Though best known for his basketball exploits, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a political and social radical. For example, he refused to join the 1968 US Olympic basketball team and also resisted being drafted into the US military during the Vietnam War. The reasons were his strong opposition to the war and deep concerns about the racial strife and ongoing racism in America.

For these stands he caught hell. But as a man of solid convictions, he stood his ground.  Although raised Catholic, and originally christened Lew Alcindor, around 1970 he converted to orthodox Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This also upset a lot of people, but Kareem was stalwart. He remains a devoted Muslim to this day, and his heroes include Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Miles Davis.  He is also a family man with six children. He has evolved.

Abdul-Jabbar is still charting new territory and now has a book out about his old coach from his days at UCLA, John Wooden. Titled “Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court,” it is actually a combination of a biography about Wooden and an autobiography, and it makes for a fascinating read.

Wooden was a legendary basketball coach at UCLA for 20 years. During this time he went 149-2 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, coached 17 All Americans and 24 future (NBA) players. He won a record-setting 10 NCAA championships, including three in a row while Abdul-Jabbar played for his teams. Considered by most to be the greatest coach in college basketball history, he was also the recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. 

Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. He was also an All American every season he played at UCLA and voted Most Valuable Player after the 1968 NCAA championship game. Kareem played in the NBA for 20 years, including 14 years with the LA Lakers — longer than any other player. 

Since his retirement from the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar has turned his attention primarily to writing, and has authored several books, including a New York Times bestseller. His essays and columns have appeared in Time magazine, the Washington Post and other publications. In 2016, he was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, following in the footsteps of Wooden, his mentor and “second father.”

The photographs that grace the book’s dust jacket are priceless. The black-and-white photo on the front cover was taken in 1965, when Abdul-Jabbar was an 18-year-old freshman at UCLA and Wooden the team’s 55-year-old coach (note the 37-year age gap between the two was never a roadblock to the eventual evolution of their close friendship).  The slightly rumpled but formally dressed Wooden is shown precisely instructing an attentive Alcindor (as he was known at the time) in one of the finer points of basketball.

The color photo on the back is especially sweet, showing the two walking hand-in-hand off the court at Pauley Pavilion after a game in 2007. Wooden looks quite frail at the age of 97, and had asked for Kareem’s help to get off the court.  Good friends that they were by this time, Abdul-Jabbar was only too happy to oblige. The photo is really kind of a tear-jerker.

Their age difference was not the only big difference they had. Wooden was from the fields of Indiana, while Abdul-Jabbar grew up in the streets of New York City. Wooden was white, a devout Baptist, and socially conservative (although he considered himself a liberal Democrat).  His epithets were confined to “good gracious” and “gosh darn it.”

In the book, Abdul-Jabbar pulls no punches in his frank discussions of the difficulties of being black in America, and the racial inequality that persists to this day. This Coach Wooden understood.  To his great credit, Wooden supported Abdul-Jabbar’s views and positions, even if he didn’t always agree with them. He evolved also.

Their many differences, did not stop a deep friendship from developing between the two men over the years. Abdul-Jabbar is very sensitive, intelligent and balanced in this book. He also displays a fine sense of humor, which is often self-deprecating. Without Wooden (Abdul-Jabbar unfailingly refers to him as “Coach” throughout the book), “my life would have been so much less. Less joyous. Less meaningful. Less filled with love.”

“Coach Wooden and Me” is a well-written and important book. It even has an index. Clearly, Kareem worked hard on it, just as Coach would have wanted. 

Editor’s Note: John Grula, PhD, is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.