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Picks and Pans Review: Black Profiles in Courage

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by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alan Steinberg

It would have been easy for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who retired from the champion L.A. Lakers in 1989, to bronze his jock and hire someone like HBO’s fictional sports agent Arliss to market the big guy’s legend. But a man who relaxed between NBA contests by devouring books on African-American history obviously has more on his mind than lingering over his press clippings.

Like rewriting 200 years of American history. “Although some 500,000 [black] Americans were an integral part of our fledgling nation, we know almost nothing about them,” writes an outraged Abdul-Jabbar, 49. “Why were white historians so intent on denying black people credit for being at the forefront of historic events?”

Abdul-Jabbar sets the record straight with a major assist from cowriter Steinberg. He assembles an impressive cast of black patriots and heroes, organized in a straightforward chronology. We learn about Estevanico, a Moroccan slave turned explorer who, after being shipwrecked off the coast of Texas in the 1530s, so excited Spanish leaders in Mexico City with Indian stories about the seven golden cities in the Northwest that they sent an advance party, guided by Estevanico himself, to plunder the occupants and appropriate the precious nuggets for themselves. Along the way he discovered what is now New Mexico and Arizona.

Then there’s Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, who from 1885 to 1907 always got his man. The book, with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr., revitalizes such celebrated figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks with impassioned storytelling and prose as deft as one of Abdul-Jabbar’s patented hooks from the paint. Swish. (Morrow, $22)