Before you ask, Solomon Hughes is three inches shorter than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yes, he played basketball professionally, and his sky hook is nearly as effervescent as the original. No, actor Kareem hasn’t spoken to real Kareem. No, you’ve never seen Hughes before, because HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, on which he plays Abdul-Jabbar, is his very first acting gig. And sure, he felt a tiny bit of pressure when his very first acting gig required him to become arguably the most influential basketball player who’s ever lived.
With that out of the way: It’s the morning after the debut of Winning Time—the uber-stylized series about the Showtime-era Lakers—and Hughes, 43, is telling me how a man goes from DI baller to Harlem Globetrotter to Stanford lecturer to would-be actor wonder auditing what to do in an anion when Adam McKay shouts , Improvise! It started when he realized, actually, that he wasn’t all that passionate about basketball. “I had a mentor who said, ‘While you are someone who had some talent, I felt like you just liked basketball.’ It’s liberating to hear that.”
Hughes left hoops for a career in higher ed, writing a dissertation on how athletic recruits choose their colleges and, later on, mentoring Ph.D. students. “I knew if I’m going to stay in education, I need to go after what I really want to do: teaching. I left Stanford the summer of 2019. My plan was to spend time looking for teaching gigs.” Then a casting director called. Wanted: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
A few months later, Hughes is at a 24-hour gym, launching 100 sky hooks per arm. He’s interviewing legendary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. (Abdul-Jabbar famously loves jazz.) He’s thinking of his father, who’s the same age as Kareem. “My dad grew up in the South, went to segregated schools. When I think about the conversations I’ve had with my dad about his life and then the things Kareem has written? You’re talking about the darkness of humanity.” The work paid off. The Abdul-Jabbar we meet on Winning Time has learned the lessons of Lew Alcindor but doesn’t yet know how to turn pain into art. Hughes adds all the necessary weightiness, temper, and heart to Kareem’s crisis of faith. “Acting has been one of the most spiritual things I’ve ever done,” he says.
At the end of our talk, I ask Hughes a question he may or may not be ready for, the great existential conundrum of our time: The GOAT—who is it? “Ooooh, man,” he says, as if LeBron, MJ, and Kareem were holding a glass to his door. “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar primarily shot two-pointers. And he holds the Mount Everest of basketball records. I’ll let the numbers make the case for that.” Passed the test.
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With Episode Five of Winning Time Chronicling the moment Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hughes broke down what it took to embody the legend’s spiritual journey.
ESQUIRE: In Episode Five, when you—as Kareem—walk into the mosque and ask to pray, it’s brilliantly acted. You get to his soul there.
Solomon Hughes: It’s a beautifully written episode. When you look at Kareem’s life, he’s done so much over such a long period of time that I think it’s easy to take for granted some things, right? You’re talking about converting faith. You’re doing it in the public eye. It’s like, this is not something you’re doing at home and just sharing with some friends. This is global news. It was terrifying. It was gratifying.
ESQ: What did it mean to you to explore the spiritual side?
SH: Man, we live in a world where things can get put into opposing sides, right? Person of faith or person out of faith. The reality is we all have faith in something. We all are putting our faith in something as much as we don’t want to admit it or not. We’re all putting our faith in something… That episode, that scene, man. You’re walking into a building. You grew up where this idea was like, when you walk into the building, everything is better, right? You walk into the structure and everything is going to get better. But there’s this man who has lived so much life. And he’s put so much on the line and he’s trying to find peace.
ESQ: Winning Time does make sure to show some of those occasional moments of unpleasantness from Kareem.
SH: Sure, sure. I’m grateful that we’re doing a TV series so you see the whole range of this Kareem character. I feel, as much as I’ve read about him, as much as I’ve followed him, that was one of the things that I really took away from [HBO’s Abdul-Jabbar documentary, Minority of One] was just how visible he has been. I can relate to the autograph seeker, or the person who just wants to have a conversation. I can relate to being so consumed by: “That’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar! I got to say something to him.” I can relate to not being aware that, you know what? You’re the 80th person that day that thought that when they saw him. I can only imagine what it would be like to walk in his shoes for one day and have an ocean of want coming towards you.
ESQ: Given that Kareem is this mammoth figure, can you just talk about the pressure you felt embodying him?
SH: It’s the opportunity to try to honor this figure and what he means to this country. What he means to this world, what he means specifically to Black history. Gosh, my father grew up in the South. My father and Kareem were the same age, went to segregated schools. When I think about some of the conversations I’ve had with my dad about his life and then some of the things Kareem has written. Just, for example, the church bombing in Birmingham. You’re talking about the darkness of humanity. To be coming of age when something like that happens. How these people were able to keep fighting for progress when what is supposed to be one of the most sacred spaces in our society is blown to bits and young girls’ bodies are blown to bits. So to try to take on a character who grew up in that ecosystem, right? And also lean into having the uncomfortable conversations about what we need to be doing differently as a society. I feel we are, in many ways, products of our society. So it’s it’s the pressure of honoring Kareem. It’s the pressure of portraying Kareem.
ESQ: What you’re saying about Kareem’s coming of age, seeing so much hate and racism, Episode Five shows. He’s looking at the TV and fighting with his father. Later on, he has a conversation with Magic where he tells him there’s power in silence.
SH: That was Kareem’s story, as well. It was nice to be a part of that performance, because I feel like when you think of all of the people who have been relegated to the corner, whose voices haven’t been acknowledged for the work that they’ve done. I mean, when I read that in preparation, I immediately thought about Black women. Or just thinking about the Black church, again, I talk about growing up in it. Just what it has done in terms of its contributions to music. It’s contributions to social activism, and there’s the incredible documentary that Henry Louis Gates did on the Black church. It makes the point that the people that sustained the institution were the Black women. All the men were in leadership positions and 80 to 90% percent of the congregants were Black women. Just the richness of the gifts that have come out of the Black church.
ESQ: I know you haven’t had the chance to meet Kareem yet, but what would you want to tell him if you did?
SH: I’m just grateful for the life that he’s lived. Grateful for his contributions. To think about the fact that he was a part of the Cleveland Summit where Muhammad Ali was talking about protesting the draft. The fact that these grown men invited a very brilliant young man into that conversation, and just what was at risk for being a part of that conversation? So much value, so much bravery, so much courage. Hats off.
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