Who Is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
A dominant high school basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was recruited to play at UCLA and led the Bruins to three national titles. His dominance continued in the NBA, first for the Milwaukee Bucks, and later the Los Angeles Lakers. Abdul-Jabbar won six titles and six MVP awards, and finished as the league's all-time scorer. He retired in 1989 and is widely considered one of the greatest players in NBA history, and his talent was celebrated as early as high school.
Early Life and Education
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. on April 16, 1947, in New York City. The only son of Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr., a New York City policeman, and his wife, Cora, Alcindor was always the tallest kid in his class.
Known as Lew Alcindor, by the age of nine he stood an impressive 5'8", and by the time he hit eighth grade, he'd grown another full foot and could already dunk a basketball.
He started playing the sport at an early age. At Power Memorial Academy, Alcindor put together a high school career few could rival. He set New York City school records in scoring and rebounds, while simultaneously leading his team to an astonishing 71 consecutive wins and three straight city titles. In 2000 the National Sports Writers dubbed Alcindor's team "The #1 High School Team of the Century."
College Career and John Wooden
After graduating in 1965, Alcindor enrolled at the University of California-Los Angeles. There, he continued his unprecedented dominance, becoming the college game's best player.
Under legendary coach John Wooden, Alcindor led the Bruins to three national championships from 1967 to 1969 and was named the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament's Most Outstanding Player for those years.
In the spring of 1969 the Milwaukee Bucks, in only their second year of existence, selected Alcindor with the first overall pick in the NBA draft. Alcindor quickly adjusted to the pro game. He finished second in the league in scoring and third in rebounding, and was named Rookie of the Year.
He also helped dramatically change the fortunes of his franchise. Coming off a dismal 27-win season the year before, the retooled Bucks, with Alcindor manning the basket, improved to 56-26.
The following season the Bucks, having added future Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson to their roster, made another huge leap. The team finished the regular season 66-16 and then steamrolled through the playoffs, sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in the 1971 NBA finals. That same year Alcindor won his first Most Valuable Player award, the first of six MVP honors he received during his long career.
Conversion to Islam
Shortly after the 1971 season ended, Alcindor converted to Islam and adopted the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which translates into "noble, powerful servant."
In 1974, Abdul-Jabbar again led the Bucks to the NBA finals, where the team lost to the Boston Celtics.
Los Angeles Lakers
Even with all his on-the-court success as a Buck, Abdul-Jabbar struggled to find happiness off the court in his life in Milwaukee.
"Live in Milwaukee?" he said in an early magazine interview. "No, I guess you could say I exist in Milwaukee. I am a soldier hired for service and I will perform that service well. Basketball has given me a good life, but this town has nothing to do with my roots. There's no common ground."
Following the end of the 1975 season, Abdul-Jabbar demanded a trade, requesting Bucks management send him to either New York or Los Angeles. He was eventually shipped west for a package of players, none of whom came close to delivering for Milwaukee what Abdul-Jabbar would give the Lakers.
Over the next 15 seasons Abdul-Jabbar turned Los Angeles into a perennial winner. Beginning with the 1979-80 season, when he was paired with rookie point guard Magic Johnson, the dominant center propelled the Lakers to five league titles.
His signature jump shot, the skyhook, came to be an unstoppable offensive weapon for Abdul-Jabbar, and the Lakers enjoyed championship dominance over Julius "Dr. J" Erving's Philadelphia 76ers, Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Isiah Thomas' Detroit Pistons.
His success on the court led to some acting opportunities. Abdul-Jabbar appeared in several films, including the 1979 martial-arts film Game of Death and the 1980 comedy Airplane!
Well into his 30s, he still managed to average more than 20 points a game. By his late 30s, he was still playing around 35 minutes a game. In the 1985 finals against the Boston Celtics, which the Lakers won in six games, the 38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar was named the series MVP.
When Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, he was the NBA's all-time leading scorer, with 38,387 points, and became the first NBA player to play for 20 seasons. His career totals included 17,440 rebounds, 3,189 blocks and 1,560 games.
He also broke records for having scored the most points, blocked the most shots and won the most MVP titles in 1989.
Years after his retirement, Abdul-Jabbar seemed especially proud about his longevity. "The '80s made up for all the abuse I took during the '70s," he told the Orange County Register. "I outlived all my critics. By the time I retired, everybody saw me as a venerable institution. Things do change."
Since his retirement, Abdul-Jabbar hasn't strayed too far from the game he loves, working for the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He even spent a year as a coach on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona — an experience that he recorded in the 2000 book A Season on the Reservation.
He has written several other books, including 2007's On the Shoulders of Giants, about the Harlem Renaissance. Abdul-Jabbar has also worked as a public speaker and a spokesperson for several products. In 1995, Abdul-Jabbar was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In November 2009, Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, but his long-term prognosis looked favorable. In February 2011, doctors declared the retired NBA star cancer free. Abdul-Jabbar was named a 2016 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by Barack Obama.
Showing he was still athletic enough to compete at age 71, the basketball legend signed on for the cast of Dancing with the Stars: Athletes in the spring of 2018, where he was paired with reigning champion Lindsay Arnold. He also continued to showcase his gift for persuasive arguments, penning an essay that explored the complicated issue of firing Roseanne Barr for her racist tweet and another that noted the increasing appearances of socially conscious villains in popular entertainment.
Personal Life and Children
A father of five, Abdul-Jabbar has four children from his first marriage to Habiba Abdul-Jabbar and a son from another relationship.
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