Commentary

Kareem tells Rens' story with 'Giants'

Abdul-Jabbar visits Newark for screening of his documentary on Harlem hoops team

Updated: February 12, 2011, 8:40 AM ET
By Mike Mazzeo | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- The Harlem Rens might be the "greatest basketball team you've never heard of."

But Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who said he would have been a history teacher if he hadn't become a professional athlete, is hoping to change that.

The NBA's all-time leading scorer has produced a documentary about the Rens -- a prolific, all-black professional basketball team that overcame racism to captivate the hearts and imaginations of its fans in Harlem from 1922 to '49 -- titled "On The Shoulders of Giants." Abdul-Jabbar was at Science Park High School on Thursday morning to screen it in front of approximately 1,000 teenagers.

[+] EnlargeCory Booker and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
AP PhotoNewark Mayor Cory Booker and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar watch a screening of "On The Shoulders of Giants."

"When I was younger, I didn't know exactly what the Rens had gone through," said Abdul-Jabbar, who became infatuated with their history when he was a high school junior growing up in Harlem.

"I knew they were a team and they were from Harlem, but I found out about them in terms of what they were doing in the 1920s and '30s when this country was a lot different. It really puts a different perspective on life."

Abdul-Jabbar, currently a special assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers, said it was important for him to pay tribute to the Rens because those players served as pioneers, triumphing in the face of adversity -- competing against and defeating all-white teams in exhibition games at a time when blacks weren't allowed to play professional basketball -- and paving the way for himself and other African-Americans such as Bill Russell and Michael Jordan to impact the NBA.

"The film has all the things I love," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It has basketball, jazz music and the history of African-American people. I think the film came out really well. I'm happy with it. I spoke with various educators, and they believed that New Jersey would benefit from seeing it. It seemed to me that they were interested in it."

The Rens became larger than life while playing during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. They went 112-7 in 1932-33, and in 1939, eight years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, they captured the World Basketball Tournament in Chicago, beating the Harlem Globetrotters and the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars to do so.

Founded in 1922 by owner Bob Douglas, the Rens used to play their home games in the Harlem Renaissance Casino and Ballroom on the corner of 137th Street and Seventh Avenue. Jazz might have been the dominant form of expression during the Renaissance, but the Rens' quick-passing, defensive style was a unique art form in its own right.

Just like Abdul-Jabbar's famous skyhook.

"For me, the most interesting thing was just finding out what they had to go through on the road to do their thing," Abdul-Jabbar said. "The rigors of traveling in a segregated society. One night, they weren't allowed in any of the hotels because they were African-American, so they put on turbans and posed as Arabs. It's truly amazing stuff."

Abdul-Jabbar wasn't the only one enthralled by the history of the Rens, who compiled an unparalleled 2,588-529 record in their illustrious history.

"I grew up in a jazz family," said Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who introduced Abdul-Jabbar to the students Thursday. "My father was a guy who listened to America's greatest jazz station; WBGO was the only thing he would listen to. So I got a lot of that as a child growing up.

[+] EnlargeKareem Abdul-Jabbar
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesKareem Abdul-Jabbar, shown here in 1985, is a six-time NBA champion.

"It was an extraordinary period in our culture at a time there was segregation and you had these segregated communities that were so rich and diverse. The Harlem Renaissance fueled the globe in many ways with art and culture in a way that not many modern movements have."

Booker said he was thrilled to have Abdul-Jabbar -- who has written six books since his retirement from the NBA in 1989, including one that chronicles the accomplishments of the Rens -- impart his wisdom to the students of Newark.

"Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a legend in his own right," Booker said. "So just his presence here is lifting the whole city. In fact, all week it's been the buzz. So that alone is incredible. But the fact that he's bringing a film about elevating and motivating our students to reach greater heights is impressive. His excellence on the court in my opinion is being matched by his excellence in activism, philanthropy and education."

Abdul-Jabbar, who previously screened the documentary in his native Harlem and plans to screen it in Los Angeles when he and the Lakers return to the West Coast, is looking forward to making more documentaries that can have a positive effect on the population.

"If I can repeat the success that I'm having with this, I'll be well on my way," he said.

The Miami Heat might have the league's most dominant trio in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But that big three has nothing on "The New York Renaissance Big Five."

Players like Charles "Tarzan" Cooper, John "Wonder Boy" Isaacs and William "Pop" Gates blazed a trail for James, Wade, Bosh and other NBA stars -- stars who stand "On The Shoulders of Giants."

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

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