He used to roam upper Manhattan, a kid, tall and bony, looking for arrowheads and musket balls, artifacts from George Washington's meanderings in the area. "They became my baseball cards," he says of the items he found and hoarded.
He was Lew Alcindor then.
A curious child, an only child, he used to spend hours during the summers in the early '60s hunched over a desk inside Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, reading about Marcus Garvey and about the beautiful things that happened during the Harlem Renaissance.
He's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar now, a not-so-old legend at 57, himself frozen in amber to so many -- and still much fascinated with history.
Back in 1992 -- by then three years retired from an illustrious career as a pro basketball player -- he had plunked himself into a chair in Manhattan one evening to watch a film about a black tank battalion in World War II. A whisper came from the shadows, and it was Leonard "Smitty" Smith, the Smitty who knew Abdul-Jabbar's father, who used to jawbone with the kid Alcindor on the city's subway platforms. Abdul-Jabbar wanted to know what Smitty was doing there that night. And then some of Smitty's story started to unfold in the documentary, and the historian, Abdul-Jabbar, thought that what was on the screen should be put down in words.
The legend went back to the library, started digging into archives. He went to find Smitty. "I'm a detective, that's what I do," Abdul-Jabbar is saying, a deadly earnest look upon his face, his spidery hands moving like someone playing piano.
He's sitting on a couch in a hotel suite in Georgetown. Actually, he's folded into it, all 7 feet 2 inches. Every few minutes he contorts himself, reaching for comfort. He's here to talk about a book he's written, "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes."
It's the hum of an old story now: Black soldiers unwanted, until Gen. George S. Patton needs them, then proving themselves with Patton's Third Army, battling in the muddy fields across France and Germany. Then receding into anonymity until someone starts poking around in old military records, until someone starts chatting up the old men themselves.
Ferdinand Alcindor, Abdul-Jabbar's father, was a World War II Army man. But he never left the United States, didn't get an opportunity to climb into one of those Sherman tanks, though he would have loved the chance.
"I've lived with this my whole life," Abdul-Jabbar says of his father's feelings. "To this day my dad is bitter about not getting a chance to fight. He wanted an opportunity to fight." (Dad went to Juilliard, however, on the GI Bill, and learned to play a mean trombone. He jammed with Yusef Lateef and Art Blakey, among others.)
In a way, the dad's disappointment became the son's passion: The telling of a World War II saga. Beyond the amber -- a six-time NBA Most Valuable Player, the famed days playing for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the one word screeching Kareeem! -- there sat a student of history. Which took him to Lincoln Center in 1992 to watch a documentary about the 600 men of the 761st tank battalion. (Their training was largely seen as propaganda, to get blacks on the side of the war. No one believed they'd ever be called into action, not in a segregated Army.)
Committed to telling their story, Abdul-Jabbar read military books, books about tank construction and the European theater. He read books about Patton. Patton was ambivalent about the black soldier, skeptical of his fitness for battle. "I have nothing but the best in my Army," the books quote Patton telling the soldiers of the 761st in Europe. "I don't care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Kraut[s]." Later that same day, Patton would write in his diary that he was left with a fine impression having met the soldiers of the 761st -- "but I have no faith in the inherent fighting ability of the race."
Abdul-Jabbar traveled to reunions organized by survivors of the 761st. They talked about Lena Horne and Fredi Washington -- their pin-up girls -- during training exercises and the ones from New York reminisced about dancing at the Savoy Ballroom.
The claustrophobia of the tank alarmed Abdul-Jabbar. "Sometimes the men would be in there for two whole days," he says. They told him about having to urinate in their helmets or having to wash their clothes in their helmets. He was roaming libraries, an ex-athlete gawked at in airports, gliding along, his recording equipment in hand, going to do another video interview, some old soldier with a story to tell. Time being real, they were dying off. "Now there are 30 to 40 left," he says of the unit.
He had other commitments -- acting, producing, some scouting, some coaching, some TV commentary -- so the years also piled up on his unfinished book. It wasn't "War and Peace," but five years turned to 10. A co-writer, Anthony Walton, who teaches at Bowdoin College, was brought aboard.
"He sent me three to four boxes of stuff he had pulled together," Walton recalls of his first communications with Abdul-Jabbar. "They were video and audio interviews he had done. He had been to reunions. . . . Just all kinds of materials he had pulled together over eight to 10 years."
Abdul-Jabbar pulled Walton along to some of the reunions. "Kareem and I started interviewing them again," he says of the unit's survivors. "We developed a framework almost like a movie treatment." In the end, Walton says he got inspiration from watching Abdul-Jabbar bring this story to a wider audience. "He's willing to use that cultural authority he has for good important things. He could be just sitting in Hawaii counting his interest."
In the mid-1970s, a push was made by some in Congress to properly recognize the 761st. In 1977, Clifford Alexander, secretary of the Army, ordered an investigation into the unit's lack of recognition. A group of Army researchers concluded that "the climate created by the Army commanders could only have made it difficult to provide proper recognition for a 'Negro' unit during the period 1944-1947."
And glory for the 761st battalion finally began to come. In 1978, President Carter issued a Presidential Unit Citation for Extraordinary Heroism to the 761st. In 1997, Sgt. Ruben Rivers, of the 761st, was posthumously given a Congressional Medal of Honor by President Clinton.
A kid who used to poke around Upper Manhattan, looking for artifacts, who grew into both man and legend, and a historian-detective, was in Arizona when news of Rivers's award reached him. It was a story of heroism he had already squeezed from scrapbooks and boxes. "It gave me such a lift," he remembers.