Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s film ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ premiers during NBA All-Star weekend

NBA great Kareem Abdul Jabbar produced the new film 'On the Shoulders of Giants,' a documentary 'about the best team you never heard of' — the Harlem Rens.
NBA great Kareem Abdul Jabbar produced the new film 'On the Shoulders of Giants,' a documentary 'about the best team you never heard of' — the Harlem Rens. Brian van der Brug/AFP/Getty Images

NBA All-Star weekend is well underway. East meets West at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. But KPCC’s Shirley Jahad tells us about a piece of basketball history that's also playing out on film.

Laker legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar produced the new film, "On the Shoulders of Giants," a documentary about basketball and the Harlem Renaissance.

Abdul Jabbar says he made the movie "about the best team you never heard of." The team is called the Harlem Rens. Formed in the 1920s, it was the first all-African American and black-owned professional basketball team. And it was the first world championship team.

The Harlem Rens dominated the sport for a quarter century. The team barnstormed around the country during the Jim Crow decades, playing black and white teams and dazzling audiences. Ultimately, the Rens beat white teams to win the world championship.

The film “On the Shoulders of Giants” premiered in Los Angeles at an historic theater in downtown LA. It features narration by Jamie Foxx and interviews with the Rev. Al Sharpton, Bob Costas, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Dr. J, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, John Wooden, Spike Lee and Dominique Wilkens, among others.

Abdul Jabbar, who grew up in Harlem, opened the film.

“So this film is an homage to my community," says Abdul Jabbar, "to Harlem and it tells you about some of the things that made it special, some of the things that made me proud to be from there, to represent my community.”

The film pays tribute to the era of the Harlem Renaissance – when art, music, poetry and sports flourished in the African American community.

“The Harlem Renaissance was the result of The Great Migration," says Abdul Jabbar. "People – black Americans – leaving the South and the Caribbean to get away from Jim Crow laws and the lack of opportunity. So they would go to cities in the North and on the West Coast and found opportunities and had the ability to excel at that point.

"That period of time – the 1920s, '30s and a little bit into the '40s, until the war started – that’s really figured to be the essence of the Harlem renaissance.”

In addition to basketball, the film features jazz music and paintings. Archival footage of the Rens was hard to find. Filmmakers only had a few seconds, so they used artists’ paintings to depict players. Poetry is also featured. Maya Angelou reads a poem by Langston Hughes called Harlem Sweeties about an upscale neighborhood called Sugar Hill.

Ginger, wine-gold, plum-blue, blackberry
All from the spectrum
Harlem girls vary—
So if you want to know beauty’s Rainbow-sweet thrill,
Stroll with me down luscious,
A delicious, a fine Sugar Hill.

The film is going into thousands of classrooms. Following the screening, Abdul Jabbar explains the message for young people.

“Well, I’m just hoping that school kids will get an opportunity to see what it took to get to this point, especially all these kids that love basketball and everything," he says. "They don’t know what had to be done before we could get to this point where everybody enjoys this game and people can come out of high school and make millions of dollars. It took a lot for that to happen.”

The film is available through Video On Demand.

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