Justice Is Served

February 28, 2010 8:52 PM

Kareem shows he's more than a sky hook


The fresh faces filled the row of seats on the outside of the auditorium's main floor. They were teenagers, boys and girls from public high schools in the Metro Cleveland area, and they had come downtown to the public library to listen to a man who, for the majority of them, was just a name from history.

To them, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was as unfamiliar as Earl Warren or Nelson Rockefeller or Spiro Agnew. All played starring roles in U.S. history, although perhaps their significance to boys and girls of a certain age was because somebody like me told them so.

Yet as I looked at the faces of youth, I saw an enthusiasm, a real interest in what the giant of a man on the stage in front of them had to say. Abdul-Jabbar, 62, said plenty this day, too - to these teens and to anybody who cared about the futures of these teenagers.

Abdul-Jabbar, the former NBA star who made the sky hook famous, knows that what people do today can shape how a teenager turns out tomorrow. In a room packed with the melting pot that reflects Cleveland, he could have told the audience of 600 that it takes a village to raise a child. He didn't.

No reason to repeat that tattered saying. It had its day, and that day wasn't worth revisiting - not with the challenges that confront teens of today. Their challenges are the rest of society's challenges, Abdul-Jabbar reminded everybody.

It won't rest with teenagers to resolve those challenges, he said; it will be the adults - the parents, the teachers, the clergy, the mentors: any man or woman who cares about the boys and the girls who embody this country's future.

Whatever that future might hold, the old have a stake in it.

"Their job is a hands-on job," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Don't give it over to Nintendo and MTV."

Forged from his experiences, his were inspirational words. While absent a booming baritone, his words still drew applause from the crowd, most of whom were decades beyond their wonder years -- men and women, black, white and Latino, deep into life after high school; adults who remember Abdul-Jabbar as the best center of his era and not as the author, the intellectual and the social critic he's evolved into.

But those latter roles were what had brought Abdul-Jabbar to town, a lecturer for the library's "Writers & Readers Series." He talked about his latest book "On the Shoulders of Giants," conversations with iconic figures of his generation.

He didn't try to regal people with tales about NBA yesteryear. Clevelanders didn't need to hear those tales anyhow; their city has fresh NBA stories playing out at nearby Quicken Loans Arena, a 10-minute walk from where he spoke on this chilled Sunday afternoon.  

He seemed uninterested in telling those stories, popular as old stories might be in certain circles. For he knows all they want is for him to compare his era with today's: Is LeBron James the best player ever?

"That's why they have sports bars," said Abdul-Jabbar, his comment drawing laughs. "We're not gonna settle that argument." 

And he didn't try either.

To do so would have been to waste an opportunity to share his insights about life and about youth. Abdul-Jabbar wanted to leave this rainbow coalition of listeners with a message that would outlive any barroom quarrels. He succeeded.

His was a simple message, too. It was targeted at the adults, although the teens in the auditorium could benefit from it. He was in town to share knowledge and discuss meaningful topics such as social responsibility, education and personal development.

Abdul-Jabbar asked others - the men and the women in the seats in front of him -- to do likewise: to share knowledge with a teen in their lives. Each one, teach one sounded like his theme, an apt one to leave behind in a city with the deep-rooted problems Cleveland has.

"It's one drop at a time," he said. "That's how it has to work."

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