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Monday, February 26, 2018

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter…

BECOMING KAREEM   [M, 2-26-18]

I just finished Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s memoir, Becoming Kareem. [1]
It is an excellent memoir. Spoke to my interests and concerns, right at my level. I’m only slightly chagrined that it was only when I finished that I noticed on the flyleaf that it is for “young readers.”

Well, it’s excellent for young and old, both, because we are always in the process of becoming, either what others want us to be, or what we want to be ourselves, or what God wants us to be.

I’m a little surprised Kareem bothered with a co-writer. He’s well known for his intellectual and writing skills. Maybe it is because Obtsfeld specializes in making adult stuff into YA stuff. In that case, he did me a favor. I am YA at heart. Or maybe it’s just that I still have not resolved the issues of young adulthood that you’re supposed to take care of in your teens and twenties.

I’m just a little older than Kareem. Being a basketball fan—and an IU alum who is always interested in proving that IU basketball is and was superior to UCLA basketball—I started following his career when he was in high school in NYC, as Lew Alcindor, and continued to read about him when he was at UCLA and in the pros.

Lew and I shared a love of Western stories and of basketball, even though he lived in NYC and I lived on a little hardscrabble Hoosier farm. There was a really big difference between us, though: I am white. He is black. Growing up black in the USA poses a set of problems in “becoming” that white people can never really understand, regardless of how hard we try.

Be we black or white, though, one of the tragedies of youthful rebellion, in an effort to break away from parents and cultural expectations, is that so often we trade one set of norms for another, often a new set that is far more toxic than the old. Why in the world do young people think they discovered/invented booze and drugs and sex and profanity? In an effort at rebellion, they become mundane and boring and expectable. The only difference is that instead of being mundane and boring and expectable and leading a non-toxic life they are equally boring but also toxic, to themselves and others.

To his great credit, Lew/Kareem never did that. He went about trying to find an identity that fit him in a thoughtful way. He did not reject his parents, even though he had to leave the family name of Alcindor because it came from the slaver who owned his ancestors. He did not reject the ethical code of the Christian Roman Catholicism in which he had been reared, even though he felt the religion of Islam was a better fit for him. He became the man he needed to be while respecting the identity paths of others.

Despite my paleness, I can understand why a black man in America would want to find a different way from the Christianity that tried so long to justify the enslavement of black people. It is a little unsettling, though, for an African American to ignore the part that Muslims played in the slave trade. It was Arab Muslims who actually went into African villages and abducted people and sold them to the white ship owners who transported them to America.

Kareem is definitely not an angry black man, seeing no good in white culture or white people. John Wooden, his UCLA coach, was culturally as far removed as you can get from being young and black in NYC in the 1970s. Wooden was a very white Hoosier farm boy, more than twice Kareem’s age. Kareem recognizes their cultural differences, but calls Wooden “a second father.” [1]

I recommend this book to any young person who is trying to find a path to identity, to learn who she or he should be. Any old person, too.


1] KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, with Raymond Obstfeld. BECOMING KAREEM: Growing Up On and Off the Court.

2] Helen has become more basketball aware as years have gone along, but during the UCLA days of John Wooden, when I would watch a game on TV, she would overhear Wooden introduced as “Johnny Woodenhead, Coach.” He was All-American in college and played one year in the pros, back in the days when they were more semi-pro than pro, and made 124 consecutive free throws, a record that still stands.

I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

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