MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written a book about basketball and the Harlem Renaissance, that phrase describes the gathering of black writers in the '20s and '30s - Langston Hughes, County Collin, Zora Neale Hurston. It also describes the Harlem Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, which played host to great jazz bands, and to great all-black basketball team, the New York Rens for renaissance.
As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recounts, the Renaissance Ballroom was a place where African-Americans didn't just entertain whites, as they did at other famous Harlem clubs. At the Renaissance, they were the audience, and they were the show, and quite a show it was.
Mr. KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR (Basketball Great, Writer): Basketball and music on the same court. They play the first half of the basketball game, then at halftime they'd have an exhibition, let's say of Lindy Hoppers or a warm-up bend. Then they play the second half of the game. And then after the game was over, you'd have Cab Calloway until 3:00 a.m. That was, I think, a special aspect of what the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom was all about, that basketball, sports, and music at the same time.
SIEGEL: The Rens did get to play against white teams after a time. Yes?
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: The Rens played against white teams when they were barnstorming, but these games were not considered official games. And the Rens, by and large, won most of these games. But they were still were not considered to be fit to compete against the other teams because they were an all-black team.
SIEGEL: There's a photograph of a Jew include in your book, which shows the Rens versus the original Celtics. And the Rens center Tarzan Cooper about to jump against the Celtics center Joe Lapchick. And that you - you say, maybe the first jump ball between a white man and a black man in professional basketball.
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: Quite probably so. The Rens and Celtics started playing against each other very early on in the '20s. And early on, the Celtics were the better team. They beat the Rens pretty regularly. The Rens would manage a win. Let's say every four or five games the Rens might win a game. But the Celtics were too tough for them initially. And as time passed on, the Rens became the dominant team.
SIEGEL: How did people react to an all-white team playing an all-black team?
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, ethnic rivalry was something that was used in all sports at that time, especially boxing. I think the reason that the Rens finally got a chance to compete for the professional championship in 1939 was the fact that in the year prior to that, Joe Loose(ph) had beaten Max Milling(ph). And the newspaper in Chicago decided to have a championship that would feature all the best professional teams. And the Rens and the Globetrotters were invited to compete.
SIEGEL: You should explain that the Harlem Globetrotters, talk about misnomers, the Harlem Globetrotters were not from Harlem?
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: The Harlem Globetrotters are from Chicago. And Abe Saperstein named them Harlem Globetrotters so that people would know that they were a black team. But it really was confusing. I remember I grew up thinking that the Harlem Globetrotters were from Harlem.
SIEGEL: There's enough reason for being confused.
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: Yes.
SIEGEL: For being called the Harlem Globetrotters.
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: Being (unintelligible). Prior to that, they played at the Chicago Savoy. And I think they were the Savoy Big Five.
SIEGEL: So the Globetrotters, when they played in that tournament in 1939, where they clowning around already at that point? Or no?
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: The Globetrotters always clowned around. That was their, more or less, their trademark. They want to do entertainment.
SIEGEL: Harlem Rens - a very different story.
Mr. ABDUL-JABBER: Very much a different story. Their approach of the game was all business. They wanted to make everybody respect them as sportsman. Abe Saperstein, I think, felt that white Americans would be more comfortable seeing his team clown around and conform to a lot of the negative racial stereotypes that many whites had with regard to blacks, because he did not want to go head-to-head against racial attitudes in this country.
SIEGEL: And so for you, the all-business New York Rens were of a piece with County Collin and Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, the intellectuals who have formed the core of what we think that is the Harlem Renaissance.
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, certainly. I think the Rens belonged in the Renaissance Casino or to Savoy, and the Globetrotters conformed with the more stereotypical image of blacks that whites had that the Cotton Club, and the other segregated clubs promoted.
SIEGEL: There's a little slice of Harlem sociology that turns up in your writing about Bob Douglas who created and ran the team. And that is that he was born in the islands. He came up from the West Indies. And New York has always been a little, or maybe not sometimes not so little attention between - well don't even know if we use African-Americans equally, but African-Americans in West Indians, I'd say.
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, certainly. And people from the West Indies, when they got to New York they wanted to take advantage of the fact that they can own businesses, and also be property owners. And American-born blacks resented that in a lot of instances, because they didn't like seeing black people doing that for some reason. I don't get it. To this day, I don't get it. But that's a fact.
I know when I was a kid, when I go visit my grandmother in Brooklyn, black kids would call the kids from the Caribbean monkey chasers and other negative terms, because possibly the people from the Caribbean had had the benefit of a good education and had aspirations that a lot of American blacks did not entertain. And it was - it was very difficult to overcome the resentment between the two groups.
SIEGEL: Your family came up from - was it from Trinidad?
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: From Trinidad. My grandmother and grandfather left Trinidad in 1917 and settled in Brooklyn.
SIEGEL: When you were young and when you were coming out of UCLA, and the best basketball player in the country, there was so much utter sensitivity about race, about your embracing Islam, for example, and changing your name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Going back to read about some of those things as I was preparing to talk with you, it does feel as if that some of the things that you were saying and doing as a very young man would almost pass completely unnoticed today and yet, where the source of tremendous comment and discussion in the days, well, perhaps, because of the days of Muhammad Ali.
Do you get the sense that life has changed a great deal in those ways since the 1960s? Or the things felt more static to you?
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: I think life has changed tremendously since the 1960s. You mentioned Muhammad Ali - I was very fortunate just to come immediately behind him, because I was not trying to make a political statement about changing my name and becoming Muslim. For me, it was a question of faith only. And Muhammad Ali had a lot of political considerations that went to his conversion.
So for me, it was a lot easier just because I came behind him and I think those of us who had to deal with the different controversial issues in the '60s and '70s made it a lot easier for things to be different now.
SIEGEL: Well, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thank you very much for coming and to talk with us about it.
Mr. ABDUL-JABBAR: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
SIEGEL: His book is called, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance." You can read an excerpt at NPR.org, where you can also see the photo of the jump ball that we heard about.