A New Game Afoot

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on why he decided to write a novel about Sherlock Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft.

Arthur Conan Doyle, left, English writer and historian, creator
Arthur Conan Doyle, left, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Imagno/Getty Images and Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

More than a decade before creating Peter Pan and Captain Hook, J.M. Barrie was a cricket captain in need of some magic on the pitch. In 1890, he assembled an amateur cricket team known as the Allahakbarries, comprised of a rotating roster of writers, among them A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse. In a privately circulated team booklet, Barrie assessed his star bowler, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known as “the colossus” to his teammates and the creator of Sherlock Holmes to the rest of the world. “Doyle. A grand bowler,” Barrie wrote. “Knows a batsman’s weakness by the colour of mud on his shoes.”

While pursuing several vocations—physician, ship’s surgeon, crime writer—Doyle remained a devoted athlete throughout. The native Scot golfed, goal-tended, cycled, and famously skied the same Swiss slopes that later temporarily swallowed Holmes, whose worldwide acclaim had become so burdensome that Doyle had attempted to kill him off. As a sportswriter, he covered the 1906 Olympics in London for the Daily Mail, with an emphasis on marathon running. But above all sports, cricket was a lifelong passion. It’s widely speculated that the name Sherlock contains a coded cricket reference—an amalgam of Mordecai Sherwin and Frank Shacklock, two Nottinghamshire cricketers.

Missing in the Sherlockiana saturating today’s popular culture is the perspective of the athlete. Sport, as Doyle noted in his autobiography, “gives health and strength, but above all it gives a certain balance of mind without which a man is not complete.” Cracking this particular case is all-time NBA scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who, along with co-author Anna Waterhouse, has written the novel Mycroft Holmes, which chronicles the adventures of Sherlock’s elder brother, Mycroft, who even in the master detective’s own judgment is the superior intellect of the family.

By phone from his home in Los Angeles, Abdul-Jabbar speaks in a tranquil manner that suggests the rationing of resources. This year alone he’s endured quadruple coronary bypass surgery; published two books; filed regular columns for Time; gathered interviews, including one with Attorney General Eric Holder, for an extensive documentary on race; stood with the president at the White House for the announcement of an initiative to amass genetic data; and recently skewered Donald Trump in editorials for the Washington Post. But he made time to talk Holmes.

“My interest in the Holmes brothers developed because I realized I already had an affinity with the way they saw and analyzed the world,” he says. “I was only in my early 20s when I started playing as a pro, and knew I had a lot to learn about the world. I had a lot of time on planes, in airports, and in hotel rooms, and I used much of that time to read.”

Holmes stories, in particular, provided an inside edge. “All athletes study their opponents looking for weaknesses that can be exploited, even on the playground,” he says. Abdul-Jabbar applied powers of deduction to game-time preparations and built case files against certain opponents. “I made it a point to observe body language,” he says. “Sports injuries are to sports what peanut butter is to jelly. Comes with the territory. That’s why we work so hard to hide any twinge, pain, or body weakness from the other teams. However, by studying their posture, stare, or the tilt of the head, I could discern an injury they are trying to disguise. Then I took advantage of it on the court.”

In Mycroft Holmes, sporting events are integral to the story, from a horse racing set piece in the opening chapter to a memorable sparring match between the Holmes brothers, one where Sherlock’s aquiline nose is bloodied in the boxing ring. It’s a far cry from the homebody Doyle presents in Mycroft’s various cameos in the Sherlock canon. Abdul-Jabbar decided to imagine Mycroft as a “strapping lad” in his early 20s, decades before he was more likely to reason from an armchair, as Sherlock grumbles in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter.” Capable of so much more, Sherlock regrets that his brother exhibits “no ambition” and won’t apply his memory palace to the resolution of real cases. (Subsequent Doyle stories reveal Mycroft to be a powerful, albeit stealth, government official.) Abdul-Jabbar says he was drawn to a more youthful leading man—young Brando versus old Brando, he contends—and the opportunity it provided to reach deeper into the history of Victorian England and its colonial expansion. “It was a time when the country was just understanding the implications of being a ‘world’ power,” he says. “They certainly [recognized] the advantages, but also the enormous disadvantages. It’s a great backdrop [for a Holmes story], because people don’t connect the two. They think of Holmes and his world as being entirely different, and something [only] in London in the 1890s, when actually, as the world superpower, England was a state that ruled so much property and had so much influence.”

As a result of the shift in chronology, Sherlock is away at university and remains largely out of the picture in Mycroft Holmes. Abdul-Jabbar embraced the challenge of telling a Holmes story while the star of the franchise is confined to the margins. He was drawn to Mycroft in part because of the mystery surrounding his job as a government auditor, which, by Mycroft’s final appearance in Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” is revealed to be a front. “To hear Sherlock tell it,” Abdul-Jabbar says, “Mycroft Holmes is, by his 40s, practically the British government. We wanted to see where that sort of behind-the-scenes power might’ve begun.” Abdul-Jabbar also adhered to Doyle’s structure of supplying the lead with a qualified, Watson-like sidekick in the person of Cyrus Douglas, a Trinidadian expatriate in his 40s who soon sets the caper in motion. In the spirit of Doyle’s original works, the foundation of the story revolves around their friendship and, it could be argued, co-dependency.

Strip away the salacious accounts of swindlers, creepers, and criminal masterminds, and Holmes stories are always, at root, a study in male camaraderie. The principals habitually trade war stories, riff on intrigue in the daily papers, share a smoke or a snort. Mycroft, in particular, was notorious for hours of daily loafing at the Diogenes Club, a gentleman’s club for “the most unsocial and unclubbable men” in London who, despite general shyness or misanthropy, still “wish for the company of their fellows.” Abdul-Jabbar adds a new dimension to these carefree acquaintanceships, however, when Cyrus fears his ethnic background and “skin the color of cinnamon” prompts passersby, particularly those on a passenger ship, to assume he is Mycroft’s servant, not his equal. 

As a six-time NBA MVP, Abdul-Jabbar had few fellow Lakers and Bucks who shared his interest in reading and Deerstalkers. “I would have loved to have a team book club to discuss readings, but that’s not the way it worked,” he says. “Whenever we did go out to cut loose, I tried to share my love of jazz with my teammates. Books were much more of a private experience for me, a way to discover who I was and what my place in the world was.”  

Abdul-Jabbar’s writing career predates professional basketball, when he worked as a journalist in his high school years for a Harlem arts program overseen by Kenneth Clark covering cultural events in his neighborhood. “The writer that made the most impression on me at that time was James Baldwin,” he says. “Because he was from Harlem, and he was talking about America and what I understood through living my life—the streets, the issues that were crucial to what was going on in the civil rights movement at that time.”

A lifelong exploration of race relations in America extends to Mycroft Holmes, as well. After Mycroft and Cyrus leave the confines of London in the early chapters, the story explores the American slave trade and the colonization of far-flung islands in the Caribbean. “All of this co-existed with London, OK?” Abdul-Jabbar says. “This is where people were, when you talk about people in the colonies. What was going on in Trinidad was happening around the world. You had Englishmen everywhere. At that point the sun literally did not set on the British Empire.”  

A new Mycroft story is percolating, Abdul-Jabbar says. He’s not sure of the extent to which the sporting life will factor into future installments, though he stressed he’s aware of Doyle’s deep affiliation with athletics, particularly cricket. When I floated a theory that Watson’s narration in the original Doyle stories is somewhat akin to a play-by-play announcer—casually setting the scene from the start like a tipoff, tying up loose ends and filling in clues the reader might have missed in the postscript, almost like postgame analysis—Abdul-Jabbar laughed. “Watson has to do that!” he says. “Because some people are baffled.”

Though Mycroft Holmes is written in the third person, Abdul-Jabbar appreciates the power of Watson’s narrative voice. “Watson understands that everyone’s all excited about Holmes and wants to know everything, so he knows he’s got everybody’s attention,” he says. “That’s always a good motivating factor in how you write. If you know that people want to know all about this guy, and you’re the only one with this information, it gives you a unique and powerful voice.” Having studied the world of Holmes from afar for most of his life, Abdul-Jabbar is hoping Mycroft is the open man no one saw coming.