Rahim Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Dali Lama Ramma Jamma
(and the other kid in Cot J-26)
Okay, the kid was named Rahim, but when this dignified little 13-year-old man told me he had been planning to play junior high football this season before Katrina ruined his school, I said, "Whoa, man, you're in Spurs country here, let's talk this over."
I asked Rahim, who resembles child actor Emmanuel Lewis if he were normal sized, if he'd like to sit with me and chat.
We sat at a table in Kelly USA's huge recreation room, filled with recently vacated tables the other kids had left to line up for lunch.
I said, "When's your birthday?"
He said, "November 7th."
"No way. That's my brother Billy's birthday. That makes you a Scorpio," I said.
He raised his eyebrows, curious about what that might mean.
I said, "Lemme see, that makes you a naturally curious type, like a spy or a secret agent who loves to solve mysteries."
He smiled and said, "How'd you know that?"
I told him I had a degree in Scorpiology.
"But let's go over this football plan first, okay?" I asked.
"Okay," he said.
I said, "How tall is your daddy?"
"Okay then, you'll probably grow up to be about 6'6" and stay lean. That means a running back or some fast position in football, but you know The Man only lets the white boys play quarterback, right?"
He laughed and said, "Mmm-hmm."
"Yeah," I said, "In football, those giant tackles and guards go after you lean, fast types. You want three or four giant fat boys jumping on you every day in practice?"
He pondered it a moment, then looked at me and said, "Go on..."
"Now, you are a good lookin' boy, right?
He smiled and looked down, bashfully.
"How are the chicks gonna see your beautyliciousness if you're all trussed into padded spandex and all helmeted with your face covered?
"No sir, when you're on the b-ball court, those hotties will see that face and those long legs and biceps and triceps and they'll say... what?"
"I don't know, what?" he said.
"They'll say, 'Mmm, mmm, mmm, look at that Rahim, he hot.
"Not to mention, NFL players get good pay- but NBA players get Superstar pay. Now with your looks and a Superstar's money...can you say, 'Supermodel, riding to your mansion in your Benz with you?' "
He smiled and said, "You have a point there, Miss."
So I said, "Okay, then it's settled. You'll play junior high and high school b-ball, then you get a full basketball scholarship to pay for your college.
"In fact, you've even got a perfect NBA name, Rahim."
He laughed and said, "You can call me Rahim Kareem Abdul Jabbar, then."
"Okay, Rahim Kareem Abdul Jabbar, now that we have that settled, what will you study in college just in case the NBA doesn't work out?"
He said, "Got any ideas?"
I said, "Lemme see here, you love mysteries, you love to investigate things, how about becoming a detective, or even a federal agent?
"You see, son, a black man in this country drives down the road, minding his business and a cop can pull him over and shake him down just for the heck of it. Right?"
"Oh, yeah," he said.
So I said, "But when Detective Rahim Kareem Abdul Jabbar rolls down the window on his Benz, he looks at the cop and says, 'Sure, you can see my license, officer, I got it right here, under my GOLD SHIELD."
Then I mimed the cop sliding back away from his car, saying, "Oh, sorry Detective, my mistake, sir."
He laughed like hell at the thought of that scene.
After we had bantered like that for a few minutes, I asked, "Would you like to tell me how you came to be here in San Antonio?"
His posture got straighter, his smile faded and he said, "Yes, nobody has asked me that yet."
It seems Rahim was in his grandfather's house that awful day with his grandparents, his mother and his younger brother, a 9-year-old in recent remission from leukemia.
He and his brother had been playing a video game on their TV when the power went off.
His grandfather suggested they play cards, at the table by the window.
Rahim had repositioned his chair, and when he put his feet back down, he felt water slosh up through the carpeting.
He told his grandfather, who looked out the window and saw water rushing down what had been their street.
Quickly, Rahim hoisted himself into the attic, where he had the presence of mind to dislodge the vent fan and squeeze himself up through the opening to get to the roof.
He looked up and down the river that had been his street and saw a boat flowing toward the house.
He cried out for help.
The boat driver said he'd come back around, and to gather up the rest of the family, quick.
Rahim jumped back into the attic and called for his family to get up there. As they climbed the ladder, Rahim took the time to bust out the dormer window in the attic and clear all the sharp glass away before the family reached the attic.
One by one, Rahim and his family jumped off the roof into the river below, then swam to the rescue boat and climbed aboard.
The boat taxied them to the nearest street still above water and dropped them all off.
From there, they walked 12 miles to the Superdome, which by then was already filled to capacity.
So, for two days, Rahim and his family lived on the sidewalk outside the Superdome, without toilet facilities, minimal food and water, and watching people die in the sweltering mugginess of the post hurricane weather. His brother was weak. They worried he might be too weak from chemo and radiation to survive the elements.
While his grandfather was walking around the crowded, squalid sidewalks of the Superdome looking for food, a bus came to take a crowd including Rahim, his grandmother, mother and brother to San Antonio's Kelly USA. It was now or never and they had to leave- without his grandfather.
His eyes misted at that point, but he inhaled deeply and continued his story.
He didn't mention that all his family had on that San Antonio-bound bus were the clothes on their backs. I had to ask.
After hearing that, I remembered the three boxes of clothes and shoes I had gathered the day before to take to the tented collection area my goofy friends had mentioned. Turned out the collection tents were not a collection site, it was a fuckin' Labor Day barbecue cookoff.
Once Rahim had told me his story, I took him out to the vending machine and bought him a Coke. On the floor near the machine were his mother, grandmother and brother, huddled together in stunned silence.
I introduced myself to them, saying what a fine boy Rahim was.
Then I asked if one of them could accompany Rahim and me out to my car to select some new clothes for their family to wear.
Kelly USA had a clothing area but it was disorganized, stuffy, crowded and filled with clothes a hobo would scoff at. I mean, who the hell would donate a tuxedo jacket to hurricane victims in the 100º summer weather of South Texas?
Anyway, at my car, I gave them all the best stuff: the J Crew T-shirts, the Liz Claiborne casual wear, the outgrown Discovery channel's special safari shorts I paid a fortune for- back when I had a personal trainer, a full client roster and could afford such frivolities.
Rahim was so amped up over the Discovery channel, steel gray, vented pocket, hidden zippered compartment, totally cool shorts made of high tech ripstop nylon and other fancy shit, he actually slipped them on between the open front and back doors of my car.
The color matched the banded collar and cuffs of his bright orange T-shirt perfectly.
There's nothing like a hot new outfit to boost the morale of a handsome boy.
My heart was pounding from the joy his broad smile gave me. His grandmother was praising God as she carried away an armload of other stuff.
The kid had just crawled out of Hell, yet this simple exchange made both of us feel like we had formed a lasting bond.
I would have adopted him on the spot had he not had a strong mother and loving grandparents.
As the day wore on, a giant Catholic church service was about to start. I took that as a sign that it was time for me to go. As the Archbishop and his nun groupies were arriving, I was leaving.
Unless they were carrying in a trunk filled with cash, I wasn't interested in hearing any sermons.
On the way out, I paused in the hot sun to watch a group of high school age boys playing a pickup game of hoops. One kid had a long range shot sweeter than Robert Horry's.
I said, "You boys are in Spurs country now- better kick your game up a notch! I wanna see some above the rim play- this ain't the N'awlins Hornets up in here."
So the kid with the sweet 3-point shot got the ball, plowed through three aggressive defenders in the paint and launched a perfect slam dunk...wayyyy above the rim.
I told him he'd just won one of my vintage Spurs championship T-shirts. I got his cot number and wrote myself a reminder to bring it to him when I could.
I could tell many more stories of people I met yesterday, but I haven't got time.
I am heading back out there today to pitch in again.
I'm taking that Spurs T-shirt, neatly folded and wrapped in tissue. The kid in cot J-26 earned it.
To be continued...