Solomon Hughes’s parents didn’t let him watch much TV growing up, but his dad made an exception for the Los Angeles Lakers. “It was appointment family viewing,” Hughes told Vulture over Zoom. “My dad wanted me to pay attention to just how dominant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was, to learn from him.” It’s a decision that feels prescient now that Hughes, a former Harlem Globetrotter, is making his acting debut as Abdul-Jabbar on HBO’s Winning Time, the Adam McKay–produced series based on the 2014 best-seller Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. Hughes caught the tail end of Abdul-Jabbar’s 20-year career, those same years in which Winning Time takes place, and watching the basketball icon win five championship rings between 1980 and 1988 solidified his fandom. “He’s obviously one of the biggest people on the court, just a mountain of a man,” Hughes, who holds a Ph.D. in higher education, said. “When he got the ball, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.”
Like many fans, Hughes was in awe of the NBA star’s signature skyhook, a leaping, high-arcing shot that never seemed to miss. But it’s what the pro athlete turned cultural critic has done off the court that Hughes admires more. “He’s been at the forefront of so many important conversations that span beyond basketball,” Hughes said, noting one of the first books he read as a child was Abdul-Jabbar’s 1983 autobiography, Giant Steps, which covered his early career, his 1971 conversion to Islam, and his activism. Hughes hoped his performance would “emphasize Kareem’s resilience and fortitude to not shut himself off from a world that saw him as one-dimensional.”
The Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of Winning Time is feeling worn down by fame and worries it’s become antithetical to his Muslim faith. In episode five, “Pieces of a Man,” he’s concerned his successes on the court have kept him from fulfilling a higher purpose in a world that would prefer he shut up and dribble. “I was definitely trying to incorporate his patience,” Hughes said, “but also the reality of how annoying the constant onslaught of attention would be.” Hughes spoke with Vulture about learning to act cool, unlocking the skyhook, and which Winning Time co-star he’d take a MasterClass from.
You grew up idolizing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. How did you bring your fandom to the role?
The writers were huge fans of Kareem so there was a collective pursuit of trying to catch the nuances. I really wanted to capture his soft-spoken-ness. You can tell his brain is always processing when he’s in conversation. There’s lots of theories as to why he was so reluctant to engage with sports media, but when you unpack all the things he associated himself with, whether it was supporting Muhammad Ali by protesting the draft or boycotting the 1968 Summer Olympics, you can see he is an intellectual person who craves deep conversations. Having to deal with this sports-media body that was not diverse at all and wanted him to focus on one thing, basketball, was frustrating for him on a daily basis. I wanted to capture the anger sustained within someone who is being pulled in one direction when they want to go another. It’s not just, Oh, I’m annoyed today; there’s lots of context as to why this individual is not responding the way people want him to.
How did you bring that context to your performance?
My dad is the same age as Kareem and I would think about what it must have been like to come of age in the civil-rights era. We’re in this time where we’re interrogating law enforcement and how law enforcement interacts with the Black community and communities of color. My father talked about how, growing up in the South, your job was to figure out a way to navigate a world where it was very clear that justice was not on your side. I wanted to empathize with Kareem, who is trying to reconcile this crazy world around him, by copying his stillness.
Many actors who play real people talk about the moment they felt as if they became the character; often it’s after putting on a piece of the costume. Was there a moment you thought, Oh, I’m Kareem now?
Really every piece: the afro and the beard — I can’t really grow a full beard. The goggles for sure. The first time I put on the jersey I was with DeVaughn Nixon [who plays former Laker and his dad, Norm Nixon, in Winning Time] and we were looking at each other like, This is wild! There was also a really nice album collection on set. Music was really important in Kareem’s life. I’ve heard him talk about how music would sometimes help him find himself emotionally.
Did you put together a playlist to help you channel Kareem?
For sure. I became a fan of jazz in high school so when I got this part I really reimmersed myself in John Coltrane, Max Roach, a lot of Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane’s “Out of This World” was a track I listened to a lot, especially when I was practicing the skyhook. There’s something about that tune that’s all about extending and elevating yourself.
You’ve talked about practicing the skyhook at 24-Hour Fitness and getting high-fives from men of a certain age. What was the key to unlocking Kareem’s signature move?
I definitely benefited from being in the YouTube era. There’s a number of highlight reels that show skyhook after skyhook. One of my problems as a basketball player was I played too fast. When you watch Kareem’s skyhook, he really is in a world of his own. He’s surrounded by defenders, but he’s going to take his time and gracefully try to make that move. He’s trying to relax into it. It’s an incredibly difficult and vigorous move. He was really into yoga, and I got into it during filming and tried to do it every day, focusing on breathing and shutting the world off around me.
Nailing his voice also feels like a real challenge. What is your tip for talking like Kareem?
The power move is speaking softly and making others lean into you. I didn’t focus too much on projection. I felt more like, I’m saying what I’m saying, and you need to be listening. There’s a swagger to the way he did things. The way he would walk out to tip-off at the start of the game was so zen, so calm, so collected. You can sense the reverence the other players, even the opposing players, had for him when they would shake his hand and dap him up. There was a coolness to him. I am not a particularly cool person so trying to embody that was hard work.
How did playing basketball as an actor differ from your experience playing as a Harlem Globetrotter?
When making a TV show, there’s so much you’re trying to capture in a moment. You could shoot a scene for an entire day, but maybe only 15 seconds of it will make it into the episode — and it’s only the 15 seconds that will push the story forward. Also, it’s one thing to make a shot, but it’s another thing to make a shot once the cameras are rolling. There’s the terror of missing a bunch of shots when they’re trying to get a take, but the reality is, you’ve got to keep putting your best foot forward no matter how many misses.
You’re making your acting debut in Winning Time alongside veterans like John C. Reilly, Michael Chiklis, Jason Clarke, and Adrien Brody. Did you pick up any tips?
I could not have imagined a more generous and welcoming group of colleagues. There was such a richness every single day because people were so willing to talk about their experiences and share insights. So many of these actors have done performances that have changed the way I think about the world, so to be able to work with them, man, I’m still pinching myself. Wood Harris would often talk about how this is essentially a master class.
Is there a Winning Time co-star you would take a MasterClass with because their acting advice was just that good?
I really wanted to be respectful of everyone’s space while filming, but I was shooting a scene with Adrien Brody in episode ten. I didn’t realize I was doing this at the time, but I was asking a question out loud that I should have been thinking to myself. It was about something technical, and he just leaned over and started sharing his perspective. Sometimes I made the mistake of waiting to hear “Cut,” and he was like, “Oh, no, Solomon, forget about that. You just run through the moment until the moment’s over. Embrace it. Have fun with it. Ride the wave and don’t get caught up in what’s happening outside of the moment.” It was so cool and generous and encouraging. We’re literally getting ready to roll and he just leans in and shares that. I will always relish that moment.
I read that you reached out to Kareem after you were cast in Winning Time to see if he would meet with you, but he turned down the opportunity. Magic Johnson also said he was “not looking forward” to the show. Have you heard from Kareem or any other Lakers since the show premiered?
Jim Chones, who was a member of the championship team [in 1980], actually came to a screening in Cleveland. It was lovely to meet him and learn about his backstory. I got to meet Norm Nixon, and you feel like you’re in the presence of greatness. Spencer Haywood is a family friend so he’s someone I’ve admired for a long time, and I’m so happy they included his story. He really was a changemaker in the most literal sense in terms of the political stances he took and what he opened up as far as the economic rights of college athletes. My hope is that anyone who has been reluctant about this project understands that it’s coming from people who have immense reverence and are true fans of what these individuals came together as a group and did. They changed the way we watch sports. It’s as simple as that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.