02/21/2011 09:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Creates Classroom Documentary On Black History

NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is helping teachers bring history alive in their classrooms.

He's produced a new documentary, "On the Shoulders of Giants," as a learning tool that has something for everyone -- a history lesson, a gripping sports story, relevant music and artistic videography.

The 75-minute documentary teaches students about black history and the Harlem Renaissance through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance Big Five, more commonly known as the The Harlem Rens.

They were the first all-black basketball team founded in 1922 and the first team -- black or white -- to win the World Championship Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939.

The documentary, released February 15 on video on demand, depicts the challenges of a team that endured pervasive racism over the course of three decades. The film shares such vivid details as basketball fans burning Rens players with cigars right on the court.

Poet Dr. Maya Angelou and Phoenix Suns player Grant Hill are among the many interviewed in the documentary who share their thoughts on the importance of black history.

As suggested by the film's tagline -- "the story of the greatest basketball team you never heard of" -- the team's history hasn't been widely celebrated, and that's what Harlem native Abdul-Jabbar wanted to change. He's traveled from New York to Los Angeles to share the film with students.

The highest scorer in NBA history, Abdul-Jabbar, 63, played for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers before retiring more than two decades ago. He's now a coach, author, actor and filmmaker. We talked to him about the film - which he wrote, narrated and produced - and his thoughts on education.

Before creating "On the Shoulders of Giants," you wrote a book about the Harlem Renaissance. Where does your passion for history and your desire to share that with students come from?
I grew up in Washington Heights [near Harlem], and my neighborhood was an old Revolutionary War battlefield. There was also a Dutch farmhouse nearby. It made me aware that it had a history. George Washington walked around my neighborhood -- and Alexander Hamilton. It's always affected the way I think. And students need to understand what we've had to fight for.

What can the history of basketball teach students?
I just really want them to understand what we had to go through to get to the point where we even had the NBA -- what people of color had to go through to have that opportunity. They don't really understand, and it's something that they need to learn about. They really don't seem to get...what America was really all about prior to when they got there. It's like somebody dropped them down on Earth from a blimp or something, and they have no connection to anything.

You've traveled all over the country for screenings. What types of reactions are you seeing from students?
Yeah, we're showing it to everybody. Black, white, athletes or not. Everybody can benefit from learning about it. And students are actually getting an idea of what I'm talking about. So now they say they're understanding the history.

So you're trying to connect the dots for them, in a way, because you're not just talking about basketball, but also setting up a rich cultural backdrop?
Yeah, and the kids are really interested in it. The music is good because we have a real cross-section. We have Chuck D, a more modern rapper, and Herbie Hancock and other jazz musicians. Some of the kids know who they are. You talk about cultural understanding -- we're trying to help them see it all come together. So they don't see it in isolation.

How do you make it easy for teachers to approach such a huge, sensitive and sometimes intimidating subject like black history and the Harlem Renaissance?
Well, there's a whole teacher's kit with the movie that tries to get kids to really think about what the movement was about. There's so much focus on math, science and even language arts, and just emphasizing only that is not good. And just the fact that [the documentary] makes it easy to discuss -- social studies is so important because it helps kids understand things in context. They have to understand what something's all about.

Besides the classroom component, what's the life lesson you've learned through all of this that you want kids to get?
I don't think kids have been raised with the values to do good for their community, it seems. It's the duty of one generation to educate the next generation. That's what I'm trying to do. I did the best I could to provide information in a way kids could relate to so they could get it.

"On the Shoulders of Giants" is available on video on demand through Time Warner, Cox and Comcast Cable Networks. Check your local listings for show times.

Order the "On the Shoulders of Giants" teachers' kit on Abdul-Jabbar's website.

If the work of Renaissance man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar inspires you, click below to contribute to his charity Skyhook Foundation, which uses sports to motivate kids to attend college.