The NBA's all-time leading scorer, who won six championships, has lately been focusing on a different kind of team. In his fifth book, Brothers in Arms (co-written with Anthony Walton), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 57, chronicles the 761st Tank Battalion, an all-black unit that helped liberate dozens of towns in World War II. TIME's Sean Gregory talked last week with the Hall of Famer.
YOUR CO-AUTHOR SAYS HE ADMIRES YOU BECAUSE, AS A RETIRED STAR ATHLETE, YOU COULD BE lounging in Hawaii AND COUNTING YOUR INVESTMENTS. WHY WRITE HISTORY BOOKS INSTEAD?
Well, I've always enjoyed research. I first did it in the summer of 1964, when I worked for a youth program in Harlem. They sent me to the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture] to do a little research, and that's where I got bit by the history bug. It's not really work for me.
WHY WRITE A BOOK ABOUT THE 761ST TANK BATTALION?
I have personal connections with them on many different levels. One of the guys in the unit was a police officer with my dad. I've known him since I was 9. One of the reasons I went to UCLA was Jackie Robinson, and Jackie Robinson was the morale officer for the 761st. There are all kinds of little connections here, and they make it a very special story for me.
YOUR FATHER'S FELLOW TRANSIT COP HAD NEVER TALKED ABOUT HIS WAR EXPERIENCE WITH YOU OR YOUR FATHER. WHY NOT?
They don't want any credit for it. They just think that fighting was what they were supposed to do. They are the most humble, generous people that you will ever meet.
THE 761ST TRAINED AS A PUBLIC RELATIONS GESTURE TO PLACATE THE BLACK COMMUNITY. WHAT CONVINCED GENERAL GEORGE PATTON TO FINALLY LET THESE GUYS FIGHT?
Patton was desperate for tankers. The 761st had the luxury of training for over two years and knew strengths and weaknesses of the German equipment. If it hadn't been for their extensive training, they would have been chewed up like the rest of the tank units.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST HARDSHIP THOSE MEN HAD TO FACE?
The disappointment. They got back to America and realized that America wanted to act like the war hadn't happened. These guys had been to Europe and were treated like human beings. Here in America, there were still signs in the South that said WHITES ONLY. That wasn't going to fly.
YOU'VE BEEN LOBBYING FOR AN NBA COACHING JOB FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS. WHY HAVE LEAGUE EXECUTIVES CLOSED THE DOOR ON YOU?
People don't really see me as having the qualities that are essential for a coach. [As a player,] I did not have a whole lot to say to the press because I got tired of them asking me the same questions repeatedly, so they don't think I can talk. The bad impression became the only impression, so I have to do something to change that.
ONE DAY RECENTLY KOBE BRYANT GOT UP AT 4:00 A.M., FLEW TO COLORADO TO PLEAD NOT GUILTY IN HIS SEXUAL-ASSAULT CASE AND THEN RETURNED TO LOS ANGELES TO SCORE 42 POINTS IN A PLAYOFF GAME. HOW IS HE DOING THIS?
Perhaps basketball is the one part of his life where everything is right. He's gotten involved in a really sticky situation, and I'm sure he regrets how it unfolded. Then here's basketball, something he's loved his whole life and is still working for him.