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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 'On the Shoulders of Giants' celebrates the Harlem Rens

It was a who's who of basketball -- former Laker Jerry West, former Celtics center Bill Russell, Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, former Harlem Globetrotter Marques Haynes among them -- and amid their laughter, arguments and playful ribbing, it became apparent that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's question about what basketball team was the best in history was not going to be met with an easy consensus.

This scene didn't come from a sports talk show, although it would've made for riveting television. It was from Abdul-Jabbar's documentary, "On the Shoulders of Giants," a 75-minute movie narrated by Jamie Foxx that focuses on the Harlem Rens (also known as the New York Renaissance) and the effect of that basketball team both on the sport and society.

When Russell touted his 11 championship rings and claimed superiority over any former or modern NBA center, including the Captain himself, West immediately intervened and argued Abdul-Jabbar would've blocked Russell's shots. When West brought up the Lakers' five NBA titles in the Showtime Era during the 1980s, Reinsdorf argued that that accomplishment paled in comparison with the Bulls' six NBA championships in the 1990s. And when Reinsdorf boasted that Scottie Pippen limited Magic Johnson in the 1991 NBA Finals, West then argued the outcome would've been different if Abdul-Jabbar hadn't retired in 1989.

Shaking his head in amusement, Abdul-Jabbar told the panel they all were wrong, saying the Harlem Rens were the "greatest basketball team you never heard of" for plenty of reasons. They compiled a 2,588-529 record during their 27-year existence, from 1922 to 1949. The Rens played basketball with what Abdul-Jabbar described as a "no-nonsense approach" -- quick passes, minimal dribbling, balanced scoring and "suffocating defense." And most importantly, the all-black Rens team helped spur integration by playing exhibition games against all-white teams.

"It helps them understand how the game got to where it is today," said Abdul-Jabbar of the film, which was featured in a screening Saturday at All Saints Church in Pasadena and can also be viewed on Netflix. Following the screening, Abdul-Jabbar and others who worked on the film -- including director Deborah Morales (to Abdul-Jabbar's right) and jazz great Bill Cunliffe (to Abdul-Jabbar's left), who composed the score and writer Anna Waterhouse -- sat for a question-and-answer session.

Abdul-Jabbar will be honored for his efforts on the film with a Lincoln Medal at the Ford's Theatre Society annual gala on June 5. "All the things they didn't understand what people had to go through to get this point where we have this wonderful game, make all this money and become famous, it wasn't always like that, especially black Americans, who were kept out of the mainstream of American life. The Rens played so hard and showed the whole basketball-loving public the best athletes were not all playing in the established leagues. It helped change things."

The Rens went 112-7 in the 1932, 1933 and 1939 seasons and finished with a 2,588-529 overall record. Abdul-Jabbar equated Harlam's up-tempo style as just as revolutionary to basketball as Bill Walsh's West Coast offense became to football. And they won the World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago by beating the Harlem Globetrotters and the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars in 1939, exactly eight years before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and sparked racial integration in baseball.

The film showed how Harlem faced similar challenges in race relations. Owner Bob Douglas forged a deal with the Harlem Renaissance Casino and Ballroom that included calling his team the Renaissance so the casino would receive publicity. In turn, the Rens practiced and played home games at the ballroom, often immediately before and after dances. Harlem often played five to six nights a week, a stark contrast to the NBA's current 82-game schedule. Road games were an exercise in crowd control, with those attending trying to distract players by throwing objects on the court and putting their feet out to trip them. 

"Jackie Robinson played for America's pastime," Abdul-Jabbar said. "In the 1930s, basketball was not America's pastime. Basketball was like for those watching the Olympics when they watch curling. It wasn't the thing at the time."

Soon enough, however, the Rens' presence helped bring change. The Globetrotters, for one, featured an all-black team, although they focused on on-court theatrics rather than actual basketball. Former Ren Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton became the first black player to sign an NBA contract by joining the New York Knicks in 1950. And the white teams, most notably the Original Celtics, soon respected the Rens' abilities. 

Abdul-Jabbar said his documentary would have aired two years earlier, instead of on Feb.10, 2011, during All-Star weekend, had he been able to formulate the correct creative vision. Also, he admitted, he's new to making documentaries, so the process, he said, was like "moving a glacier." Obtaining footage of the team was difficult -- the only footage of the Rens actually playing came in a 40-second clip that Abdul-Jabbar obtained from a rabbi in upstate New York that shows the team competing in the 1939 World Professional Basketball Tournament.

But Abdul-Jabbar made up for those shortcomings. The NBA's all-time leading scorer lined up guests, including those closely involved with the Rens as well as notable figures such as West, Russell, David Stern, Charles Barkley, James WorthyCarmelo Anthony, Bob Costas and the late John Wooden. The documentary compensates for lack of footage with myriad photographs and paintings. And musician Bill Cunliffe composed for the film various pieces of jazz music that fit the period. 

"We had to fill everything else in as best we could," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It really gave the film a great flavor."

 Abdul-Jabbar also revisited Harlem, where he grew up. He recalled falling in love with history as a junior high student. He fondly remembered asking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a question about the civil-rights movement. He waxed nostalgic about finding old arrowheads and musket balls as a child growing up in Harlem, presumed artifacts from the Revolutionary War.

At one point in the Q&A following Saturday's screening, an audience member asked Abdul-Jabbar about the recent hubbub concerning the failure, so far, of the Lakers organization to erect a statue in his honor.  He simply replied, "I'm in the Hall of Fame. Who cares about a statue?" Still, the controversy that cropped up after Abdul-Jabbar said that the organization had disrespected him hasn't disappeared.

But the basketball great remains open to future projects of the filmmaking kind, though he's in no rush right now.

"We're trying to make the best of our 15 minutes of fame," Abdul-Jabbar said. "As new filmmakers, it's all new to me. It's a great opportunity. But I don't want to blow anything."

RELATED:

Lakers Q&A: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 'I don't expect my relationship with the team to continue beyond this point'

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks about his experience with cancer and his new documentary

--Mark Medina

E-mail the Lakers blog at mgmedin@gmail.com

 
Comments () | Archives (4)

The comments to this entry are closed.

If KAJ is reading this, we all love you. Hopefully the Lakers FO can come along for the ride...

The closest thing to basketball for me this past week was when I moved my brother in-law into his new house right here in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. He just moved in NEXT DOOR to Mr. Big Shot (childhood home?).

While everyone else is suffering the pain of Miami vs Dallas, I'm suffering the pain of Miami vs Dallas + the pain of LA vs Detroit 2004. Didn't we have a chance to acquire the "Thrill from Park Hill" well before he went to Detroit? Someone on here was talking about it.

Anyway, sort of sad to see him still driving his powder blue range rover (Nuggets color) with pure black tinted windows.

If there is a God other than on this blog, then the Mavs will find a way to win this thing.

@MM ... Excellent article on Kareem’s new documentary about the Harlem Rens. It’s great to see the Cap get some positive press after the statue controversy. Far as I am concerned, Kareem has a long list of free passes due to his great contributions to my life as a Bruins and Lakers fan. You can never have a conversation about the GOAT or GLOAT without including the Sky Hook Master.
....
Knock on wood, it also seems as if the TypePad login has achieved its intended goal of returning ownership of the comments section of the blog to the real Lakers fans. Trolls begone. Lots of great comments and dialogs between bloggers over the weekend. Thanks for making the move, Mark. It’s great not to have to navigate through troll waters to get our daily Lakers fix. Kudos to you, MM.
........................................................
TOM

Gunner,

you wrote: GO BACK AND LOOK AT MY POSTS OVER THOSE 3 YEARS WHEN ONE PRIME KOBE WAS PLAYING SOMEWHAT LIKE A LEADER. I GAVE HIM HIS PROPS. I THINK IT WAS YOUR WIPERS THAT HAD YOU BLINDED BY ALL YOUR APOLOGISTS POSTS.

my response: Actually, you didn't.

run this search in google.

gunner + lakersblog.latimes.com + kobe + 2010

2nd link: Going back to the past, we have Stephen, Tarugo, KL, Gunner how many more? You were able to blog Mike T and roll with his punches or keep up with DFish and this Erick of somewhere...you mean tell me that u just met an Ouchhhh at this time. I think Jon K we have been in there together in the past, he is just like one of your customers in the bar they come and go as they please but Jon K will be there to absorb their drunken stories.

Posted by: Edwin Gueco | December 20, 2010 at 12:52 PM

notice how Edwin mentions you in the "past tense". that means that you
weren't around. However, feel free to point to 3 posts in 2009 & 2010
that shows you were consistently around.

you wrote: I BLAME THAT ON THE NOW, OLD MAN KOBE. HOW ABOUT KOBE SAYING, LET ME RESTRUCTURE MY CONTRACT BEFORE SIGNING AN EXTENSION BECAUSE I'M NOT PLAYING LIKE A PLAYER WHO MAKES $24 MILLION AT THIS STAGE IN MY CAREER. $24 MILLION IS WHAT GOT THE LAKERS IN CAP HELL.

my response: Once again, you show your ignorance.
http://sports.espn.go.com/los-angeles/nba/news/story?id=5050933

snippet:
Bryant, who is averaging 27.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists this season and has helped the Lakers win four NBA titles, may have gotten a deal done earlier but wanted to wait until the team first signed Gasol.

Please name 3 players in the nba who averaged 27 pts, 5 rebounds, 5 assists.
While you're doing that cross-reference that list with people who have won
3 or more championships, 1 MVP & 1 Finals MVP.

After you compile this list and present it we can have a discussion about
whether or not anybody has Kobe's accolades and how much they get paid,
so we can figure out if Kobe was being over-paid. FYI, the Lakers won a
championship in 2010.

Also, you'll notice that Kobe's contract didn't get signed until after the
other players got their contracts. Therefore, it wasn't Kobe's contract that
put the Lakers in contract hell.


re: that 24 million. hmm ... 24 million, two NBA championships, best
selling jersey in the NBA. Of which the Lakers get a portion. You need to
come correct on this. Dr. Jerry Buss chose Kobe over Shaq. Given what
both players achieved subsequent to that choice, Dr. Buss made a shrewd
financial move. Either he's an idiot or a genius, but he can't be both.

you wrote: HAVE YOU SEEN THE PRICES OF TICKETS THESE DAYS? CAN YOU CLEARLY SAY THE LAKERS GAVE A GOOD PRODUCT ON THE FLOOR THIS PAST SEASON. NOT EVEN COUNTING THE PLAYOFFS? I DON'T THINK SO.

my response: So ... If you had been paying attention, for the entire season
*I* was pointing out that there were problems w/ Pau Gasol's play. Oddly
enough Pau Gasol indicated that there were problems with his play. As did
Phil Jackson. As did Kobe Bryant.

The price of tickets is directly correlated to the Lakers going to the NBA
finals for the last 3 years. If you are going to correlate price of tickets and
play on the floor, you actually have to do it for more than a 3 month period.
Here's a suggestion: Why don't you examine the ticket prices for the team
that won the championship over the last 10 years and we can see if the
ticket price goes up based upon the team winning the championship and if it
decreases when they don't win.

you wrote this: HERE'S $$ ON THE TABLE: I GUARANTEE YOU WHEN THE AGING KOBE RETIRES YOU'LL DISAPPEAR LIKE ALL THE OTHER APOLOGISTS BECAUSE YOU'RE NOT A LAKER FAN. YOU'RE A KOBE APOLOGISTS.

my response: So, 1st. Go take an english class. you're referring to *ME*
& I am singular. Therefore I am not plural [ apologists ]

2nd: Kobe has a contract for another 3 years. Let's touch base in 4 and
see if I'm still here. *I* am a Lakers fan, a basketball fan & a Kobe fan.
*I* am watching the finals because I'm enjoying the drama. *I* post here
because I enjoy talking about the Lakers and learning more about the game
of basketball.

*I* was right when I said, "The success of the Lakers depends upon the
rotation of the bigs. [ Pau/Bynum/LO ]. In 2007/2008

*I* was right when I said, "LO will not be the starting SF on the Lakers."
in 2008/2009.

*I* was right when I said, the lackadaisical play of the Lakers will cause a
problem in the playoffs ... in November/December of 2011. Which segued
into a number of people talking about the "practice season " vs. regular
season. Which I argued against.

Now. Go do your homework. Come back when you've got some facts
so we can have an intelligent conversation.

@hobbitmage,

Dude, your the man, but you have to stop defending Kobe and yourself. Uber class players like Kobe don't need defending. Superb Analysers of the NBA like yourself don't need to get into futile shouting (chats) with inferior riffraff!

Just comment on Kobe and the Lakers like you always have--forget the useless trolls and don't give yourself any more stress, anxieties, or possible heart attacks. Remember, trolls get a kick out of raising your dander!!!


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