Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has always generated attention for his basketball prowess, but at the same time he has spawned an equal amount of curiosity within the sports fan spectrum for his personality, which has never quite fit the mold of the stereotypical “jock.”
Separated since childhood from his peers by virtue of his height, the young Lewis Ferdinand Alcindor was and is by nature an introverted, studious sort more inclined to curl up in his locker room cubicle with a book rather than indulge in the testosterone-saturated culture that is part and parcel of sports enclaves from high school up into the elite bastion of professional athletics.
Since his retirement, the Hall of Famer has indulged his more cerebral interests by showcasing his multifaceted talents as an activist, commentator (on non-sports matters), and most notably, as a writer. In this endeavor, he has primarily worked in the nonfiction arena, achieved such accomplishments as his 1983 autobiography, “Giant Steps,” and indulging his passion for African American history with the 1996 tome “Black Profiles in Courage,” and the 2004 release “Brothers in Arms.” The latter chronicled the saga of an obscure World War II Black tank battalion. All of these efforts fulfilled the promise of a vocation he began as a 17 year old, when he reported on the shooting of a Black youth by a White police officer for a Harlem news organ.
More recently, he has turned his hand toward mystery writing, a passion stemming from his childhood infatuation with the work of Edgar Allen Poe. In tandem with seasoned screenwriter Anna Waterhouse (author of the 2010 “Frankie and Alice” starring Halle Berry, and the upcoming Jesse Owens biopic “Race”), he’s written “Mycroft Holmes,” a Victorian thriller featuring Sherlock Holmes’ older (and allegedly smarter) brother.
The result is a lively who-done-it, in which Kareem uses the opportunity to explore the British Empire in its heyday, as well as its dubious heritage of complicity in the slave trade in America and the West Indies. Mycroft enlists the aide of his Afro-Caribbean sidekick/comrade-in-arms, Cyrus Douglas, to investigate the strange deaths of several native children in 1870 Trinidad (a nod to the basketball star’s own island ancestry). Along the way, they contend with local superstitions involving the “douen,” spirits of children who’ve died before being baptized, the “loogaroo,” an island werewolf, and the “soucouyant” (a shape-shifting hag and bloodsucker). And then there’s the possible complicity of Mycroft’s beautiful fiancée, Georgiana, whose family owns a plantation in the area.
Cyrus proves himself a more than capable ally, since he is a character of complexity, who must hide his intellect and competence in an era where such attributes in a man of color will only guarantee abuse and worse from the racist standard bearers who dictate the customs and routine of the age. This is manifested in the intrusion of former Confederate soilders from the recently concluded Civil War, unwilling to relinquish the customs and traditions of recent history.
With the publication of “Mycroft Holmes” and his other literary endeavors, Abdul-Jabbar’s burdens of celebrity and public adulation may finally have subsided enough to allow this icon of the hardwood to finally assume his true identity as a renaissance man. The trappings of public intellect seem to fit easily on the big man’s shoulders, because he has demonstrated a willingness to tackle issues and sacred cows with gusto (he recently took fellow NBA legend Michael Jordan to task for “choosing commerce over conscience” with his endorsement of Air Jordan stores which have resulted in the killings of numerous Black youths by peers eager to steal the coveted sneakers).
Thus far, the reception for “Mycroft Holmes” (released on Nov. 22) has been positive, with talk of a sequel already emerging from the publishing realm. This will be a fitting second act from a man whose physical prowess was merely a superficial attribute of a complex, yet enigmatic persona.
“Mycroft Holmes,” from Titan Books, retails for $25.99 ($15.59 from Amazon.com).