Monday is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 71st birthday. But even if Kareem hadn’t been born on this date, I’d think of April as being his month. After all, the 2018 NBA playoffs have just gotten underway, and Kareem played on six NBA championship teams, including five with the Los Angeles Lakers. Besides, this is both Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month.
During his Hall of Fame career, Kareem played with the lyrical grace of one of Rita Dove’s poems. He shot his skyhook as if he were tiptoeing on a cloud while strumming an overhead harp before releasing his shots.
Indeed, for a long time, Kareem, the NBA’s regular-season career points leader, embodied the poetry in motion of his sport, just as players such as Elgin Baylor, Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry have exemplified the jazzlike improvisation of NBA basketball.
Furthermore, Kareem, an athlete and intellectual, has found inspiration in jazz, its beauty, depth and joy. Like jazz, NBA basketball features tight ensemble play and towering soloists. Like jazz, the NBA embraces worldwide influences while influencing the game worldwide. Like jazz, NBA basketball is played in the moment, a moment when necessity or design sparks the creation of something new.
When the founders created America, it was the poetic promise of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that formed the new nation’s foundation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Now, neither poetry nor jazz is studied or appreciated as much as they should be in America. Instead, they come to us, once or twice removed, in the form of everything from rap lyrics to the dialogue in August Wilson’s plays, blues, and jazz symphonies.
For example, blues and jazz stars such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday have been long forgotten by so many. Still, the NBA’s Russell Westbrook, the first NBA player to average a season-long triple-double twice, reminds us. With his punishing play on the court and colorful clothes on the streets, the Oklahoma City guard models the singers’ rejection of being judged or defined by others, a rejection exemplified in their song, “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”
From now until the teams in the NBA Finals jazz June, as poet Gwendolyn Brooks might have had it, the world’s best basketball players and coaches will go about the business of choosing a new champion.
In the East, LeBron James, wise man and king, tries to make his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. In his 15th year, yet seemingly ageless and tireless, the Cleveland Cavaliers forward plays as if William Shakespeare has been watching. “To me, fair friend, you never can be old, For as you were when first your eye I eye’d, Such seems your beauty still.”