Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Lifelong Obsession with Sherlock Holmes
By Suzanne Raga
For nearly 50 years, basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has loved all things Sherlock Holmes, and last September, he took his fandom a step beyond what most other Holmes followers do—he released a mystery novel set in the Holmesian universe, called Mycroft Holmes. Co-written with Anna Waterhouse, the book is a fictional origin story of Sherlock Holmes’s older brother, Mycroft.
Though he's a household name based on his 20-year prowess on the court, Abdul-Jabbar has written books on everything from an African-American battalion in World War II to the Harlem Renaissance to his experience teaching basketball to kids on a Native American reservation in Arizona. But Mycroft Holmes is his first novel, and his first official foray into the Holmes domain.
He wasn't a newcomer to the Holmes tribe though. In his early twenties, Abdul-Jabbar received a set of Sherlock books before his first road trip with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, and he fell in love with the series immediately. “I first read these books on the beach in San Diego when we were playing the Rockets,” he told The New Yorker. “I was fascinated by Holmes's ability to see clues where other people saw nothing,” he further revealed to Esquire. “It was like he saw the world in color while everyone else saw in black and white.”
Abdul-Jabbar spent his time traveling to and from games reading Holmes novels and watching Holmes films from the 1940s. Eventually, he began internalizing Sherlock's ability to read situations, and he used the deduction and observational skills he read about in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books on the basketball court. By observing the body language of his opponents, studying their posture, and looking for any clues that they were slightly injured, he aimed to get the upper-hand on the court.
For example, he used Holmesian deduction against basketball players like Manute Bol, who, at 7 feet 7 inches, was 5 inches taller than Abdul-Jabbar; his famous "skyhook" shot managed to evade even the other giants on the court by placing his body between the other player and his shooting arm. But Abdul-Jabbar's favorite story involves outwitting Piston Bob Lanier. After he overheard ball boys talking about Lanier smoking cigarettes in the locker room at halftime, Abdul-Jabbar adjusted his strategy on the court. “I knew, if Lanier was smoking, if I made him run in the second half he’d be in pain,” he told The New Yorker. “Sure enough, he got too winded to play. We won the game,” Abdul-Jabbar shared with Esquire.
After reading the 1979 novel Enter the Lion: A Posthumous Memoir of Mycroft Holmes, Abdul-Jabbar got inspired by the character of Mycroft, Sherlock's older brother, whom Conan Doyle frequently described as being possibly more brilliant and clever than his sibling—but entirely too lazy to do real field work. “He's an overweight, sedentary recluse in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories … But he does amazing things, to the point that Sherlock says, ‘He is the British Government’ … And that's fascinating to me. Who is this guy? I felt there was a huge opportunity to find him and learn what he's about and why he is the way he is,” Abdul-Jabbar explained to GQ.
Abdul-Jabbar set Mycroft Holmes in 1870, when Sherlock was still a student at King’s College. In the novel, Mycroft follows his fiancé, Georgiana, to her home in Trinidad to explore the mystery of dead children on the beach. He brings his friend Cyrus Douglas, a West Indian tobacco seller, and they work to solve the murders. The New York Times review of Mycroft Holmes said that Abdul-Jabbar rivals Conan Doyle himself.
But if a basketball legend writing a worthy, Holmesian mystery novel sounds far-fetched, think again. As Sherlock himself famously said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."