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OPINION

They’re all better than me!

I can barely string together a few hundred words every two weeks, while successful athletes such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and former big-league outfielder Doug Glanville have written columns that have reached tens of thousands of readers.

Unlike Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not only could I not sink a buzzer-beating skyhook in an NBA playoff game, I certainly did not act in the funniest movie ever made (Abdul-Jabbar played copilot Roger Murdock in “Airplane!," here with pilot Peter Graves), or run a foundation to promote STEM education among inner-city schoolchildren.UPI/The Boston Globe

One of the most cogent commentaries of the HBO series “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” springs from the pen of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA All-Star center from 1969 to 1989. Abdul-Jabbar has plenty to say about HBO’s fictional-factional goulash, which he calls “deliberately dishonest” and “drearily dull.”

“There is only one immutable sin in writing,” Abdul-Jabbar observes: “Don’t Be Boring! ‘Winning Time’ commits that sin over and over.”

It’s not a trespass he commits in his Substack column, which takes on everything from abortion legislation in Oklahoma (“Let’s Ban Oklahoma”) to questionable Grammy awards (“on their way to the pop culture dumpster?”). As Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy noted earlier this month: “The top scorer in NBA history and a six-time MVP, Abdul-Jabbar at 75 is now one of the best columnists in America.”

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the Los Angeles premiere of Apple's "They Call Me Magic" at the Village Regency Theatre in Westwood, Calif., on April 14. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Which poses the question: How come so many people can do my job, brilliantly, but I couldn’t get to proverbial first base in theirs? Not only could I not sink a buzzer-beating skyhook in an NBA playoff game, I certainly did not act in the funniest movie ever made (Abdul-Jabbar played copilot Roger Murdock in “Airplane!”), or run a foundation to promote STEM education among inner-city schoolchildren.

I can barely string together a few hundred words every two weeks, while successful athletes such as Abdul-Jabbar, Celtics legend Bill Russell, and former big-league outfielder Doug Glanville, have all written columns that have reached tens of thousands of readers.

Columnizing has attracted a motley crew over the years. Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North wrote for a while, as did television impresario Ed Sullivan and actor Peter Ustinov.

The British playwright Alan Bennett has contributed columns to the London Review of Books. He reported meeting one of my heroes, the writer-historian Cecil Woodham-Smith (“a frail woman with a tiny bird-like skull . . . . she was quite snobbish”) in an Oxford library. I worship Woodham-Smith because her great book “The Reason Why,” about the charge of the Light Brigade, contains no footnotes. “Having to read footnotes,” Noel Coward once said, “resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.”

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When not writing more interesting columns than I ever could, Bennett penned award-winning plays such as “The Madness of King George III” and “The History Boys.”

The most famous amateur columnist in memory would be former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote a six-day-a-week (!) column, “My Day,” from 1935 to 1961. At its height, “My Day” appeared in 90 American newspapers, reaching an audience of over 4 million. FBI agents were among Roosevelt’s closest readers; after she visited a monastery in the USSR in 1957, agents wrote that “Mrs. Roosevelt would apparently have her readers believe that Communist leaders have changed their views on religion.”

J. Edgar Hoover ungraciously referred to Roosevelt and her readers as “that old hoot owl and her clique.”

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt watches as President Franklin D. Roosevelt operates on the big turkey, setting in motion the annual Thanksgiving feast at Warm Springs, Ga., on Nov. 29, 1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum/Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidenti

Roosevelt’s column overlapped with that of another FBI bugbear, Woody Guthrie’s 1939-1940 outing in The People’s Daily World, a San Francisco-based Communist newspaper. In “Woody Sez,” Guthrie inveighed against Big Capital and valorized the working class, often in pidgin English: “Down with Wall Street. Down with salary loan sharks — down with the rape mad finance fiends — We are civilized to the brink of poverty, slavery, an slaughter. If this be treason — make the most sof it.”

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Maybe I’ll start writing folk songs to prove that I’m more than a one-trick pony. Or work on my skyhook. But I’ll never fare as well in their professions as they have in mine.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.