If the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the words "public intellectual" don't immediately seem to connect, they should. Ever since the NBA Hall of Famer retired from basketball in 1989, he has become a bestselling author of nonfiction and children's books, written a column for Time magazine, appeared on "Meet the Press" and been a cultural ambassador for the United States. Now the 68-year-old New York native has co-written (with Anna Waterhouse) his first adult novel, "Mycroft Holmes," an adventure about Sherlock's older brother. He's also the subject of the documentary "Kareem: Minority of One," which will air on HBO on Nov. 3.
Newsday contributor Lewis Beale spoke with the 7-foot-2 total Holmes nerd by phone (before his controversial Sept. 2 op-ed on Donald Trump ran in The Washington Post) from Los Angeles.
You've been a Holmes fan for years. What is it about the character you like so much?
The way that the character shows a certain desire in all of us when we talk about justice, getting the facts right. Justice working. To deal with someone who understands how to get it right every time, that's remarkable, and something we want to see as a standard.
So why write about Mycroft? Why not Holmes' buddy Watson? Or another key character in the series, Scotland Yard's Inspector Lestrade?
Mycroft is definitely part of Holmes' circle, and [Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan] Doyle says at certain times he is in the British government. This is a time when Britain was the reigning world superpower. And that's an incredible amount of power and influence. Mycroft can find out anything that's possible to be known. The potential for him to do things behind the scenes is enormous.
A great deal of the book, which takes place in 1870 and involves the illegal slave trade, takes place in Trinidad. Why Trinidad?
My family is from Trinidad. I knew a lot about the island and its culture, from what I absorbed from my family, and as a student of history. And being part of the British Empire was part of my family's experience.
You've had collaborators on your nonfiction books. What was it like to have a collaborator on a novel?
Anna is a screenwriter, and she's used to collaborating, plus there was her understanding of dialogue, and being part of a team. I thought the story was basically my construct, although Anna made significant contributions. I'm good at structure, I did more of the bolder strokes, the main story. I thought it was going to be a pain, "She can't understand that!" But it was nothing like that.
Holmes has been played in the movies and on TV by dozens of actors. Who are your favorite and least favorite?
My favorite was Jeremy Brett. He seemed to have it down, the classic Edwardian gentleman, and they treated Watson well in that. I think the least favorite is Basil Rathbone in the movies, because they turned Watson into a buffoon, and he's a really dynamic guy. Jude Law and Robert Downey get him right.
You've also been in the news lately and mentioned a lot on social media for the column you've been writing for Time, which takes on some of the major issues of the day, like international terrorism and racism. How does it feel to be a well-known pundit?
It's nice to have the opportunity to have a voice on certain issues, especially when you care about what's happening, and see things that are alarming. Speaking on it has made it possible to contribute something that needs to be contributed to. People like what I have to say, it makes them think, and that's the greatest compliment I can get.
You've been famous since you were a teenage hoops phenom. What's it like being so celebrated for so long? And has the way people look at that fame changed over the years?
I haven't known anything else. I didn't have a long period being an average young man. When I was 16, I was consensus high school All-American. It's been a different thing at various times. When I first came in the NBA, it was part of the era when the press did not delve into your private life. And that changed. At the end of my career, you had Dennis Rodman running around in wedding dresses.
You have so many things going on in your life these days. Do you still watch a lot of basketball?
I don't watch a whole lot of basketball. But I think the league worldwide, its popularity is amazing. It's approaching on a par with soccer worldwide -- who would have thought that? Every place they have people, they play basketball. It's all there. It's been quite a ride for the game.