations or find new uses for them.
What other factors prompted you to write this book?
The person I most admire is Lewis Latimer who I devoted an entire chapter to in my black history book. Doing that research I found out about other 19th century black inventors. Like Dr. Charles Drew. He came up with the idea of blood banks, and spawned new discoveries that have saved millions of lives and made it possible for doctors to build on … people don’t really get how important those discoveries were.
When they were growing up, did you challenge your children?
I challenged my children to do whatever their education and their hearts told them to do. So I’ve only had one of my kids that played basketball, my older son. My middle son is just a couple months away from becoming a doctor. He’s going to be an orthopedic surgeon. Both my daughters, the fields they got into were literature. I did not try to coax them in any direction.
If you did not play basketball for a living what else would you have done?
I probably would have ended up as a history teacher or if I hadn’t gone into teaching, maybe law or something like that.
What would you say to a child, your own children even, to encourage their individual potential in this ever-changing world?
I would just tell them that they have to do well in school They acquire things there they cannot get anywhere else. The only thing I made my kids do was learn the martial arts.
I think this book will resonate with many kids, especially those who perhaps have more brains than brawn.
There’s so much pressure on children in schools and in schoolyards. We can’t all be great athletes. In black communities kids that get good grades get beaten up. They get singled out. The kids who are not good academically resent them, resent the teachers’ pets. I was just lucky that I had size and that my dad taught me how to box. I got good grades and I was a good athlete, which was kind of unusual, so I got left alone.
Visit Abdul-Jabbar’s official website at http://kareemabduljabbar.com for up-to-date information.
WHAT COLOR IS MY WORLD? THE LOST HISTORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN INVENTORS. Text copyright © 2011 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Ben Boos and A.G. Ford. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Interview by Ronna Mandel