A couple of years ago, my then 10 year old son was constructing a rather elaborate Christmas gift list. To my surprise, at the top of the list was a Kareem Abdul Jabbar jersey--signed, of course. My first few thoughts were: 1. How cool that a LeBron era kid would acknowledge an iconic player from long before his time! 2. All that TV watching of ESPN secondary channels is paying off! 2. I'm a librarian for Pete's sake--does he really think I make enough money to buy a signed Kareem jersey!?
So, I settled on a framed poster. Kareem(Lew Alcindor) in his Milwaukee Bucks uniform. Forget the Lakers era. My love of Kareem started with the coin flip in 1969, when the only hazard coinage posed in my life was choking. But I wanted my son to know Kareem the Buck, so it was important to me that he was donning green. Anyways, the poster came with a promise we would find Kareem someday and get it signed, but we're still getting around to that.
Anyways, it has been fun sharing with my son the story of Kareem. It's not just a story about who he was as a player, but who he's become in the era afterwards. After all, the measure of an athlete is not the highlight reel from the court, but the wake of influence that he leaves while flying into the sunset. It's amazing to me just how much of an influential author Jabbar has become. I truly don't think many people realize the catalog of books he has put out since his playing days. Known as a reclusive figure in his Buck days, I'm not sure the Milwaukee crowd has a fair grasp as to just what a champion of the human spirit this man has become.
My most anticipated book of the year has been his latest book, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court. Just released a week or so ago, the book details the intersection of two basketball legends, Coach John Wooden of UCLA and Kareem. Those of us who have read Coach Wooden's They Call Me Coach or The Pyramid of Success know of his unique ability to mentor basketball players not only in the game, but in life. Jabbar opens the curtains into his playing days at UCLA and his successful life afterwards and let's us see just how much influence the brilliant John Wooden had on him. It's a book of basketball, coaching, mentoring, philosophy and respect sewn into one. One thing is clear, we cannot grow into the people we wish to become without powerful mentors in our life. I'm sure Jabbar appreciates Wooden as a great sage and hand who graced his life, and whose spirit will continue to nudge him to greatness.
It's noble to hand a book like this to any teenager. It needs to be in every high school library. At a time when teens need to know that mentors are real and people can still be trusted in this world, Jabbar shows them that wisdom is found in relationships. Just because Jabbar and Wooden are not as freshly present in the memory of kids like LeBron or Coach K doesn't make their story any less important. There is no truth that wisdom ever ages out of style.
I want my son to appreciate Coach W, Kareem and their relationship, and the power of positive people in life. He will read the book with me this summer, and just maybe Santa will be watching so next Christmas he doesn't forget to load that signed jersey on the sleigh!