No ghosts in this SI look at Wooden, Alcindor/Abdul Jabbar

Week after week, month after month, year after year, I write GetReligion posts in which I fault mainstream sportswriters for looking the other way when they encounter religious facts and themes related to the lives of amateur and professional athletes.

Some reporters ignore or radically downplay the religious elements in the lives of important athletes and coaches (hello, Ravens-beat editors at The Baltimore Sun). Then there are journalists who allow athletes to flash the God-card in the language of a story, but then never follow up on those faith claims (hello Michael Vick) when it comes to digging out the facts (follow the money, follow the hours on the clock) about their lives in the real world. Where’s the basic journalism?

Often, after the publication of one of these God-and-sports posts, I hear from people who say that I am constantly pointing out the bad, without showing positive examples of coverage that gets the faith element of one of these stories right, combining religious symbolism, facts, etc., into one A-plus package.

Well, here’s one. The other day Sports Illustrated offered a long-read drawn from the biography of UCLA hoops legend John Wooden (“Wooden: A Coach’s Life“) written by veteran reporter Seth Davis. This particular chunk of the book was summed up in the headline, “The Wizard and the Giant.”

Which giant? In this case we are talking about the great 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor, who was arguably the greatest college big man — ever.

Now, younger readers may say, “Lew Alcindor? Don’t you mean Kareem Abdul Jabbar?”

Precisely.

A that’s the subject that this story captures so well. It shows, in clear human terms, how one of the greatest coaches who ever lived, who was also a traditional Christian, learned to adapt to changes in the life of his greatest player, as he went through the process of converting to Islam.

Also, as you would expect, Wooden attracted excellent players to UCLA who shared his Christian faith, along with hoops stars from across the nation who had no active faith at all.

This created a unique atmosphere, and a unique challenge. This is precisely what reporter Davis captures in his story.

This is long, but this is the passage that captures — in clear, basic facts — the vivid reporting and writing in this news feature. At this point in the story, Alcindor is maturing as a player and a man, but there is more going on behind the scenes. This is long, but crucial:

… Outsiders noticed this more content, more open-minded Alcindor. “The face lights up in a ready smile,” Jeff Prugh wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “The demeanor is cool, but cordial. The feelings surface more quickly and are expressed sometimes good humoredly.” In part this was natural maturation, but there was another reason Alcindor evinced a sense of inner peace. Over the summer he had converted to Islam.

Alcindor had first become intrigued by Islam during his freshman year at UCLA, when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Like Malcolm, Alcindor eschewed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, whose U.S.-bred version of Islam included rants about white devils and exhortations to violent retribution. Alcindor was drawn to Islam’s traditional Eastern-based doctrines, which he called “the real Islam.”

While living and working in New York City during the summer of 1968, Alcindor studied at a mosque on 125th Street in Harlem. He immersed himself in the Sunni tradition, as Malcolm had. For two weeks he took instruction each day beginning at 6 a.m. He converted in late August and was given the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means “noble servant of the powerful One.”

Alcindor did not tell teammates or coaches about his conversion until December, on a road swing through the Midwest for games against 13th-ranked Ohio State and No. 5 Notre Dame. On the bus ride between Columbus and South Bend, Alcindor started talking religion with Patterson, a born-again Christian who had started a church-based student group. When Patterson said the only way for a man to reach heaven was through Christ, Alcindor asked, “What about all those people in Africa who never heard of Jesus? Are they all going to hell?” Patterson answered that they were, and pretty soon the debate got heated.

Now you think you know where the story is going? Wrong.

Then an amazing thing happened: The conversation cooled into a thoughtful, civil exchange. Soon Patterson and Alcindor were joined by Don Saffer, who was Jewish, and Terry Schofield, who was Catholic. Other players shifted to that part of the bus, where they all discussed the presence of God, the meaning of life, the shared values of differing religions. Wooden moved closer as well. He didn’t say much; mostly he listened. Finally Alcindor revealed that he had become a Muslim. Much to his surprise, the players and coaches weren’t put off. Instead they were curious and accepting. “I didn’t know who the hell Malcolm X was,” Sweek said. “I learned a lot through [Lew].”

If anyone was likely to have been put off by Alcindor’s conversion, it was Wooden. He was a deacon in his church, never missed a Sunday service and shared Patterson’s devotion to Christ. Yet Wooden had no objection to Alcindor’s newfound faith. He knew Alcindor would not have made such a profound decision without researching it thoroughly. The coach “was curious to know what Islam was all about,” Alcindor said, “and really showed me the utmost respect [for] making my own choices.”

That bus ride through a cold Midwestern night did more to fortify the players’ bonds than any win could. “It’s the most memorable moment of the years I spent at UCLA,” Heitz said. For Alcindor, it was the first time his fellow students finally became his teammates. The first time they really felt like brothers.

Now, was that so hard? Look at the use of the basic facts and the crucial material told in simple language by interesting people.

Davis got it.

If there are any sports-journalism fans in our GetReligion ranks, have you spotted any other features that you want to hold out for this kind of praise? Share the titles and the URLs, please.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • fredx2

    In a way, I don’t fault sports reporters for avoiding the topic of religion in sports.
    1) If they write about it, half of the people are going to view it as a unwanted diversion – something they did not pick up the sports pages to read about. They are hungry for SPORTS, not religion. In a way, the two subjects are polar opposites – sports is essentially about war and conflict and struggle and domination. Religion is about (yuk) love and peace and brotherhood. In an odd way, the two subjects are like oil and water.
    2) Second, the reporter is not an expert in religion (which can be a very complicated subject) and he is likely to get SOMETHING wrong, and he will hear about it for weeks. If he is viewed as endorsing the athletes’ religious proclivities, he will be condemned. If he is viewed as demeaning them, he will be condemned.
    3) Some of the religon exemplified by athletes is of the extreme kind – the kind where they have to publicly praise Jesus for every win. In America we like religion, but we have learned to be a little suspicious of the guy who goes too far. So reporters just let it alone, and don’t focus on it.
    That being said, any piece about John Wooden simply must discuss his deep faith. If you know about Wooden, you know that religion was the basis for his entire life. It permeated everything he did. He was the greatest coach of all time, and it appears his greatness occurred precisely because he was a Christian.

  • John Leavy

    Two of my uncles were in the Irish Christian Brothers, and both were teachers at New York’s (now-defunct) Power Memorial High School. One of them had young Lew Alcindor in his Theology class.

    I used to twit him about what a marvelous job he must have done teaching the Catholic faith to the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


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