If you live long enough you’ll find yourself in the same room as some very interesting, and unexpected, folks. That was certainly the case recently when the New York Public Library brought together NBA all-time scoring champ Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and celebrated mystery writer Walter Mosley at their flagship Shwartzman Building on Fifth Avenue for a conversation about writing, craft and music.
For those who stopped paying attention when he retired nearly three decades ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar has become a prolific author, penning two autobiographies, several books of history and most recently, he co-authored his first work of fiction, exploring the life of Mycroft Holmes, older brother of Sherlock. Having acquired a love of literature and writing before he ever picked up a basketball and majoring in English at UCLA, Abdul-Jabaar had to wait until his 20-year career in the NBA finished before he could fully explore his first love.
The NYPL brought together this unlikely pair after the director of its live series overheard Abdul-Jabaar saying that Mosley was one of his heroes. So in June, a packed audience at the sumptuous Celeste Bartos Forum got to hear the two authors hold forth on literature, life and everything in between.
“It was a challenge,” Abdul-Jabaar said about penning his first work of fiction. “I didn’t think I could do it.”
The master of the skyhook said he felt daunted, but little of that initial uncertainty transferred onto the page. Speaking about his motivation for exploring a new genre, the champ declared, “Fiction enables you to get into different periods of time and different situations and talk about the universal truths.”
In response, Mosley told the audience,“Fiction is much closer to truth than nonfiction because with nonfiction you say what really happened, but you leave out most of it … But when you write fiction, the whole world is in that novel or that short story.”
Mosley’s literary landscape may be fictional but is steeped in history. When Abdul-Jabaar pressed him about his research methods Mosley, gave an unexpected answer: “I don’t do research. I make things up and then check to see if its true.” In one of his novels, Easy Rollins recalled his participation in the liberation of a concentration camp during WWII. Mosley said he made it up but decided to see if something like that had actually happened, and it had. The all Black 761st Tank Battalion liberated concentration camps near the end of the war.
The duo also talked at length about their mutual love of music. Abdul-Jabaar’s father was a noted trombonist, and growing up in New York, the future NBA star would go backstage and in bars with his father and meet legends such as Sarah Vaughn. Mosley, declaring that jazz was America’s only unique cultural contribution, let is be known that “classical music became jazz the way dinosaurs became birds.”
And there was the mutual admiration of the recently passed champ, Muhammad Ali, who touched each of their lives in different ways. Mosley recalled his own youthful opposition to the war in Vietnam, unconsciously reciting Ali’s declaration that he didn’t have any problem with the Vietnamese. For his part, a young Abdul-Jabaar, still at UCLA, came out in support of the champ’s refusal to go and fight half a world away, a choice that brought him much grief. His success on the court saved him from anything worse.
New York is special in the way that it can bring amazing people together who otherwise might never be in the same room. The library’s “Live From the NYPL” series is one of those only in New York institutions that reminds one why it is so amazing to live here at this moment in time.
For more information about “Live From the NYPL” events please visit: www.nypl.org/events/live-nypl