Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court Book Poster Image
Thoughtful memoir by basketball star and civil rights icon.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kareem's life story touches many of the important people and events of the 1960s, offering readers an introduction to some of the key moments in the history of the civil rights movement. 

Positive Messages

Relationships are more important than winning; becoming who you are is "not a goal but a long journey that never ends"; "coaches and teachers and family and friends are everywhere, reaching out a hand for you to take"; be the person you choose to be, not who the world expects you to be.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Young Lewis (who later changes his name to Kareem) is a passionate and dedicated student, an exceptionally gifted athlete, a curious and compassionate citizen, and a committed activist and intellectual.

Violence

The book mentions several violent incidents from the era of widespread civil rights protests, including the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the chaos of the Watts uprising of 1965.

Sex
Language

The "N" word appears frequently throughout the book as Kareem confronts racism at nearly every turn in his young life.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court is an inspiring memoir for middle school readers about the trials and tribulations of one of the most accomplished athletes of all time as he came to understand his faith, his country, and himself. Having confronted racism (and racial slurs like the "N" word) and criticism at every turn, Kareem writes about how the coaches in his life helped him find his place in the world and define himself as an African-American, a public figure, and a champion for social justice.

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What's the story?

BECOMING KAREEM: GROWING UP ON AND OFF THE COURT is an autobiography for young readers by author, activist, and NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He traces his journey from shy, oversized, straight-A student from the housing projects of New York City to socially conscious international celebrity, voice for change and black empowerment, and devout Muslim. Set against the backdrop of a racially divided and tumultuous America of the 1950s and '60s, Becoming Kareem follows the young Lew Alcindor through his awkward teen years, his intellectual awakening in high school and at college at UCLA, up to his early professional basketball career, describing his development not only as a player but also as a scholar, a writer, and an activist. Along the way, the coaches and teachers he meets, including boxing icon Muhammad Ali, legendary college basketball guru John Wooden, and martial arts pioneer Bruce Lee, help him find his voice and comprehend and combat the racism experienced by virtually all African-Americans at the time, a fight he has carried on to the present day. Kareem details the pain of experiencing prejudice from people he thought he could trust -- like the white friends who turned on him and the coach who tried to motivate him by using the "N" word -- and the thick skin he had to develop as a result. Crossing paths with celebrities and civil rights leaders, young Lew discovers the power and peril of being black and famous in an America that praises him for his athletic gifts but resents him for his commitment to justice. Eventually, he changes his name and embraces his newfound Islamic faith in an expression of his decision to become who he wants and needs to be, rather than who others expect him to be.

Is it any good?

Eloquent and poignant, Kareem's story is one of self-discovery, emotional and intellectual development, and hard-fought and well-deserved success. His insights into a troubled but exciting time for black Americans show how inescapable the fear caused by racism and police brutality was and is, even for a beloved superstar such as himself. His memoir reveals a complex and compelling thinker whose journey has transcended sports and inspired millions by using his platform to articulate the African-American experience, much like those who came before and influenced him, such as Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and countless others.

While basketball fans may be especially drawn to this autobiography by one of the sport's all-time greats, the lessons learned and wisdom offered are valuable to any young person searching for his or her place in a world filled with injustice and inequality. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the long struggle for civil rights in the United States as it's explored in Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court. How did activists and celebrities like Kareem, Muhammad Ali, and James Baldwin contribute to the national conversation about race relations in the 1960s and beyond?

  • Why have many African-Americans like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar chosen to change their names and often their religion as they become more socially conscious? Why did Kareem connect so deeply with the teachings of Islam?

  • Kareem realized early on that there were coaches in his life outside of basketball that could teach him things that sports never could. Who are some of your coaches, and what have they taught you?

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