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Who was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers legend whose scoring record LeBron James beat?

As the legendary Lakers player saw his coveted record finally being broken, we’re taking a look at just who the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was.

As the legendary Lakers player saw his coveted record finally being broken, we’re taking a look at just who the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was.
Ross LewisGetty Images

From basketball icon, to global personality, the Lakers star has gone on to become a bestselling author, filmmaker, ambassador of education and even a columnist for Time Magazine. As inspiring as he was astonishing, it’s time to get to know the man and the myth that is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Who is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

Born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. on April 16th, 1947, the man we know today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grew in Harlem as the only child of Cora Lillian, a department store price checker and Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr., a transit policeman and jazz musician. Unusually tall, he would measure 5 ft 8 by the time he was nine. In truth, his height actually became a source of depression in his teenage years, as many people would stare and comment. Yet, the future star would finally find his place on the basketball court, where he began to impress as he helped the Power Memorial Academy win three straight championships, earning the nickname “The Tower from Power” in the process.

It wasn’t long before the NBA beckoned, but at the time the league had strict policies about admitting players straight out of high school. Faced with a place among the Harlem Globetrotters, or a trip overseas to play in a foreign league, Alcindor Jr. opted for college instead and enrolled in the University of California in Los Angeles. Standing now at 7 ft 1, it didn’t take long for people to take notice of more than just his height. Indeed, in 1965 while playing as a freshman, he would spearhead the defeat of the 75-60 defeat of the school’s varsity team, the then two-time defending national champions. With UCLA he would go on to be voted national player of the year on three occasions, win three NCAA titles and become the first Naismith College Player of the Year in 1969. Needless to say, there were a number of other achievements, but you get the idea: he was unreal.

Conversion to Islam

One of the more interesting facts about the Lakers legend, is that he officially changed his name. What you may not know, is that it not only came from his conversion to Islam, but was part of his growing disdain for certain aspects of American society, which led to his conversion in the first place. It was during the summer of 1968, when Alcindor took the shahada twice and converted to Sunni Islam from Catholicism. He then took the Arabic name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, though he did not use it publicly until 1971. During that time, he publicly boycotted the 1968 Summer Olympics in protest of what he perceived as the unequal treatment of African Americans in the United States, stating at the time that he was “trying to point out to the world the futility of winning the gold medal for this country and then coming back to live under oppression.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA Career

The Milwaukee Bucks

Though you might laugh at the figure today, when the Globetrotters offered Abdul-Jabbar $1 million to play for them, heads definitely turned. Ultimately, he would decline and go on to be picked first overall in the 1969 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Incidentally, he was also picked first by the then New York Nets of the now defunct American Basketball Association. What’s interesting, is that the Nets actually believed they had won the battle to secure his services after they offered a guaranteed $3.25 million in comparison with the Bucks lower offer of $1.4 million. After declining New York’s offer, he famously stated “A bidding war degrades the people involved. It would make me feel like a flesh peddler, and I don’t want to think like that.”

At any rate, once he entered the NBA, it was clear to everyone that a true star had arrived. In his first season, he would help the Bucks to finish second in the Eastern Conference on an average of 28.8 points per game, before fittingly being voted Rookie of the Year. Indeed, Abdul-Jabbar became only the second rookie in history to score a minimum of 40 points to go with 25 rebounds in a playoff game, Wilt Chamberlain was the first. In his time with the Bucks, he would go on to be named the league MVP on three occasions, clinch the scoring title, win the 1971 NBA finals and be named MVP for his performance in them - 27 points per game on 60.5% shooting to be exact. In the end, he would ask for a trade in October of 1974, indicating that the Midwest did not fit his cultural needs.

Though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn’t want the Lakers, they wanted him

It was back on March 13, 1975, when reports stated that Abdul-Jabbar had requested a trade to either New York or Los Angeles, preferably to the Knicks. He would confirm the reports just a day later following a loss to the Lakers. Ironic, given that his preference was the Eastern Coast, but as we know the Lakers acquired Abdul-Jabbar in 1975. In his first season he averaged 27.7 ppg and led the league in both rebounding (16.9) and blocks (4.12). He would go onto win his 4th MVP, becoming the first player in Lakers history to do so. After missing the postseason that year, the Lakers prospects didn’t look much better ahead of the 1976-77 season, but Abdul-Jabbar would be the architect in principle for what became a league leading campaign in which he won his fifth MVP. Sadly, the Lakers were unable to clinch the title in the NBA finals, as a Bill Walton led Portland Trailblazers swept them.

What came next, is what all players in any sport fear: injury. It was the opening game of the 1977-78 season and just two minutes into it, Abdul-Jabbar broke his right hand after punching Milwaukee’s Kent Benson in retaliation following a moment in which the rookie elbowed him in the stomach. He would spend two months - 20 games - on the sideline and was fined a then league record $5,000, however, he was not suspended. On his return, he found a struggling Lakers team and would eventually be excluded from the 1978 NBA All-Star Game, the only time in the 20 seasons that he played.

‘Showtime’ comes to Los Angeles

In 1979, The Lakers selected Magic Johnson with the first overall pick. What came next, was a period of dominance during the 1960s that we all now know as the ‘Showtime’ era out in LA. Though he was visibly less dominant than in his youth, Abdul-Jabbar’s was still one of the greatest ever and showed it by picking up four All-NBA First Team selections and two All-Defense First Team honors during his time out west. He would also go on to win his record sixth MVP with Johnson along for the ride in the 1979-80 season. On an average of 33.4 points in the 1980 NBA Finals, Abdul-Jabbar would be central in helping the Lakers to the title, while watching Johnson be name MVP of the series.

There would be another championship the following year, but whether it was the migraines that he suffered in the finals, or just simply the onset of age, it was a disappointing campaign by his high standards with a 20.4 ppg average in the postseason. Though they would make it back to the finals of 1983, where they entered into a rematch with the 76ers who they had beaten the year before, the Lakers would be swept by Philly.

Breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s scoring record

What better way to make history than your way. That’s exactly what Abdul-Jabbar did on April 5th, 1984, when he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record for most career points in the NBA. After receiving a pass from Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar scored a 15-footer courtesy of his patented and world-famous skyhook. He would go on to finish his NBA career with 38,387 points which set a long-standing record that current Lakers icon, LeBron James, has finally broken.

The latter years of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

1985 was a good year for the Lakers and Kareem. That season, he would pick up his second Finals MVP award, while helping the Lakers to yet another championship. Even better was the fact that they defeated their arch rivals, the Boston Celtics, to do so. He averaged 30.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.0 blocks across the series, as LA brought an end to the Celtics eight consecutive championships against them.

In that 1985-86 season which was his 17th in the league, Kareem actually broke the NBA’s record for seasons played which had been 16. He would play 3 more seasons with the Lakers, during which time they would go to the NBA Finals in each of them. Though they defeated Boston and Detroit respectively, his final season and championship appearance would end in defeat to the Pistons who swept them. Interestingly, Abdul-Jabbar had announced to the team following their win over the Pistons the season before, saying that he would play one more season. In his final regular season game, all of the Lakers stepped onto the court wearing his trademark goggles. A fitting tribute to the arguably the greatest player ever in Lakers history and one who continues to inspire to this day.

A fun fact about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

While attending college in the late 1960s, Abdul-Jabbar would practice martial arts in his free times. Indeed, he studied aikido in New York between his sophomore and junior year, before learning Jeet Kune Do under the legendary martial arts icon, Bruce Lee, in Los Angeles. What’s more is that the pair actually developed a friendship while training with each other during a four-year period. That partnership actually led to Abdul-Jabbar’s inclusion in one of Lee’s films, 1972′s The Game of Death.

“He taught me the discipline and spirituality of martial arts, which was greatly responsible for me being able to play competitively in the NBA for 20 years with very few injuries,” Abdul-Jabbar once said of Lee.


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