Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr., April 16, 1947) is a retired American professional basketball player who played 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. During his career as a center, Abdul-Jabbar was a record six-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), a record 19-time NBA All-Star, a 15-time All-NBA selection, and an 11-time NBA All-Defensive Team member. A member of six NBA championship teams, Abdul-Jabbar twice was voted NBA Finals MVP. In 1996, he was honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. NBA coach Pat Riley and player Isiah Thomas have called him the greatest basketball player of all time.
Abdul-Jabbar went by his birth name Lew Alcindor until he was 24. After winning 71 consecutive basketball games on his high school team, Alcindor attended college at UCLA, where he played on three consecutive national championship basketball teams. Drafted first by the Bucks in the 1969 NBA Draft, Alcindor spent six seasons in Milwaukee. After winning his first NBA championship in 1971, he adopted the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Using his trademark “skyhook” shot, he established himself as one of the league’s top scorers. In 1975, he was traded to the Lakers, with whom he played the last 14 seasons of his career and won five NBA championships. Abdul-Jabbar’s offensive contributions were a key component in the “Showtime” era of Laker basketball.
At the time of his retirement in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA’s all-time leader in points scored (38,387), games played (1,560), minutes played (57,446), field goals made (15,837), field goal attempts (28,307), blocked shots (3,189), defensive rebounds (9,394), and personal fouls (4,657). In 2007 ESPN voted him the greatest center of all time, and in 2008 they named him the “greatest player in college basketball history”. Abdul-Jabbar has also been an actor, a basketball coach, and a best-selling author. In 2012, he was selected by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be a U.S. global cultural ambassadorLew Alcindor played four seasons for the UCLA Bruins; on the freshman team in 1965-66 and from 1966–69 under coach John Wooden, contributing to the team’s three-year record of 88 wins and only two losses: one to the University of Houston in which Alcindor had a not fully healed eye injury (see below), and the other to crosstown rival USC who played a “stall game” (i.e., there was no shot clock in those days, so a team could hold the ball as long as it wanted before attempting to score). In his first college game Lew set a UCLA single game record with 56 points.
During his college career, Alcindor was twice named Player of the Year (1967, 1969); was a three-time First Team All-American (1967–69); played on three NCAA basketball champion teams (1967, 1968, 1969); was honored as the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament (1967, 1968, 1969); and became the first-ever Naismith College Player of the Year in 1969.
In 1967 and 1968, he also won USBWA College Player of the Year which later became the Oscar Robertson Trophy. Alcindor became the only player to win the Helms Foundation Player of the Year award three times. The 1965–1966 UCLA Bruin team was the preseason #1. But on November 27, 1965, the freshman team led by Alcindor defeated the varsity team 75–60 in the first game in the new Pauley Pavilion. Alcindor scored 31 points and had 21 rebounds in that game. The dunk was banned in college basketball after the 1967 season, primarily because of Alcindor’s dominant use of the shot. It was not allowed again until 1976.
While playing for UCLA, Alcindor suffered a scratched left cornea on January 12, 1968, at the Cal game when he was struck by Tom Henderson of Cal in a rebound battle. He would miss the next two games against Stanford and Portland. This happened right before the momentous game against Houston. His cornea later would be scratched again during his pro career, subsequently causing him to wear goggles for protection. Alcindor boycotted the 1968 Summer Olympics by deciding not to join the United States Men’s Olympic Basketball team that year, protesting the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the United States.Along with playing basketball, Alcindor earned a degree in history from UCLA. In his free time he practiced martial arts. He studied Jeet Kune Do under Bruce Lee.
Game of the Century
On January 20, 1968, Alcindor and the UCLA Bruins faced the Houston Cougars in the first-ever nationally televised regular-season college basketball game. In front of 52,693 fans at the Houston Astrodome, Elvin Hayes scored 39 points and had 15 rebounds—while Alcindor, who suffered from a scratch on his left cornea, was held to just 15 points—as Houston beat UCLA 71–69. The Bruins’ 47-game winning streak ended in what has been called the “Game of the Century“. Hayes and Alcindor would have a rematch in the 1968 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament where UCLA, with a healthy Alcindor, would defeat Houston in the semi-finals 101–69 and go on to win the National Championship.
As of the 2011–2012 season, he still holds or shares a number of individual records at UCLA:
Highest career scoring average: 26.4;
Most career field goals: 943 (tied with Don MacLean);
Most points in a season: 870 (1967);
Highest season scoring average: 29.0 (1967);
Most field goals in a season: 346 (1967);
Most free throw attempts in a season: 274 (1967);
Most points in a single game: 61;
Most field goals in a single game: 26 (vs. Washington State, February 25, 1967).
The Harlem Globetrotters offered Alcindor $1 million to play for them, but he declined, and was picked first in the 1969 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks (who were in only their second season of existence.) The Bucks won a coin-toss with the Phoenix Suns for first pick. He was also chosen first overall in the 1969 American Basketball Association draft by the New York Nets. The Nets believed that they had the upper hand in securing Alcindor’s services because he was from New York; however, when Alcindor told both the Bucks and the Nets that he would accept one offer only from each team, the Nets bid too low.
Lew Alcindor’s entry into the NBA was timely, as center Bill Russell had just left the Boston Celtics, and Wilt Chamberlain, though still effective, was 33 years old. Alcindor’s presence enabled the 1969–70 Bucks to claim second place in the NBA’s Eastern Division with a 56–26 record (up from 27–55 the previous year); and he was an instant star, ranking second in the league in scoring (28.8 ppg) and third in rebounding (14.5 rpg), for which he was awarded the title of NBA Rookie of the Year.The next season, the Bucks acquired All-Star guard Oscar Robertson, known to sports fans as “the Big ‘O’.” Milwaukee went on to record the best record in the league with 66 victories in the 1970–71 NBA season, including a then-record 20 straight wins. Alcindor was awarded his first of six NBA Most Valuable Player Awards, along with his first scoring title (31.7 ppg). He also led the league in total points, with 2,596. In the playoffs, the Bucks went 12–2 (including a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Bullets in the NBA Finals), won the championship, and Alcindor was named Finals MVP. On May 1, 1971, the day after the Bucks won the NBA championship, he adopted the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, its Arabic translation roughly “generous/noble (Kareem), servant of (Abdul) the mighty/stern one (Jabbar) [i.e., of God].” He had previously converted to Islam while at UCLA.
Abdul-Jabbar remained a dominant force for Milwaukee, repeating as scoring champion (34.8 ppg and 2,822 total points) and NBA Most Valuable Player the following year, and helping the Bucks to repeat as division leaders for four straight years. In 1974, Abdul-Jabbar won his third MVP Award in five years and was among the top five NBA players in scoring (27.0 ppg, third), rebounding (14.5 rpg, fourth), blocked shots (283, second), and field goal percentage (.539, second). While remaining relatively injury-free throughout his NBA career, Abdul-Jabbar twice broke his hand. The first time was during a pre-season game in 1974, when he was bumped hard and got his eye scratched, which angered him enough to punch the basket support stanchion. When he returned, after missing the first 16 games of the season, he started to wear protective goggles. The second time he broke his hand was in the opening game of the 1977–78 NBA season. Two minutes into the game, Abdul-Jabbar punched Milwaukee‘s Kent Benson in retaliation for an overly aggressive elbow. He was out for two months.
Although Abdul-Jabbar always spoke well of Milwaukee and its fans, he said that being in the Midwest did not fit his cultural needs and requested a trade to either New York or Los Angeles in October 1974.
Los Angeles Lakers
In 1975, the Lakers acquired Abdul-Jabbar and reserve center Walt Wesley from the Bucks for center Elmore Smith, guard Brian Winters, and rookie “blue chippers” Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman. In the 1975–76 season, his first with the Lakers, he had a dominating season, averaging 27.7 points per game and leading the league in rebounding, blocked shots, and minutes played. His 1,111 defensive rebounds remains the NBA single-season record (defensive rebounds were not recorded prior to the 1973–74 season). Also it marked the last time anyone had 4,000 or more PRA (Points + Rebounds + Assists) in a single NBA season. He earned his fourth MVP award, but missed the post-season for the second straight year.
Once he joined the Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar began wearing his trademark goggles (he briefly ditched them in the 1979–80 season). Years of battling under NBA backboards, and being hit and scratched in the face in the process, had taken their toll on his eyes and he developed corneal erosion syndrome, where the eyes begin to dry out easily and cease to produce moisture. He once missed a game in the 1986–87 season due to his eyes drying out and swelling as a result. In the 1976–77 season, Abdul-Jabbar had another strong season. He led the league in field goal percentage, finished second in rebounds and blocked shots, and third in points per game. He helped lead the Lakers to the best record in the NBA, and he won his record-tying fifth MVP award. In the playoffs, the Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semi-finals, setting up a confrontation with the Portland Trail Blazers. The result was a memorable matchup, pitting Abdul-Jabbar against a young, injury-free Bill Walton. Although Abdul-Jabbar dominated the series statistically, Walton and the Trail Blazers (who were experiencing their first-ever run in the playoffs) swept the Lakers, behind Walton’s skillful passing and leadership.
Abdul-Jabbar’s play remained strong during the next two seasons, being named to the All-NBA Second Team twice, the All-Defense First Team once, and the All-Defense Second Team once. The Lakers, however, continued to be stymied in the playoffs, being eliminated by the Seattle SuperSonics in both 1978 and 1979. In 1979, the Lakers acquired 1st overall draft pick Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The trade and draft paved the way for a Laker dynasty as they went on to become one of the most dominant teams of the 1980s, appearing in the finals eight times and winning five NBA championships. Individually, while Abdul-Jabbar was not the dominant center he had been in the 1970s, he experienced a number of highlight moments. Among them were his record sixth MVP award in 1980, four more All-NBA First Team designations, two more All-Defense First Team designations, the 1985 Finals MVP, and on April 5, 1984 breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record for career points. Later in his career, he bulked up to about 265 pounds, to be able to withstand the strain of playing the highly physical center position into his early 40s.
While in L.A., Abdul-Jabbar started doing yoga in 1976 to improve his flexibility, and was notable for his physical fitness regimen. He says, “There is no way I could have played as long as I did without yoga.”In 1983, Abdul-Jabbar’s house burned down, destroying many of his belongings including his beloved jazz LP collection. Many Lakers fans sent and brought him albums, which he found uplifting.On June 28, 1989, after twenty professional seasons, Abdul-Jabbar announced his retirement. On his “retirement tour” he received standing ovations at games, home and away and gifts ranging from a yacht that said “Captain Skyhook” to framed jerseys from his basketball career to an Afghan rug. In his biography My Life, Magic Johnson recalls that in Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell game, many Lakers and Celtics legends participated. Every player wore Abdul-Jabbar’s trademark goggles and had to try a skyhook at least once, which led to comic results. The Lakers made the NBA Finals in each of Abdul-Jabbar’s final three seasons, defeating Boston in 1987, and Detroit in 1988. The Lakers lost to the Pistons in a four-game sweep in his final season. At the time of his retirement, Abdul-Jabbar held the record for most games played by a single player in the NBA; this would later be broken by Robert Parish. He also was the all-time record holder for most points (38,387), most field goals made (15,837), and most minutes played (57,446)..