The best parts of HBO's new Kareem Abdul-Jabbar documentary are the ones that explore his relationship with his father. Kareem's life has played out in national headlines since he was in high school, so the challenge for the producers of Kareem, Minority Of One was to offer fresh context while still giving a thorough account.
"My dad never showed any emotion," Kareem says early in the documentary. "He was always very wrapped up and he hardly said anything. It affected me my whole life because I thought that was why people respected my dad."
Moments later, the film shows Kareem flipping through a scrapbook and opening a Father's Day card he had given to his dad as a youngster.
Later in the documentary, the story of Kareem's father riding the Laker team bus to Boston Garden during the 1985 NBA Finals is revisited. The Celtics were the defending NBA champions, and Game 1 of the 1985 Finals became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. The Celtics romped 148-114, and among the Lakers, Kareem had a particularly awful game.
As the Lakers got ready to leave their hotel before Game 2, Kareem brought his dad on board the bus, which was a major eye-opener because coach Pat Riley had strict rules about who could ride with the team. But Riley allowed it this time because he sensed Kareem's need to have father with him for a pivotal moment of his career. Kareem dominated Game 2, and the Lakers went on to win the title.
This story has been told before, but it takes on additional meaning, thanks to ground covered earlier in the film. In the 70s, Kareem had become estranged from his parents as he got involved with a hardline Muslim group, and they were banned from attending his wedding. The film follows up that painful rift with how the relationship was restored years later, and that re-connection led to the defining moment on the bus.
The film also tackles the issue of how it was difficult for much of America to relate to a 7-foot-2 African American, who had converted to Islam. As the narrator says during the part of the film that covers Kareem's punching out Milwaukee center Kent Benson, "The incident ... perpetuated a frosty, at times even irritable, aura that had surrounded him dating back his days at UCLA."
But the film takes a textured look at Kareem, accounting for his brilliance and his flaws, which helps unravel his complexity. Younger fans might find this documentary particularly enlightening. It'll be news to most that college basketball once outlawed the dunk as a way of trying to neutralize Kareem's dominance. No dunks? Is this a joke?
The documentary will be shown on HBO throughout November with its debut at 10 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday.
Many former teammates, including Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Norm Nixon, A.C. Green, Mitch Kupchak and Byron Scott, attended the Los Angeles premiere Monday night at the James Bridges Theater on the UCLA campus.