Abdul-Jabbar spreads the word of history and hoops at Philadelphia's Bodine High
By Sam Donnellon
Daily News Sports Columnist
HE GREW UP an arrowhead's throw from Harlem but a generation too late for its days as a cultural mecca. Inwood is a northernmost section of Manhattan, bordered by the Hudson and Harlem rivers, a pocket of American history that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could not avoid.
"That's the last place the Continental Army held before Washington had to escape over the Hudson River to New Jersey and then came down here, to Valley Forge,'' he told about 300 students at the William W. Bodine High School for International Affairs yesterday morning. "When I was a kid, we would find arrowheads, musket balls and bottles and such. Some of the bottles were so old, they were made when New York was a Dutch colony.
"It really made me aware of the fact that there were people there before me. And that they had a big effect on what New York was right then.''
History then, was Abdul-Jabbar's first passion, before his 7-2 frame and incredible athleticism led him to his second defining one, led him to a career that ended with six NBA championships and the NBA's all-time scoring record. But as he learned way back in his younger days, history connects the dots if you dig just a little.
So there he was yesterday, as guest of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, sharing his latest combination of those two passions with about 300 students.
Now 63, Abdul-Jabbar was in Philadelphia yesterday to screen "On the Shoulders of Giants.'' That is his documentary film about the Harlem Rens, an all-black team that dominated three decades of basketball before disbanding in 1949 - 2 years after Abdul-Jabbar's birth in a Harlem hospital.
Founded in 1922 by Bob Douglas - a man of Caribbean descent - the Rens were the athletic stars of the Harlem Renaissance, playing their home games in the Harlem Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, a breeding ground for countless legendary jazz greats.
Often, games would precede a night of music and dance, a phenomonem recreated through the film's 3D technology. But the strength of Abdul-Jabbar's piece is in the wonderment of its many prominent voices - people such as Maya Angelou, who grew up when Harlem held both a civic and spiritual significance in a segregated society; and Cornel West and Spike Lee, who followed in that wake.
The Rens, West pointed out, were a black team owned by a black owner and supported by a black community.
The film even has Johnny Isaacs, the last living Ren player before his death in 2009, retelling some of his tried-and-true tales.
Some sad. Some funny.
Like the time and place itself.
The amazing thing is that there are still so many of these stories to tell, stories buried like those musket balls and bottles. A few years ago, I was working on a Negro Leagues baseball story for the National Constitution Center when I stumbled upon Octavius Catto. Yesterday, I started telling Abdul-Jabbar about him, about how he organized one of the first-ever black baseball teams, the Pythians, in the 1860s and competed against white teams; how he campaigned successfully to outlaw segregation on Philadelphia's trolley cars, and finally how he fought to gain voting access for people of color, toppling a corrupt city government structure and leading to his Election Day assassination.
I could tell Abdul-Jabbar hadn't heard of him.
Catto's my musket ball, not his.
The point is that there are still so many untold, or in the case of Catto, not told enough stories out there about American history.
Great stories. Inspirational stories.
Stories that connect to other stories. In their wonderful biography of his life, "Tasting Freedom,'' authors Daniel Biddle and Murray Dubin suggest that Catto was known at least to those who took up his cause, maybe even those who started the Harlem Renaissance decades later.
The bottom line is that it is engrossing stuff. No matter what your background, race, heritage. Abdul-Jabbar didn't know George Washington or his soldiers, didn't know any of the Dutchmen who had founded the little New York hamlet in which he was brought up.
Didn't make them any less interesting, though.
"People don't understand what people of color have given to make this such a great nation,'' Abdul-Jabbar said. "And they need to understand that so we can appreciate each other.
"We're all Americans, man.''
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