Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem (1947—)

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Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem (1947—)

With an intensity that disguised his shyness and a dancing jump shot nicknamed the "sky hook," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the National Basketball Association during the 1970s and 1980s. The seven-foot-two-inch center won three national collegiate championships at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and six professional championships with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and was named the league's most valuable player a record six times. Beyond his athletic accomplishments, Jabbar also introduced a new level of racial awareness to basketball by boycotting the 1968 Olympic team, converting to Islam, and changing his name.

Abdul-Jabbar was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor in Harlem, New York, on April 16, 1947. His parents were both over six feet tall and Abdul-Jabbar reached six feet before the sixth grade. He attended a Catholic school in Inwood, a mixed middle-class section of Manhattan, and did not become aware of race until the third grade. Holding a black-and-white class photograph in his hand, he thought, "Damn I'm dark and everybody else is light." Able to dunk the basketball by the eighth grade, Abdul-Jabbar was highly recruited and attended Power Memorial Academy in New York. During Abdul-Jabbar's final three years of high school, Power lost only one game and won three straight Catholic league championships. He was named high school All-American three times and was the most publicized high school basketball player in the United States. The 1964 Harlem race riot was a pivotal event in Abdul-Jabbar's life, occurring the summer before his senior year. "Right then and there I knew who I was and who I was going to be," he wrote in Kareem. "I was going to be black rage personified, black power in the flesh."

Abdul-Jabbar accepted a scholarship from UCLA in 1965. Majoring in English, he studied in the newly emerging field of black literature. As a freshman, Abdul-Jabbar worked on his basketball skills to overcome his awkwardness. He led the freshman squad to an undefeated season and a 75-60 victory over the varsity, which had won the national championship in two of the previous three years. In his second year, Abdul-Jabbar worked with coaching legend John Wooden, who emphasized strategy and conditioning in basketball. Abdul-Jabbar dominated the college game, averaging 29 points a game and leading the Bruins to an undefeated season. UCLA won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, defeating the University of Dayton. As a junior, Abdul-Jabbar developed jump and hook shots, averaging 26.2 points a game. He shut down University of Houston star Elvin Hayes in the NCAA semi-finals before leading the Bruins to a victory over North Carolina. UCLA won a third consecutive national title during Adbul-Jabbar's senior year, and the young star was honored as the tournament's outstanding player for the third year in a row. "Alcindor has completely changed the aspect of the game. I saw great players actually afraid to shoot," said St. John's University coach Lou Carnesecca.

Abdul-Jabbar was the first pick in the professional draft of 1969 and went to the last-place Milwaukee Bucks. Averaging 28.8 points a game during his rookie season, Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to a 56-26 record, losing to the New York Knicks in the playoffs. Milwaukee play-by-play announcer Eddie Doucette coined the term "sky hook" for Abdul-Jabbar's trademark hook shot. During the off season, the Bucks obtained veteran Cincinnati Royals point guard Oscar Robertson, and the pair teamed up to help Milwaukee defeat the Baltimore Bullets for the 1971 NBA championship. Abdul-Jabbar was named the NBA's most valuable player and the playoff MVP. The Bucks returned to the finals in the 1973-74 season, but lost to the Boston Celtics. Robertson retired the following year and Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand on a backboard support. Milwaukee failed to make the playoffs.

Abdul-Jabbar made good on his promise to personify "black rage." Instead of starring in the 1968 Olympics, as he surely would have, he studied Islam with Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis. Abdul-Jabbar converted to the religion popular with many African Americans and changed his name to mean "generous powerful servant of Allah." Abdul-Khaalis arranged a marriage for Abdul-Jabbar in 1971 but the couple separated after the birth of a daughter two years later. Meanwhile, Abdul-Khaalis had been trying to convert black Muslims to traditional Islam. On January 18, 1973, a group of black Muslim extremists retaliated by invading a New York City townhouse owned by Abdul-Jabbar and killing Abdul-Khaalis' wife and children. Four years later, Abdul-Khaalis and some followers staged a protest in Washington, D.C. and a reporter was killed in the resulting disturbance. Abdul-Khaalis was sentenced to 40 years in prison with Abdul-Jabbar paying his legal expenses.

Feeling unfulfilled and conspicuous in the largely white, small-market city of Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar asked for a trade in 1975. He was sent to Los Angeles for four first-team players. Through the remainder of the 1970s, Abdul-Jabbar made the Lakers one of the NBA's top teams but even he wasn't enough to take the team to a championship alone. Angered by years of what he considered bullying by NBA opponents, Abdul-Jabbar was fined $5,000 in 1977 for punching Bucks center Kent Benson. In 1979, the Lakers drafted Earvin "Magic" Johnson, and the point guard gave Los Angeles the edge it needed. The Lakers won the NBA title over Philadelphia in 1980. Abdul-Jabbar broke his foot in the fifth game, was taped and returned to score 40 points, but watched the rest of the series on television. The Lakers won again in 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988. Abdul-Jabbar surpassed Wilt Chamberlain's all-time scoring record in 1984, eventually setting records for most points (38,387), seasons (20), minutes played (57,446), field goals made (15,837), field goals attempted (28,307), and blocked shots (3,189); he averaged 24.6 points a game before he retired at the age of 42 following the 1988-89 season. He held the record for most playoff points until surpassed by Michael Jordan in 1998. He was elected unanimously into the Basketball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility on May 15, 1995, and was named one of the 50 greatest basketball players in history to coincide with the NBA's 50th anniversary in 1996.

Abdul-Jabbar's personal life remained unsettled during and after his Los Angeles playing years. He was always uncomfortable with reporters, describing them as "scurrying around like cockroaches after crumbs." Fans, especially white, found it difficult to understand his conversion to Islam; his attitudes towards race; and his shy, introverted personality. Abdul-Jabbar's Islamic faith also estranged him from his parents, although they eventually reconciled. His Bel Air house was destroyed by fire on January 31, 1983, and the fire contributed to bankruptcy for the former NBA star four years later. Abdul-Jabbar wrote two autobiographical accounts, Giant Steps in 1983 and Kareem in 1990, and a children's collection, Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement, in 1996. He acted in motion pictures and television including Mannix, 21 Jump Street, Airplane, Fletch, and a 1994 Stephen King mini-series, The Stand. He was the executive producer of a made-for-television movie about civil rights pioneer Vernon Johns. He was arrested in 1997 for battery and false imprisonment following a traffic dispute and underwent anger-management counseling. He paid a $500 fine after drug-sniffing dogs detected marijuana in his possession at the Toronto airport the same year. He settled out of court with a professional football player in 1998 over a dispute involving the commercial use of his name.

Since his retirement, Abdul-Jabbar has made most of his living as a motivational speaker and doing product endorsements. He spends time with his five children, including his six-foot-six-inch namesake son who is a college basketball player. In the wake of former Boston Celtic Larry Bird's success as a head coach with the Indiana Pacers, Abdul-Jabbar embarked on an effort to return to the NBA by coaching high school boys on an Apache Reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona, learning to speak their language and writing another book in the process. The team's six-foot-six center remarked, "For the first time since I was little, I actually felt kind of small." "It's really a nobrainer for me," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Basketball is a simple game. My job [is to get] the guys ready to play."

—Richard Digby Junger

Further Reading:

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem, and Peter Knobler. Giant Steps: An Autobiography of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. New York, Bantam Books, 1983.

——, with Mignon McCarthy. Kareem. New York, RandomHouse, 1990.

Bradley, John E. "Buffalo Soldier: In His Quest to Become an NBACoach, Former Superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Will Go Anywhere to Gain Experience." Sports Illustrated. November 30, 1998, 72.

Cart, Julie. "A Big Man, an Even Bigger Job: Friendship with aTribal Elder Brought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Fort Apache Reservation." Los Angeles Times. February 2, 1999, A1.

Gregory, Deborah. "Word Star: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Hoops to History." Essence. November 1996, 68.

Newman, Bruce. "Kareem Adbul-Jabbar's Giant Steps Is a Big Step into the Oven for Him." Sports Illustrated. December 26, 1983.

Wankoff, Jordan. "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar." Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 8. Detroit, Gale Research, 1995.