Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: My Journey From 'Bachelorette' Critic to Guest Star (Guest Column)
After writing for THR about ABC's romance reality franchise, the NBA legend and THR contributor will appear on Monday's episode to judge Rachel Lindsay's suitors by their (on court) game.
When fans of The Bachelorette watch the May 29 episode, I'm sure some will express shock and wonder: "What the heck is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doing on the show handing out romance advice?"
Five months ago, I wrote an article for The Hollywood Reporter titled “How the Bachelor and Bachelorette Franchise Are Damaging Romance in America.” I said this: “As entertaining as these shows are (and they really are compelling fun), there is an insidious darkness beneath the fairy tale pabulum they are serving up.” On the plus side, I called them “entertaining” and “compelling fun.” But I also objected that “The real crime is the lack of intellectual and appearance diversity, which leaves the contestants as interchangeable as Mr. Potato Head parts.” Mostly, I complained that by limiting themselves to only one specific body and intellectual type, they were promoting a form of romance porn that created a superficial fantasy ideal that inevitably would lead to dating disappointment for viewers influenced by the shows. I also observed that African-American contestants, though always a part of the dating scrum, were predictably cut loose after an appropriately polite "we don't see color" period of time. I didn't think anyone was to blame or that there was a racist conspiracy. It was just a consistent occurrence that reflected contestants' comfort zone.
Then along came Rachel Lindsay. Making it to the semifinals of The Bachelor before Nick Viall tearfully decided (weren't all his decisions tearful?) to cut her loose, Rachel distinguished herself as intelligent, athletic, playful, witty and emotionally mature. She also happened to be black.
After my article appeared — and while Viall’s Bachelor season was being broadcast with Rachel still in the mix — the producers of The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise called me up to tell me that the upcoming Bachelorette would feature a black woman. There were three black women among the remaining contestants, and though the producers wouldn’t reveal whom it would be, clearly Rachel had been a standout. They then asked me if I would like to come on the show and run the men through some basketball drills that would reveal some of their character traits to Rachel. As a fan of the shows, I naturally agreed.
Why am I such a fan? Critics always like to complain that “reality” shows like this aren’t reality. That throwing a bunch of people together to compete for love is more game show than real life. That the cloistered but competitive environment creates a false perception that skews emotions in a mild version of brainwashing akin to Stockholm Syndrome. In other words, it’s just like high school. Or an office workplace. Or a pick-up bar. So, yeah, like real life.
Those very challenges and restrictions that critics describe are what best reveal the contestants’ true character. They have to balance looking for love with not looking silly and desperate to the viewing audience. For most, this leads to making bad choices and then trying to rationalize them in their confessionals. That inability to see their actions for what they truly are reveals their deepest personality flaws. It’s like reading a turgid Russian novel as translated by Danielle Steel.
For me, Rachel immediately displayed a clear-eyed view of what was going on and handled herself with dignity while treating the others with compassion. I was relieved she wasn’t chosen by Nick because, let’s face it, she was too good for him. She was smarter, wittier, funnier and more mature than he was, which I suspect he realized and is the reason he didn’t select her.
Now, I was on Rachel’s show to help her assess these men’s characters by how they interacted on the basketball court. Sports competition has a way of stripping away the polished veneer of some people. We see the sharp teeth behind the polite smile.
I arrived at the gymnasium of John Boroughs High School in Burbank. A banner hung over the door reading “Bachelor Nation” in large red letters like you’d see at a high-school pep rally. Above it was another large poster of intertwined roses — a reminder of what they were playing for: a rose that insured they could stay another episode.
The guys were lazily shooting around, just warming up, while Rachel scrutinized them with her practiced attorney’s eyes as if studying a jury to see which ones would go rogue.
When I walked in, they were all surprised. Happily, I hope. Rachel beamed but the guys looked both excited and apprehensive as if I were the stern principal about to kick them off the court. They knew this date had suddenly turned into something much more intense than just casually shooting around or playing HORSE. The real game was afoot.
I introduced myself to Rachel, who looked very athletic in her black running pants, black T-shirt, black track jacket, and a black bow in her hair. We could have been twins, since I was dressed all in black, too — except that I was nearly two feet taller. She told me she was a big fan, thanked me for coming, and said that she loved playing basketball.
I lined the men up to begin a few drills I had designed specifically to bring out the best — or beast — in each. I noted that about half of them wore regular T-shirts and the other half wore tank tops. Were the tank top guys eager to show off their muscles? Something to look for when assessing character. Are they narcissistic or overcompensating for lack of social skills? Or were they just wearing what was comfortable?
First, I ran them through some fundamentals: lay-ups, jump shots, dribbling. This wasn’t to assess their playing ability because it would be unfair to judge a person’s character based on how well they played a sport. It was more to see how quickly they adapted to the drills, how enthusiastic they were to learn, how good-natured they were about the challenge. A man who is cheerful, even if he might be embarrassed, is much more mature than the person who plays well and needs to prove it at every turn. It’s more important to be a good sport than to be good at the sport.
After the drills, we had the men play an actual game while Rachel and I watched and analyzed what we saw. What impressed me about Rachel was how playful yet direct she was with her comments. She didn’t hold back on calling out the showboats or the slackers. She wasn’t looking for the best players, she was looking for the best men. And that meant looking for who was liberal with passing the ball and setting picks more than who forced a shot so they could look good scoring. Together, we judged who were the generous teammates rather than the hotshot wannabe “stars.” Those selfless qualities would last long after their knees were shot.
After the game, I posed for photos with the guys and chatted with them for a while. Most seemed very humble and sincere in their romantic intentions toward Rachel. But for those that weren’t, I felt fully confident Rachel would quickly see through them and send them to the locker room of love.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.