At 68 years old and just a quarter century after leaving his NBA career behind, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is having a moment.
Not only has he just co-authored his first novel, “Mycroft Holmes” – a page-turning mystery about Sherlock’s older brother – but a series of widely shared columns he’s written on culture and politics have propelled him into an unlikely position of influence for a former NBA big man. But then again Abdul-Jabbar has always set himself apart as not your average athlete.
The NBA’s all-time leading scorer hasn’t chosen to rest on his laurels and instead has forged a new path, first as the best-selling author of historical non-fiction and now as a prominent commentator. This month alone, he has poked the political bear (a.k.a. Donald Trump) and most recently, called out Dr. Ben Carson’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“It’s been a relief,” Abdul-Jabbar told msnbc about his new role as a pundit. “I get a chance to express myself and explain myself in my own terms and I don’t have to worry about who’s trying to interpret me.”
The media’s portrayal of Abdul-Jabbar as aloof during the height of his NBA career has remained pervasive, so much so that Trump referenced it while lashing out at him in a handwritten note over a piece criticizing the candidate’s treatment of the press he wrote about the real estate mogul for the Washington Post.
“Now I know why the press always treated you so badly – they couldn’t stand you,” Trump wrote. “The fact is that you don’t have a clue about life and what has to be done to make America great again!”
And yet, in one of the few moments in the 2016 cycle where someone got the best of Trump in a tit-for-tat exchange, Abdul-Jabbar’s response was simple and stinging: ”The bully proves my point,” he wrote, refusing to be bated into a shouting match with the GOP front-runner. His take on Carson’s claim that a Muslim should not be a U.S. president was even more even-keeled, despite the fact that Abdul-Jabbar himself has practiced the Islamic faith for decades.
“I don’t understand where these people are coming from. It’s anti-American what they’re saying. People should be judged on the basis of their character,” Abdul-Jabber told msnbc.
“Every culture has some bad actors in it – we can’t get away from that, that’s part of the human experience, so to hear someone really try to validate hate speech, it’s disturbing,” he added.
Abdul-Jabbar has never been known for having a voluble, combative personality, but that is part of his inherent appeal as a writer. He is thoughtful when others are brash. He is deliberative when others are mean-spirited. In a climate where the loudest voices often get the most play, his sober, trenchant analysis and passionate understanding of historical precedent reads like a breath of fresh air.
He’s brought that same egalitarian spirit to his writing. “Mycroft Holmes” is not just another ripping yarn in the Sherlock Holmes canon, it’s a subtle attempt to give voice to a broader spectrum of the Victorian era’s British empire.
In “Mycroft Holmes,” our hero has a black best friend and confidant, Cyrus Douglas, with roots in Trinidad and character motivations all his own. Douglas is at the heart of a narrative that doesn’t shy away from the subjects of class and race, despite the book’s traditional narrative structure.
“What I’m really doing is making the reality of what Great Britain was in 1870. I’m making that reality more vivid by showing some of its diversity,” Abdul-Jabbar told msnbc.
In his non-fiction writing he is also a stickler for historical accuracy. In a recent post on the Kim Davis phenomenon the ex-NBA great draws a parallel between the anti-gay county clerk and the Confederates who used the Bible to justify slavery during the Civil War and in another piece on cultural assimilation, he weaves in the narrative of popular musical theft from black artists by the likes of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says he never had a plan for his post-NBA career and yet he is still scoring points, only this time it’s in print.