Bill Littlefield talks to NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about his new movie On the Shoulders of Giants. Abdul-Jabbar’s film tells the story of the Harlem Rens, who he calls “the greatest basketball team you’ve never heard of.”
Bill’s thoughts on On the Shoulders of Giants:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an extraordinarily accomplished fellow.
He led his UCLA basketball team to three national championships, and following his twenty year career with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers – a career during which he played on six champions – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. He has appeared in various TV shows, and he was brilliant at pretending not to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane!
He’s the author of several books, two of which – Black Profiles In Courage and Brothers In Arms – have nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with black history. In The Shoulders of Giants, the film for which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar served as executive producer and co-narrator with Jamie Foxx, Kareem continues his work along these previous lines. The movie is a celebration of the Harlem Rens, the aggregation Kareem characterizes at the beginning of the film as “the greatest basketball team you’ve never heard of.”
As the film establishes, the Rens were part of the sports wing of the Harlem Renaissance, which saw the brilliant if underappreciated flowering of black poetry, literature, music, and art during the ’20’s and beyond.
Some of the most striking sequences in the film feature members of the Rens discussing not only their triumphs, but also the obstacles that they had to overcome. One of the players remembers how spectators rooting for the white teams that the Rens played faced would sometimes reach on to the court with their umbrellas to trip up the Rens. John Isaacs recalls cutting the word “Colored” off his team jacket, which bore the legend “World Colored Champions.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s presence in the film is understated, but the power of his message is clear. In this film, as in his other work, he is determined to endow black men with the dignity that they were denied seventy and eighty and ninety years ago. The film that resulted from his determination is entertaining as well as enlightening, and very much worth seeing.