Stymied in prior attempts to land an NBA head coaching job, often tarred as aloof or worse by old-timer sports media, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (above, far right) is more likely to find himself interviewing Attorney General Eric Holder or critiquing Lena Dunham or David O. Russell these days. Writes the Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers, “Abdul-Jabbar has emerged as much more than an ex-jock diagramming an inbounds pass on a clipboard. He has become a vital, dynamic and unorthodox cultural voice.”
Abdul-Jabbar is not a name dropper; he’s a fact dropper. References dart across history, pop culture and the special life he’s lived. Mention Boston and he doesn’t reminisce about the Lakers’ epic victory in the 1984-85 finals. He talks of his admiration for the city’s late detective novel master, Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser series. Ask him about Morales, his unorthodox choice for a manager — she’s white, Jewish and had no idea who he was when they met — and he’ll invoke the name of Gertrude Berg. Gertrude who? You know, the writer and actress who earned an Emmy as the matriarch of the pioneering 1950s sitcom “The Goldbergs.”
Abdul-Jabbar watches lots of TV, loves “True Detective,” “The Wire,” and “Breaking Bad,” and is a lifelong jazz lover who won’t hesitate to hand over his headphones when he thinks you just need to hear Cuban pianist Ernán López Nussa on his iPod.
He talks about how he has tried to make peace with celebrity. He remembers meeting former Brooklyn Dodgers slugger Duke Snider at the baseball star’s Hall of Fame induction in 1980.
“What a wonderful guy,” he says. “And that really made me start thinking, ‘Have I been that wonderful guy?’ That’s what changed my attitude. I bled Dodger blue when I was a kid. When they left Brooklyn, I cried. I had heard someone else tell me a story about Carl Furillo. That he was a real a——. I don’t want to be remembered like that. That’s not me. I’ve got that much graciousness in me.”