- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 6, 2004

Warm, witty and engaging — who was that tall fellow purporting to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the other night?

No, it was Kareem, all right. Charming an audience of about 75 who came to the National Press Club to hear the former UCLA and NBA great discuss his new book, “Brothers in Arms,” Abdul-Jabbar entered the room wearing a broad smile under his bald head. He would flash the smile often.

Absent was the armor of aloofness and occasional hostility he wore before, during and after his remarkable 20-year career with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.

Not that he doesn’t have his moments. And he is, after all, selling books. But it was still a sight to see Abdul-Jabbar loosen up the crowd with a joke about the reading glasses he needs as opposed to the trademark goggles he wore as a player.

Also a sight is the 7-foot-1 Abdul-Jabbar himself. At 57, retired since 1989, the leading scorer in league history looks terrific, as if he could suit up right now and give those clueless NBA big men a lesson in post play.

The folks in attendance — a demographer’s dream of black and white, male and female covering a wide range of ages (including a former Little League teammate from Brooklyn) — showered Abdul-Jabbar with affection, respect, admiration and, yes, even some love during the Q&A; session. All 72 books made available at the National Press Club were sold.

The audience had been cautioned on the publicity flier that Abdul-Jabbar would sign books but no sports memorabilia, an admonition repeated at the start of the proceedings. The message being, he was here not as a hoops legend but as an author. So after he read an excerpt, a white, middle-aged man with a big belly and an even bigger voice immediately seized the microphone and launched into an animated monologue praising Abdul-Jabbar for his basketball career and specifically, “a Latin term that I thought of tonight — the skysieus hooksieus.”

The skyhook.

Yikes. How would Kareem react to that?

“You’re very kind,” he said to the man, who was wearing a black, orange and green Florida A&M; cap. “Thank you, sir.”

So about the book …

Co-authored with Anthony Walton, “Brothers in Arms” is the story of the 761st Tank Battalion, nicknamed “The Black Panthers,” the only all-black armored unit to fight in World War II. Formed with the purpose of appeasing those who wanted to see the Army integrated, most notably first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the 761st was not supposed to actually fight. Eventually, it was pressed into service out of necessity and became a unit feared by the Germans.

Abdul-Jabbar, an avid student of black history, acknowledged that two other books have been written on the subject. But while attending an event in New York 12 years ago that reunited Holocaust survivors with black soldiers who helped liberate them, he ran into Leonard “Smitty” Smith, an old friend of his father’s who fought with the 761st.

It also inspired Abdul-Jabbar that a documentary film called “Liberators” shown that evening generated significant controversy for allegedly containing several gross inaccuracies. He believed the story needed to be told again.

The subject of exactly which black soldiers helped liberate which Nazi concentration camps has been furiously debated since “Liberators” came out. In what might add more fuel to the controversy, the book claims that not only did the 761st help liberate the camp at Dachau, but “Smitty’s tank was the first tank through the main gate,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

Abdul-Jabbar spoke movingly of what the soldiers saw.

“They got inside the camp and there were people coming out,” he said. “Smitty said they looked like bundles of rags that could walk. These people had been brutalized and murdered. … They got out and saw a whole lot of horrible stuff that reminded them of lynchings in the South.”

The book is about racism and assuming the mantle of heroism, a hot topic lately because of the death of NFL player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Many have pontificated since on the true meaning of courage and what a hero really is, especially as it applies to sports. Abdul-Jabbar already knew the difference.

“[The soldiers] had to stay in their tanks for 36 hours,” he said. “They had to eat out of their helmets. They had to use their helmets for latrines. The Germans were calling in artillery strikes trying to hit their tanks. They were in freezing, sub-zero temperatures, the worst winter in 35 years in Europe. And they did that.”

Abdul-Jabbar paused.

“Now, being bumped out of bounds by Wes Unseld does not compare to that, in any way, shape or form,” he said to much laughter. “In terms of heroics, I’m a pipsqueak compared to what these guys did.”

This is Abdul-Jabbar’s fifth book. He wrote “Kareem,” an autobiography, co-authored “Black Profiles in Courage,” and wrote about coaching on an Indian reservation in Arizona. At one point, he referred to himself as a “historian.” Abdul-Jabbar said he put three years of research into the project and is now considering a book about the escape of black slaves via the Underground Railroad.

“It’s something that white Americans have never really discussed all the way out to the end,” he said.

Meanwhile, “Brothers in Arms” might one day end up in your local cineplex.

“Simultaneously with doing the book, we have done a screenplay,” he said. “I hope to get a movie based upon my book on the screen in the next couple of years or so. Right now we’re talking with Denzel Washington’s office.”

Hired as a scout by New York Knicks president Isiah Thomas in February, Abdul-Jabbar has been trying to land an NBA coaching or front office position for years. He said he might put those plans on hold if the movie deal works out.

“Basketball is my life,” he said. “But this is my passion.”

Abdul-Jabbar is the league’s only six-time most valuable player. His teams won six championships. No one questions his intelligence and understanding of the game. Yet there is a perception that he has been blackballed from getting a job because of his persona.

He doesn’t really dispute this, saying his icy demeanor was a defense mechanism formed after taking abuse over his race and his height.

“I wasn’t like Dracula,” Abdul-Jabbar told the New York Times recently “It wasn’t anything I did. It was just my general attitude that made everybody leery. It was like no one could approach me. That had a lot to do with me, and I had some adjustments to make. There were a lot of opportunities I had to make friends that I turned my back on, and there were some consequences for that and I have to accept responsibility.”

The subject came up again at the Press Club. Abdul-Jabbar more or less volunteered it after he was asked what it was like to be on the other side of the interview process.

“I just got tired of being asked the same questions night in and night out,” he said. “I tried to figure out ways of getting out of the locker room before [reporters] got there. I wanted to go home and see my girlfriend, actually. I got a bad reputation for that, and it was something I had to overcome.

“It had nothing to do with me being antisocial. But I just didn’t have the right people skills to handle that diplomatically and politically. So that’s something I had to learn. And hopefully, I’ve learned it.”

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