Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a study in contradictions – someone who has been the center of attention since an early age, yet has long sought to avoid the spotlight, even if his prodigious basketball skills and 7’2”-inch frame made that impossible. HBO zeroes in on those qualities in the former NBA star – and on a career that many would argue establishes him as the best, or at least most dominant, player ever – in “Kareem: Minority of One,” a documentary that stands nearly as tall as its subject, with the only real flaw being the relatively short shrift afforded to his post-hoops endeavors.
As noted by the narration (written by Aaron Cohen, and as with all HBO Sports productions, delivered by Liev Schreiber), few have been more uniquely suited to excel at basketball, or had “a more complicated relationship with what it gave him.” Towering above his classmates, the former Lew Alcindor was identified as a game-changer even before high school (he’s shown appearing on Ed Sullivan’s show as a 15-year-old), ultimately leading UCLA to three consecutive national championships.
Abdul-Jabbar is described by one of his cousins as appearing standoffish because of his shyness regarding his height, and it’s almost strange for those who have followed his career – or read his autobiography, “Giant Steps” – to hear him open up so candidly, as he does here. The conversation ranges from his embrace of Islam to his somewhat distant relationship with his first three children because of his absence in their upbringing, from his activism regarding race to his resistance to signing autographs or accepting other intrusions associated with fame. There’s also interesting stuff concerning his friendship with Bruce Lee, and soured relationship with fellow Laker great Wilt Chamberlain.
Of course, all of that is in some respects a side dish to the basketball and the who’s who of sports luminaries interviewed – including former teammates Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Lucius Allen, coach Pat Riley, general manager Jerry West, and opponents like Larry Bird and Elvin Hayes – to put Abdul-Jabbar’s talents into context. They describe a sweeping hook shot that was as difficult to guard as it was beautiful in its mechanics, and a pride and competitive spirit that saw him rebound from a dismal performance in Game One of the 1985 NBA Finals to demonstrate that the then-38-year-old star wasn’t over the hill just yet.
If there’s a quibble, it’s that perhaps not enough time is devoted to Abdul-Jabbar’s life after basketball, which has seen him become a successful author as well as an outspoken commentator and activist. In an age where many athletes view college as a required stopover en route to professional paydays, he not only embraced education but also has applied it to creating a second act for himself beyond the game.
Looking back on his life, Abdul-Jabbar, now 68, says, “I turned people off with my reticence about personal engagement.” If that was then, in “Minority of One,” the guy known for a shot that was unguardable lets down his guard, and in the process exhibits all the ease and grace of one of those trademark skyhooks.