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Since retiring from basketball in 1989 as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has worn many hats. The 64-year-old is an author, documentary filmmaker and U.S. cultural ambassador. He has appeared in dozens of films and television series, the latest of which finds him playing himself.
Tuesday’s episode of New Girl welcomes him as a helpful co-worker to Winston (Lamorne Morris) when he takes an assistant job to a tyrannical radio host (Phil Hendrie). The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Abdul-Jabbar ahead of his latest gig, and, like so many guest stars before him, he admitted to being drawn in by star Zooey Deschanel.
“I’ve always thought Zooey was funny in a goofy kind of way,” he says. “I enjoy her take on humor. She’s got a different slant on things that just comes across in a totally refreshing way.”
Although he’s only in a few brief scenes — popping up over a cubicle and slipping Winston cautionary notes — his appearance does offer up some revelatory information of Winston’s failed career in Latvian basketball.
“If you don’t mind going someplace where you have to fly forever and then take a train, you can play professional basketball,” he explains, noting that Winston’s failure in the league says a lot about his talent. “Anybody who goes that far and then gets rejected is, ahem, pretty pathetic.”
Abdul-Jabbar has spent much of his time behind the scenes of late. His basketball documentary On the Shoulders of Giants premiered on Showtime last year, after he spent half a decade working on it.
“I had to write the book first to show people what it was about,” he says of the untold story about the Harlem Renaissance, an all-black basketball team that thrived at a time when African-American sports weren’t filmed. “It did pretty well, and that enabled us to raise the money.”
Although he says it was all worth it, the rigors of writing and producing a documentary aren’t anything he’s looking to tackle again in the near future. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. “We had less than a minute’s footage of the Harlem Rens playing basketball, and we were able to do an entire documentary out of that.”
As for basketball in 2012, Abdul-Jabbar says he doesn’t much keep up with the Los Angeles Lakers, though he admits the team he won five NBA championships with in the 1980s has “their work cut out for them.” He seems much more excited about baseball and the recent purchase of the L.A. Dodgers by a group featuring his former teammate, Magic Johnson.
“I’m lifetime Dodger fan,” he tells THR of the landmark $2.1 billion sale. “I rooted for them when they were in Brooklyn. It’s good to see that people at the top really want to have a winner, and they’re going to make every effort to get the Dodgers out there going for that pennant.”
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