Suit Up for the Fight

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Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay in 1942) straightens Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s (born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor in 1947) in this Time Magazine photo from 1967.  They were in Cleveland — Ali had refused to enter the draft, taking instead an anti-Vietnam War stance. A group of athletes, including young Kareem, met to support his decision.

I recently heard a talk — one of those seated-in-a-chair discussions with a moderator — with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I’d read his memoirs and let’s just say, this is a civil rights leader who really does have something to say about American life, culture and the ongoing struggle to make the nation better. In the context of the trumpian era of small-mindedness, cruelty, and abjection, Abdul-Jabbar’s take on life — from the perspective of an older generation, from the viewpoint of someone who has shouldered the role of “role model”  to the point of writing about that role — has much to contribute to a national discussion. His advice reflects the life experiences of a 70-year old African American man: economic uplift, education as a tool, avoid conflict when possible. Yet he is also someone whose allegiances to civil rights, diversity and tolerance, have been constant. His ‘words of wisdom’ tend towards appeasement but his actions have been rigorously confrontational when there’s just been wrong actions. As when Ali denounced the Vietnam War — Kareem, early in his own career, joined others in defending Ali.

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Here he is at the talk I attended, dressed in a tan suit, navy tie, white shirt with carefully-enlarged collar wings (he’s very tall, around 7’2″, so visually, there needs to be balance). His socks were jauntily striped. (Photograph from Miami Student newspaper, unattributed photographer who deserves much credit for this lovely image.)

I realized, as he carefully discussed a variety of issues and then fielded questions from the audience, that Kareem adopted a uniform -well, two – for his life. First, the basketball uniform, something he wore for decades, first as a record-high point scorer in high school, then at UCLA, then at the Milwaukee Bucks, and finally at the Lakers.

You can read about his extraordinary bb career elsewhere — but keep in mind, those MVP awards reflect not only the level of play but the level of cooperatively-minded outlook. This guy sees himself — on a profound level, I think — as a member of a team. He has his own rich interior life, comes off as a deep introvert, but he has a twist of connection to others that must have made him a terrific teammate.

The second uniform he wore was, of course, the suit. The classic, sharp, tailored men’s suit, worn without irony or an implied message. Abdul-Jabbar wears a suit in almost all public photographs from the earliest days of his career to the present.

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Here he is being measured for a suit, in a promo shot intended to sell onlookers on his height. But in many ways Abdul-Jabbar has always worn a suit, and it’s worn both as a measure of self-respect, respect for others, and I think, as the kind of protective garb it was intended to be.

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This advertisement from 1965 gives a sense of the roots of the modern men’s suit. Visually, the suit is supposed to broaden and lengthen the silhouette of a man’s body, increasing the width of the shoulders by drawing the shoulder line out. Notice how the join line between the stitched shoulder and the sleeves pulls out from the actual shoulder of the body? In most women’s clothing, that line is drawn in to rest about 1/2″ in from the outer edge of the shoulder. Then, in a men’s suit there is padding beneath the fabric gives the shoulder line a stiff edge and moves the fabric away from the actual body. The line of the body pulls upward from the same color of fabric — it’s a vertical column of color. Then, vertical punctuation marks — the crease of the pant leg, the buttons marching up the vest length, the shirt expanse, and the jacket plackets. If you look at a men’s suit as if an arrow is moving upwards from the feet, and then, at the top, pushing out left and right, you have the men’s silhouette. The protective nature of a suit is also evident: once dressed, a man show nothing but his hands, a short expanse of unprotected neck, and his face. And here, our model’s hands are covered by a briefcase, his face by the pipe extending outward, and his head, neatly protected by the hat.

Today, Abdul-Jabbar favors slightly long pants, very long lapels on his jackets, and exaggerated collar wings, his jacket cuffs feature four, not three, buttons. He tends to wear dark earth tones in his suits.  These tailoring and styling details balance his overwhelming physical presence: he is very very tall, angular and thin, aging, and his hands are extremely large, finely boned, and wide. In this beautiful portrait from the New York Times (which Kareem occasionally writes for), the photographer brilliantly highlights those hands and that face perched atop that body: the hands remind onlookers of the skill and depth of play he exhibited as a player, but the face is that of a worried, introspective intellectual mind.20mag-20abdul-jabbar-t_CA0-articleLarge NYTimes

Here he is again, in 1967, a sweet 50 years earlier. The suit is tighter, double-breasted, the collar wings small and tidy. The only hint we are in the late 1960s is the detail of those fabric-covered buttons, matching the tie. Ali’s style is achingly evident: while Abdul-Jabbar wears a suit to show respect and to self-effacingly put others at ease, Ali has a style just a shade cocky. That thin tie, the beautiful face that knows its own beauty, the flat-top square cut of hair, even the black suit itself, reveal Ali’s genius at presenting his own worth.

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