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My name is Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., and my name is also Abdul Kareem, but I'll explain about that much later. I'm going to tell you my life story from as far back as I can remember, and if you think that it takes a lot of conceit for a 22-year-old basketball player to tell his life story, then that's your hangup. The way things are in America today—and have been for 200 years—the story of any black man has meaning, even if he's a shoeshine "boy" or a porter or your friendly neighborhood Uncle Tom. Maybe you won't read about them; maybe you will read about me because you're interested in basketball. That's fine. A long time ago I learned to accept the idea that people have no interest in me except as a jock. But I'm also a person, a human being, just like those other black men who walk about invisible to many of their fellows.
My earliest memory is of sitting on the grass in Central Park. It was bright and sunny, airy. I was about 3. My mother was with me. I was running around on this bright green carpet of grass, still getting used to the fact that I was the large, economy-size child. My parents tell me I was 22� inches long and 12 pounds 11 ounces in weight when I was born, but I don't remember back that far. I do remember playing in the grass of Central Park around 110th Street when I was 3. And I remember a ball. In my earliest memory I was playing with a ball. The other thing that I remember from way back is music—all kinds of music—from the Trumpet Voluntary to Take the "A" Train. My dad graduated from Juilliard School of Music in 1952, when I was 5, and that was a very high point in our family history. We all went down for the ceremonies, my mother and father and grandmother and several other relatives, and after the certificates were presented they had a reception and the graduates played their instruments. I saw all those European-looking cats with their hair down to here, and it made me proud that my father was blowing right along with them, on his trombone. He also studied conducting and piano, but since there wasn't too much call for black symphony conductors in those days he held onto his job as a bill collector for a furniture company and then slid over to the Transit Authority police department, where he's now a sergeant. He's always kept up with his music, though. He used to go down to the Elks Club at 126th and Fifth Avenue to jam with other musicians, and sometimes he'd take me along. Dizzy Gillespie came around. Yusef Lateef sat in when his name was Bill Evans. Art Blakey was there. Years later, when I was over 7 feet tall, my dad and I ran into Art Blakey, who is about 5'3", and he looked at me and he said, "This is the kid you had in the carriage?" My father said I was the kid. Blakey kept walking around me and saying, "Are you sure this is the kid you had in the carriage?"
My mother and father had met in North Carolina, when my father was stationed at Fort Bragg during World War II, and they found they had a common interest in music. In fact, they both sang in the Hall Johnson Choir later. My mother is a very calm, very intuitive person, and one of the world's great cooks. She can burn, my mother! Col lard greens, black-eyed peas and rice, turnip greens, fried chicken, etc. People look at my mother, who is 5'11", and my father, at 6'2�", and they wonder how I got to be 7'1?" and 235 pounds. Well, you have to go back a generation earlier, to my father's father, who was 6'8" and migrated to New York from Trinidad. I never saw him, but my father said he was an impressive sight with his handlebar mustache and his long hair. My grandfather spoke Yoruba, a Nigerian language, and English, and my grandmother spoke English, Spanish, French and a Trinidad patois. She had a musical way of speaking, and when I used to go over to her house in Brooklyn to eat some of her delicious meals of fried bananas and mangoes and all, I had to change my brain rhythms to understand what she was saying in that soft singsong.
Around my house, there was no speaking shamefully about ancestors. We had forebears we could take pride in, and I used to love to sit and listen to my father tell me tales about my grandfather and how he came to New York to make his living. I was always taught that behind me there was something real and authentic and dignified, and this helps give a child a sense of self-worth and keeps him from feeling inferior no matter what kind of propaganda is being laid down around him. I always had that feeling of self-worth. You can go to Trinidad right now and find a place called Alcindor Trace in the district of Balandra. We are those Alcindors. We are not meek and recessive, and we are not ashamed of ourselves.
It was our pride that took us right out of Harlem when I was still a little kid. My father wasn't too happy about the way the neighborhood around 111th and Seventh Avenue was developing, and he moved us up to the northern end of Manhattan to the Dyckman housing project in a section called Inwood. That was where I spent my childhood, in a pleasant place. Inwood is smack in the middle of New York, but it is green, as green as Beverly Hills. Right near the buildings of the project is Fort George Park, and there's a big hill between 193rd and Dyckman Street, and the grass goes all the way down to the Harlem River Drive and then to the river. The air is fresh; there's no industry nearby. Not far away to the west is Fort Tryon Park. More acres and acres of green, and in the middle of it is the museum for medieval art called The Cloisters. The view from my own bedroom on the fifth floor of the project was The Cloisters. The point is, this was no ghetto, and it did not produce hoods and junkies. Sure, as little kids we did a certain amount of pilfering, things like candy bars at the supermarket and sodas from the machines we could fool, just like the kids in Bala-Cynwyd, Pa. or Shaker Heights, Ohio. But our neighborhood produced no great amount of crime. Most of the guys I was brought up with are now in school or holding steady jobs. Most of them are white. When I was living in the project, the ratio was about 6 to 1 white, but it's a little lower now. That was one of the things that confused me about race: in our building we had people from Cuba, Russia, England, Germany, Ireland, Puerto Rico, everyplace, and all of us kids got along when we were small. There were seven 14-story buildings with 12 apartments on a floor, and that made a lot of kids, and we played together without regard to race or religion or color.
I guess I was in the third grade when I began to wonder why my father and I always had to go way down to 125th Street in Harlem to get our hair cut. There were plenty of barbers in the In-wood area, but I never saw them cutting a black man's hair. One day when my father and I were making the trip down Broadway on Bus No. 100, I just flat out asked him why. He thought a while and then he said, "Lewis, No. 1 is that the white barbers in the neighborhood might not cut our hair the way we want it, and No. 2 is that they might not want to cut it at all." This didn't shock me or anything; it just gave me something to think about, and I digested it in my mind for several days. That's the way racial knowledge comes to American black children, a little at a time, some of it digestible and some of it as hard to take as rocks in the stomach, until that dull pain becomes constant and you can't get rid of it. It starts with things like the long bus ride for a haircut.
But I was pretty much shielded in my first three years of school. My parents are Catholic, and they put me in St. Jude's, run by the Presentation Sisters, and John Graham and I were the only black kids in the school. In those early years, we didn't catch anything negative from the sisters, and not much from the kids, and then—bang!—the fourth grade descended on me like a ton of bricks.
At that point, both of my parents were working, and this left nobody at home to take care of me. I was sent to the Holy Providence School in Cornwells Heights, Pa., just north of Philadelphia. The school is run by the Order of the Blessed Sacrament, nuns who teach Afro-Americans and Indians. My classmates were deprived black kids from the ghettos of Philly, D.C., Baltimore, and they were another world. Tough, hardened little fellows with vocabularies right out of the maximum-security wing at Sing Sing. The mildest insult they could offer was "Mother Fletcher," but this was used only when there might be a nun within earshot. The rest of the time they used the real words. What an education it was for a protected kid from the Dyckman housing project!
When I enrolled in Holy Providence as a fourth-grader, I was already the second-tallest kid in the whole school, and the school went up to the eighth grade. Ordinarily, this would have made things easier for me, but I managed to get off on the wrong foot with those kids from the ghettos. You see, I could read well and easily. It was as natural to me to read as it was for other kids to play on a swing. We always had a zillion books around our house—still do—and I'd grown up around books. But these other black kids had come from families where reading was regarded as some kind of occult art—they were all too busy trying to keep from being hungry and miserable to spend any time on books, and this too is part of the black condition. Anyway, the nuns discovered that I read fluently, and one day they had me read aloud before the seventh-grade kids. The nun said, "Listen to him! This is how you should read!" Man, that did it! I was ostracized. They thought I was some kind of a weird egghead, and I'm anything but an egghead. And they shunned me. But when the basketball season began at Holy Providence, I noticed that the other kids did a lot of looking in my direction, and one day a big kid grabbed me by the arm and announced, "Come on, Mother Fletcher, we gonna teach you a game."
Up until then I had known very little about basketball. My father was a great athlete, but his main interests were swimming and track and handball, and all he had taught me about basketball was dribbling. I would bounce the ball three or four times and then lose control, and nobody was mistaking me for Meadowlark Lemon. But I was tall, about a head taller than the other guys in the fourth grade, and so the kids hustled me out to the playground to teach me the game from scratch—and claw, and elbow. They played a tough fundamental game, sort of a blend of basketball, lacrosse and prizefighting. There was a big metal swing support, but no swings on it, and they had roped a peach basket to the top of it and that was our basket. We usually played three-on-three in the playground, but every now and then they'd pile us into the coach's old green Chevy and off we'd go to play another grammar school in Bristol or Ambler, places like that. I rode the bench most of the time; the other kids on our team were eighth-graders, four and five years older than I was. But from that point on—I was 9 years old and 5'4" tall—the pattern of my life was set. I operated on a cycle, and the cycle was based on the basketball season. For me, that was and is the season, and all life revolves around it, like a biological-clock setup.